by Michael Fembek, Director of the Zero Project

The measurable Impact of novel, stories and storytelling on empathy

Lynn Hunt´s book “Inventing Human Rights: A History” (2008) throws light in many ways on the essentials of what we now call the Human Rights (and which, during their invention, were called “natural rights” or “rights of man”).

Hunt argues that, in the 18th century, it was neither the enlightenment per se, nor the world based on reason, that brought Human Rights with them, at least not, as it were, naturally. It was the “mainstreaming” of the feeling that we now call empathy.

Empathy (with other people, and others with us) came together with two other “social innovations” of that time:

  1. Autonomy: being legitimately separate, being able to reason and to make decisions oneself; and the recognition of others also being autonomous; and
  2. Reasoning, based on one’s own moral judgements, by oneself and others (not so very differently).

And, according to Ms Hunt, empathy did not simply “creep” into the world unnoticed, but arrived like lightning, visible to all: it was a novel called “Julie” that changed the world forever by “inventing empathy”.

Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse” was written in 1761 by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, already a famous philosopher at the time, and was a huge success. (The historian Robert Darnton thinks it was the century’s bestseller, appearing 70 new editions by 1800). Rousseau wrote about an ordinary girl outside the world of kings and queens, a modern version of the tragic medieval love story Heloise and Abelard. He wrote in the epistolary style, using only letters written by her, or to her.

These very personal letters added to the feeling of empathy, and empathy with “ordinary people”. And, according to Ms Hunt, by being emphatic with Julie (and other tragic heroines and heroes of contemporary novels like Clarissa, Pamela or Tristram Shandy), people by the millions began to realize that they all shared the same feelings of pity, sadness, joy, mistrust or hatred. Consequently, reading “Julia” made them realize that all people are equal, even the king, the queen, the pope and the bishop.

This newly-found feeling of empathy and equality gave political content to the new “Declarations” of the United States in 1776 and France in 1789, both putting “All men are born free and equal” (United States: “created equal”) at their very beginning.

Taking the arguments of Lynn Hunt one step further, people do not automatically feel empathy for each other, or only for a very restricted group of people, like their own families or their tribes (today peer-groups is clearly better). It takes the right story at the right time to open up hearts. And even that just opens up the hearts of some new segments of people, and not all people. Julie, for instance, although clearly female, did not help at all with the inclusion of women in the first Declarations of Rights in the United States and in France.

Other novels achieved similar success.

Robinson Crusoe“, first published in 1719 by Daniel Defoe, described the full autonomy of a person, at one and the same time being both able and forced to make his own decisions. “Robinson Crusoe” was also an amazing bestseller throughout the 18th century, people obviously inhaling the life of a real autonomous person.

At the beginning of the 19th century, several female authors and female characters pushed forward the agenda of gender equality with, arguably, “Sense and Sensibility” (published 1811 anonymously by Jane Austen) in the lead, creating empathy for women from the middle of society struggling with their life, their feelings and their dependency on men.

Uncle Tom´s Cabin“, written in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, made millions of readers feel pity for the slaves and their inhuman treatment. Arguably, the Civil War, which started eight years later and lead, finally, to the abolition of slavery, was stoked up by empathy with Eliza and her son Harry, who run away because they are afraid of being sold and separated.

The misery of workers in the Industrial Revolution was portrayed often, in novels like “Les Misérables” (1862) by Victor Hugo, “Germinal” (1855) by Emile Zola, and “Die Weber” by Gerhart Hauptmann (1892), creating empathy with the fate of those working in mines and factories, and even empathy for those who start rebellions and revolutions, and are willing to sacrifice their lives and kill.

Charles Dickens, with novels like “Oliver Twist” (1837/39) and “Hard Times” (1854), warmed hearts towards those, especially children in institutions, who had to live in such awful conditions in Victorian England.

In contemporary times, it has not only been novels that have created empathy. Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man from 1984 (played by Dustin Hoffman, and he may or may not be 100 percent accurate in playing a person with autism) is, arguably, the first character with an intellectual disability with whom movie goers could actually empathize. Other movies would follow and there is reason to believe that this added to the momentum that lead to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006 and everything that followed.

There is, now, a plethora of novels, TV series, telenovelas and movies that use empathy as a tool to catch and keep their audiences. Rarely, however, do they manage to support human rights issues and create empathy for those that need it, because they do not have it from worldwide decision makers. So, the bestseller novel that opens the hearts of millions towards drug-addicts, the homeless, the Roma, persons with multiple disabilities and other discriminated minorities, is still to be written.