Journalist’s Advice: Spark Empathy to Change Minds


Dear fellows,

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced its 2016 “genius” grant winners, and as I perused the 23 bios, I was struck by these words from New Yorker writer Sarah Stillman, who investigates social justice issues within marginalized communities:

“I’m very interested in the relationship between storytelling and empathy, and how we can get people to feel invested in and to care about and to publicly debate things that they might not immediately think that they do care about. I think one of the ways that we do that is to get them to invest in a narrative when they put themselves in another person’s shoes.”  (You can read her complete LA Times interview here.)

As you may have noticed, Stillman’s words echo a big theme of our first convening—that we are most likely to change minds when we show empathy and respect. But they also take this idea one step further, highlighting the fact that we’re most likely to bring people over to our way of thinking when we manage to spark empathy and respect for the people and causes we support.

As it happens, I experienced this first-hand through the work of another of this year’s MacArthur winners, writer Maggie Nelson. In her gorgeous book The Argonauts, Nelson delves deep into her life with sexually fluid partner Harry Dodge. The book is, among other things, a meditation on the indeterminate nature of our physical selves, as Nelson grows heavily pregnant and Dodge undergoes testosterone injections and top surgery. (The book’s title alludes to Roland Barthes reflections on how the Argonauts gradually replaced every part of their ship, the Argo, the result being an entirely new ship that retains the same name and form. Incidentally, this is a great example of the power of naming, a focus of our last convening.)

Before reading The Argonauts I would have viewed myself as a supporter of Nelson and Dodge’s choices but in a 30,000 feet kind of way. Then the book took me into their lives and world. The result: I came to feel a sense of kindship, to empathize—a far more powerful response than mere intellectual agreement.  (The Netflix show Transparent—I believe its third season goes live today (news hook alert! news hook alert!)—has been another potent spur to empathy around issues related to gender identity.)

Even stories that simply depict empathy can pack a major wallop. I’m thinking of the letter written by six-year-old Alex to President Obama, offering to open his family to five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, injured after his home in Aleppo Syria was bombed. The president quoted Alex’s words at a United Nations summit on the refugee crisis this week, and the White House later released a recording Alex reading his own letter aloud. The story and video have been shared hundreds of thousands of times.

Extra credit reading: The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, a much-heralded collection of essays. (Tim, check out the title essay, the first in the collection—it’s a personal essay about her time spent as a medical actor for med students, as they learn to diagnose diseases and other disorders.)

This week’s mission, should you choose to accept it: As you go about your lives, pay attention to what sparks empathy in you. What implications does this have for your public voice?

Until soon,

Periodically we share wisdom from our team with our community. The above letter was sent as a weekly missive to the Public Voices Fellowship cohort at Dartmouth University from leader Amy Gutman. 

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