Why Read Literature or Watch Good Films? Martha Nussbaum on the Role of the Imagination in the Cultivation of Empathy

Here’s a great quote from Martha Nussbaum’s new book, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law  (Oxford 2010, xvii):

That ‘terrified’ gay teenager needs, and deserves, equal respect, and a sphere of liberty equal to that enjoyed by others. Before he is likely to get these things, however, something else also has to be present in our world: the capacity to imagine his experience and that of other gay and lesbian citizens. Disgust relies on moral obtuseness. It is possible to view another human being as a slimy slug or a piece of revolting trash only if one has never made a serious good-faith attempt to see the world through that person’s eyes or to experience that person’s feelings. Disgust imputes to the other a subhuman nature. How, by contrast, do we ever become able to see one another as human? Only through the exercise of imagination.

And where does one go, exactly, to cultivate “the capacity of imagination” and “the exercise of imagination”? Where, in other words, do we imaginatively step into the shoes of others?

Here are some possible answers:

  • You go to the movies
  • You watch a sitcom on television
  • You go to a play
  • You read a novel, a short story, or a poem
  • You take a literature course

In other words, the narrative imagination supports the democratic and moral imagination. And so, if you’re a film or literature student, or a teacher of film or literature, you’re playing a crucial role in our society, for you’re making spaces for the human empathic imagination to live (both in yourself and, via dialogue, in others). Likewise, if you work on quality drama in Hollywood—or write poems, literature, or plays—you also may be invigorating democratic and moral impulses in your audiences.

This counters the prejudice that practicing the creative arts, reading literature, and watching films (or studying these subjects) are somehow, in a pinch, disposable to society and education. To the contrary, a good society—a society worth living in—foregrounds their value.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Why Read Literature or Watch Good Films? Martha Nussbaum on the Role of the Imagination in the Cultivation of Empathy

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I think you just made an excellent case against the existence of shows like Dexter on the basis of their promoting murder.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    I’m afraid I’ve missed the cultural reference. I’ve never seen the show.

    As for murder, I think that all depends on how the victims are portrayed.

    Terrantino’s films, which I know, are full of Shakespearean themes and redeeming social values (in my view). Is Dexter doing something different?

    —Santi

  3. Pingback: The value of good books and films to human souls and societies « The Teeming Brain

  4. Pingback: Imagination and Empathy | Dani's TOK Blog

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