New research finds a compelling narrative can help us sidestep stereotypes.
16 March 2014
An intriguing article about a study that "...suggests there’s something about well-written, sensitive fiction that draws us in and lets us identify with the characters—even if they’re from a foreign culture. This, in turn, short-circuits our tendency to stereotype."
The essence of the study revolves around the variable controls in two recent studies summarized as follows:
"Johnson and his colleagues describe two experiments that incorporated a 3,000-word extract from Shaila Abdullah’s 2009 novel Saffron Dreams. It revolves around “an educated and strong-willed Muslim woman, Arissa, who is assaulted in a New York City subway station,” the researchers write. The excerpt features “significant inner monologue that accentuates the protagonist’s strength of character while providing exposure to Muslim culture.”
Participants in the first experiment (68 Americans recruited online) read either the aforementioned excerpt, or a 500-word synopsis of the same scene. In the synopsis, “the descriptive language, monologue, and dialogue were removed to reduce the narrative quality,”
What is it about the removal or inclusion of descriptive language, monologue and dialogue that explains the difference between what readers absorb and contemplate and thereby "take-away" from a reading experience?
It is implied, or at least I inferred, that there might be a tendency while reading literature to read with both our minds and our hearts, that is with our capabilities for logic and for empathy, causing what I have often referred to as the "3-Dimensionalization" of reading.
Fiction gently, but insistently, forces us to determine which characters we care about and what causes us to care or not care about them. It's a constant engagement with point and counter-point behaviors expressed by pro- and antagonist behaviors. We begin to see examples of behaviors that exemplify a "character's Character" through his or her expressions of values, motives, and choices made when confronted by challenges to those values, motives, and choices made. And, we see them as expressed through the values, motives, an choices made by the peripheral characters all of whom bring additional dimensions to the reader's perceptions of the various plot intrigues that readers know is a fictional representation of the "truths" of human behaviors mirrored by those characters.
In fiction we become omnipotent yet caring spectators privy to more than just our own sense of right and wrong and levels of caring, but to multiple characters' senses of right and wrong and levels of caring. And in doing so, if the story is written well enough to maintain our engaged suspension of disbelief, we are constantly seeing our own values in light of the great and complex diversity of human behaviors that are driven by an equally great and complex diversity of forces driving not just our own but "all human value-driven behaviors."
It is the best of literature that is so engaging that it actually engages us in a sort of willing receptiveness to revisiting our own existing values, motives, and behaviors.And, in doing so, we become potentially more willing to adjust our receptiveness to the differences between ourselves and others.
Our attention then turns more towards whether or not we can appreciate and consider adopting or rejecting the adoption of those differences once we have opened our receptiveness to revisiting the depth of our understanding of those who we had previously not given sufficient open-minded attention. We open ourselves to the vast gray areas distinguishing individuals within any group from the simplistic assumptions that come from the shallowness of black and white group defines the -driven behaviors.
We become open to the possibilities that human behaviors and values are better "judged" at the individual rather than group level and that it is that it is too simplistic to assume the individual's allegiance or patriotism, or alignment with large groups beliefs and values will drive that individual's behaviors in exactly the same direction as every other member of that group. Though peer pressure to not break ranks can be intense, we can come to appreciate that the individual is more than the group and group alignments are not the entirety of the individual. We con come to understand that there are those in the "other groups" with whom we have more in common than the differences defining the parameters of our group alignment.
Fiction can engage us in considering the myriad shades of gray in human behavior; behaviors that like it or not, are the sum total of our individual perceptions of what we believe to to be reasonable and our inevitable imperfection in balancing our selfish and selfless values-driven behaviors.
In spite of my moderate positions regarding portions of the Common Core Standards.for English Language Arts, I am a very strong proponent of the importance of both the skills associated with Informational reading and the benefits of engaged literary reading.
It IS important, no it is ESSENTIAL to appreciate the value of informational literacy. The entire human community can no longer run the risk of the anti-factual. Nor can we afford the damage caused by the well-intended but ill-informed; or the disinterested. or the superficially interested.
But spreadsheets and fact sheets alone can not tell the whole story.
And, storytelling can not include all the facts. Each "adds" what the other can not do alone to one's "more complete" understanding of the human condition.
Let's not allow the one to "trump" the other in importance. Facts without the synthesis of how the facts play out in the real world are as potentially dangerous as they are potentially beneficial. Storytelling's strength is the ability to engage readers in an "entertaining" involvement in caring about how those facts play out in the real world.
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