A moving article by Jeffrey Davis, Fathoming Black Lives, is so worth spending a few minutes reading. And hours, days, years contemplating. I think his idea of imagination--the ability to consider the plight, the feelings, emotions, history of "other"---or the inability, for many, is a dividing line that needs more exploring.
Imagination: the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.
Empathy requires imagination. Reading, writing, and being pulled into fictional worlds requires imagination. A 2013 study by Castano and Kidd showed that reading literary fiction increases one's empathy. They conclude that, because literary fiction requires more mental processing than genre fiction or nonfiction, "readers of literary fiction are tasked with interpretation, or critical thinking. Literary fiction, they posit, has the power to “disrupt our stereotypes”; what’s more, it is full of “complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”"
Another study conducted by Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar found that reading activates neural "that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness."
In another study by the same researchers in 2006, 94 subjects were asked to guess the emotional state of a person from a photograph of their eyes. “The more fiction people [had] read, the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and…correctly interpreting social cues.”
In 2009, wondering if “devouring novels might be a result, not a cause, of having a strong theory of mind,” they expanded the scope of their research, testing 252 adults on the “Big Five ” personality traits — extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness — and correlated those results with how much time the subjects generally spent reading fiction. Once again, they discovered “a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities” allowing them to conclude that it was reading fiction that improved the subjects’ social skills, not that those with already high interpersonal skills tended to read more.
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is critical to really comprehending the world around us. No, I can never be a black man. I can never fully know what it's like to be an undocumented immigrant, but I can imagine and feel the stress and the terror that is a part of their lives every day. I can also empathize with those who cause that stress and terror--not sympathize, but I can attempt to get into their head and imagine what they're feeling and why. And no. That doesn't make me sympathetic to them. It makes me angry.
It makes me wish they'd read more fiction as a child.