Monday, May 31, 2010
Empathy in Film, 2009
Empathy was a prominent theme in many popular films in 2009. Here are three examples:
Avatar was an Oscar nominee for best picture and made the most money in 2009. Described as Dances With Wolves meets Star Wars, Avatar's main character, Jake Sully, goes to work for a mining company on the planet Pandora. The company is trying to extract a valuable mineral from below Pandora's soil, but the native population, the Na'vi, aren't cooperating. Jake's job is to convince the Na'vi to cooperate, and gain valuable intelligence for the mercenary's hired to protect the mining company in case they don't. Jake does this through his "Avatar", a human-Na'vi hybrid that he is able to control through a computer. As his avatar, Jake gets to know the Na'vi, as he undergoes warrior training, becomes part of the tribe, and falls in love with one of them. As one of them, Jake learns to see Pandora through the eyes of a Na'vi. He comes to understand why their land is more valuable to them than the riches offered by the mining company. Jake comes to this understanding by living with and learning from the Na'vi.
District 9's protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe, found himself in a similar situation as Jake Sully. After becoming exposed to alien goo, Wikus starts turning into one of the insect like aliens known as "prawns" (a term of derision). The aliens have come to Earth, but not as an invading force. Rather, they have "shipwrecked" and are in need of our help. The aliens eventually become an oppressed minority, confined to the ghetto of "District 9." Also like Avatar, the humans are the bad guys and the aliens are the good guys. While Jake Sully begins his film seemingly indifferent to the Na'vi, Wikus starts off with a disgust of the aliens in District 9, which makes it more difficult for him to become empathetic even as he is becoming one of them. When Wikus experiences the same bigotry as the aliens, he must turn to them for help. While Wikus' relationship with the alien Christopher is at first built upon a quid pro quo, it eventually becomes a relationship built upon mutual understanding. Wikus feels sorrow as he begins to understand the loss and injustice suffered by the aliens.
In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired factory worker and Korean War veteran. Walt is also a bigot, living in a neighborhood that is becoming more Asian (Hmong to be exact). The Hmong matriarch of the family next door as well as his own children would like to see Walt move to a retirement village after the death of his wife. But Walt has no interest in moving. He also has no interest in getting to know his neighbors. His relationship with his Hmong neighbors begins by accident. He drove off the local gang at the point of a gun as they were trying to recruit Thao, his neighbor's youngest son. His motivation, however, was simply to get the youth off his lawn. The neighbors, on the other hand, saw it as an act of heroism. Consistent with their cultural traditions, the neighborhood Hmong families brought Walt gifts of food. Walt complained at first, but eventually came to enjoy the offerings. This begins a relationship between Walt and his neighbors. Walt learns about the traditions and mannerisms of the Hmong from Sue, the oldest sister who serves as his tutor in these matters. "They turn away when you look at them because Hmong believe that eye-contact is rude," Sue explains to Walt. "I have more in common with these people than my own family," Walt eventually admits.
In all three films, empathy leads to self-sacrifice. At the beginning of each film, the protagonists feel indifference (Jake), disgust (Wikus), or hatred (Walt) towards another group. As they learn more about the other, and begin to understand their point of view, they become willing to sacrifice themselves to help the other. Each protagonist puts their own lives at risk in defense of those they now empathize with by the end of each film.
What does all this have to do with politics?
In a democracy, political participation sometimes takes the form of mobilization. Different groups will mobilize those who share common values, likes, and desires. The groups that are most successful will win elections and implement public policy based upon their platforms. There is another type of democratic value, however, that emphasizes deliberation as a form of political participation. With deliberation, the different groups will meet in the public square to discuss their differences, put forward ideas, and try to convince each other. Deliberative democracy also emphasizes the need for these groups to come to reasonable compromises among their competing positions. Empathy is a necessary component of deliberative democracy. For deliberative democracy to work well, we must approach the public square in a spirit of humility and willingness to learn about and understand those who are different from ourselves. In practicing empathy, we may come to learn, as Jake, Wikus and Walt did, that we have more in common that we realize, and that knowledge may lead to a spirit of self-sacrifice.