On Literature, Politics, and Empathy

I once heard in a podcast that literature is the best vehicle for empathy. As a social science researcher, it is part of my job to design surveys, analyze data, conduct interviews and focus groups and try to understand our reality to find a way to improve our societies. In this day and age, to look for ways of strengthening a social pact that is now fragile and shattered. Yet no amount of scholarly research can be as powerful as a well told story.

10776295776_IMG_5212.JPG

What I am saying is far from novel. Pundits talk about the power of stories to inform beyond data, although we often stick with numbers and fail to connect with the people that matter.  “Thinking small,”in fact, can be the best way to understand something that is big. Thinking small is the notion that by focusing on what is individual, local, and within our sphere of influence, we can make sense of the story, empathize, and have a greater sense of agency, as opposed to the paralysis and powerlessness that we feel when we are faced with what seems like an unmanageable crisis. To provide a few examples, if we think about international affairs, we do not usually see much uproar in the face of Saudi Arabia’s actions, yet there was massive mobilization when activist Khashoggi was assassinated. The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea claimed the lives of thousands, but few events gathered people´s attention as much as the death of Alan Kurdi. This is called the singularity effect.

Yet, how can we move past the singularity? Perhaps one of the possible answers is through complex stories delivered in the form of beautiful novels. Storytelling is incredibly powerful, and few authors do it as well as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I started the year reading her book Half of a Yellow Sun. Already a fan of hers, I had previously devouredPurple Hibiscusand also enjoyed Americanah.

Half of a Yellow Sun is the story of a series of characters during the Biafran war of independence in Nigeria. The story is told through the eyes of three characters. Ugwu, a houseboy, Richard, a British writer living in Nigeria/Biafra, and Olanna, a professor at Nsukka university. Each chapter develops the narrative iterating between characters. Displaying her literary prowess, Adichie tells a story that marries love, politics, family, and betrayal in a way that does not give more weight to one or another. It carries the reader with the story, it makes the reader empathize with the feelings and pressures that all experience. There is a powerful scene in which one of the characters engages in extremely disgusting behavior yet as the reader you understand how peer pressure led him to do what he did.

There is much talk now about lived experience. I have no desire to enter the debate and I would never question that there is nothing as compelling as experiencing something first-hand. But perhaps literature is the next best thing (although I am keeping my eyes open for virtual reality!).

Contact theory is a theory first developed in the fifties to study the effects of intergroup contact. The idea is that under certain conditions (equal status, common goals, intergroup cooperation, top-down support, and potential for friendship) contact between people of difference can decrease prejudice. Perhaps a good novel can achieve the same. Spending time with a novel, you can connect with characters that are extremely different to you, relate to their circumstances, and without having anything to lose in real life, feel invested in their success. Perhaps literature is contact theory via fiction.

It is my belief that we are now at a historical critical juncture. Empathy will be key in overcoming division and polarization. Empathy towards groups that have traditionally been discriminated against and empathy between people who hold different ideologies. I wish it were as easy and enjoyable as picking up a great book and getting lost in its pages, but in the meantime, I recommend to all to pick a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is fiction, but great fiction, fiction that shows you the complexities of love, human emotion, how flawed we are as people, and how politics fits into it all.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Reflexiones sobre el caso catalán

Hay múltiples versiones sobre lo que está sucediendo en Cataluña. Mientras los medios de comunicación españoles y catalanes ofrecen sus respectivas versiones, la prensa internacional se hace eco de los eventos con mayor o menor rigor.

Vivimos en un mundo totalmente distópico. La realidad catalana lo demuestra. Mientras algunos en el gobierno español niegan que haya habido referéndum y afirman que los catalanes están atacando a la policía (¿?), algunos en el lado secesionista se aferran a la idea de que este referéndum es válido y que si gana el sí se puede declarar la independencia en 48 horas (digo algunos en ambos casos porque realmente quiero creer que queda gente con dos dedos de frente en todos bandos, aunque se mantengan escondidos).

En teoría del juego este sería un caso de no ganadores o de “lose-lose situation”. No tenía por qué serlo, pero la ineptitud de los líderes políticos nos ha hecho llegar a este extremo. No cabe duda de que el gobierno español tiene la ley de su lado, aunque quizás no la legitimidad. Operamos en un ordenamiento jurídico que – acordémonos – puede y debería ser cambiado según evoluciona la sociedad. No se puede negar que el gobierno catalán ha transgredido ese marco legal.

El Gobierno Catalán tenía la superioridad moral. Al principio, querían negociar (2012), y cuando el gobierno español se negó a dialogar, querían votar. Siempre, sin excepciones, el gobierno catalán ha rechazado el uso de la fuerza.

Cuando el gobierno catalán decidió saltarse leyes españolas y reglamentos catalanes, y cuando el lado independentista acosa e insulta a aquellos que osan cuestionar las garantías del referéndum, los independentistas pierden la superioridad moral, la legitimidad.

El gobierno español, no obstante, se ha superado con creces y ha transgredido varias líneas rojas. Nos ha llevado a un mundo completamente Orwelliano. Mientras representantes del gobierno español niegan que se ha celebrado un referéndum, el gobierno central llama a hacer uso de la fuerza contra los que intentan votar. Repito: fuerza en contra de una papeleta.

Que las instituciones españolas se han ido deteriorando a un paso alarmante parece incuestionable (si eran sólidas y legitimas en primer lugar, es una cuestión que felizmente podemos discutir otro día), pero lo que se ha visto en los últimos diez días – detenciones de opositores políticos, violencia por votar, y cantos que devuelven recuerdos de los momentos más oscuros de la dictadura – es devastador. Lo que no es, es sorprendente.

El sr. Rajoy tenía hoy una oportunidad única. No quiso negociar en su momento, no ha querido oír a hablar de secesión o referéndum. En España, todos esperábamos esta respuesta. Por lo tanto, tenía la capacidad de sorprendernos: se podría haber mantenido dentro del marco de la ley evitando ciertas prácticas y permitiendo una votación en la que seguramente habría ganado el no y que habría sido nula (por extra-legal). Nos habría sorprendido a muchas y calmado a una comunidad internacional que empieza a mirarnos con preocupación. Por desgracia, escogió no sorprendernos. Rajoy lo mejor que podría hacer es dimitir y convocar elecciones generales. Nada, ni siquiera violar leyes sobre referéndums en cumplimiento de la constitución (ja!) justifica la violencia.

No sé cómo va a acabar todo esto. Lo que sé es que hemos embarcado en un camino que quizás no tenga retorno. Quizás es lo mejor. Quizás esto marque el inicio de la desaparición de una democracia frágil para construir una más sólida. Quizás esto nos recuerde que los problemas políticos necesitan soluciones políticas. Que el poder judicial no debería meterse en política. Que la separación de poderes era una gran idea (lo es). Quizás abra las puertas a un dialogo que permita reescribir la constitución y permita a las leyes servir su mayor propósito – avanzar la sociedad hacia un tipo ideal, no reprimir la disidencia. Son muchos quizás, y mientras esperamos respuestas, mi corazón llora ante las imágenes de policías atacando a civiles inocentes.

Eso sí, catalanes y españoles tenemos algo en común: nuestro sentido del humor. Solo en España (vale, y quizás en Italia y Macondo) se hospedaría a la policía en barcos de los Looney Tunes.

DKSJlcdW0AEUl29-696x392.jpg

Eso es todo amigos!

An attempt to write a balanced account of what is happening in Catalonia

Photo via eldiario.es

There are multiple accounts of what is happening in Catalonia. While Spanish media and politicians spread different versions of what is occurring, international media report the events with more or less accuracy.

We live in a dystopian world. The Catalan case evinces this reality. While some in the Spanish government claim that no referendum is taking place and Catalans are attacking the police (?), some on the secessionist side cling onto the idea that this referendum has validity and if the result comes positive independence can be declared in 48h (I say some on both cases because I really really really want to believe that there are sensible people – if perhaps hidden – on all sides).

In game theory this would be a case of no-win or a lose-lose situation. It needen’t be, but all parties have brought this situation on us. It is undeniable that the Spanish government had the law on its side, if perhaps not the legitimacy. We operate within a predetermined legal framework that – let’s remember – can and should be adapted as societies evolve. There is no denying that the Catalan government went beyond that legal framework.

The Catalan government had the moral high ground. They wanted first to negotiate (2012) and when the Spanish government refused to dialogue, to vote, and have always – without exceptions – rejected the use of force.

When the Catalan government decided to more than questionably bypass Spanish laws and Catalan rulings in the Catalan government, and when the Catalan side thwarts the voices of those who dare question the guarantees of the referendum, it loses the moral high ground.

The Spanish government, however, has taken it several steps further and led us to a completely Orwellian world. While representatives of the Spanish government deny the existence of the referendum, the government has called for force to be used against those that try to cast a vote. I repeat, violence for voting.

That Spanish institutions have been deteriorating at an incredible pace is unquestionable (if they were very solid and legit in the first place, that is another issue that I am more than willing to discuss another day) but what we have witnessed in the past ten days –arrests of political opponents, violence for voting, and chants that bring back memories of the worst years of the dictatorship – is  devastating, if not surprising or unheard of.

Mr. Rajoy had a unique opportunity. He did not want to negotiate years ago, he did not want to hear any talk about secession or a referendum. In Spain we all expected the current response. He thus had the ability to surprise us: to remain within the scope of the law by refraining to engage in certain practices and allowing a vote that would have probably come out negative and would have been null (as it is extra-legal). He would have surprised lots of us and reinforced an international community that is finally looking with concern. Unfortunately, he chose not to surprises us. The best thing he could do is to resign and call for general elections. Nothing, not even the violation of a referendum law enshrined in the constitution, calls for violence.

I don’t know where this will lead. What I do know is that we have embarked on a dangerous journey that we might not be able to undo. Perhaps this is for the best. Perhaps this will mark the beginning of the undoing of a fragile democracy to build a stronger one. Perhaps this will remind us that political problems need political solutions. That the judiciary should not meddle in politics and separation of powers was a great idea (it was). Perhaps this will open a dialogue that allows for the Constitution to be redrawn and laws to serve their ultimate purpose – to advance an ideal type of society, not to constrain dissidence. These are lots of perhaps, and while we wait for answers, my heart is crying in the face of pictures of police officers attacking innocent civilians.

At least one thing that will keep us united – Spanish or Catalan, we all have a good sense of humor. Some things can only be branded as #madeinspain (okay, maybe Italy and Macondo as well). This is were the extra police that was deployed in Catalonia has been staying.

DKSJlcdW0AEUl29-696x392.jpg

That’s all, folks!