Empathy and the Economy
A recent scientific study has found empirical evidence that reading literary fiction makes a person more empathic. But this seems to have been the general consensus with writers and lovers of literature for centuries, and this fact doesn’t just constrain itself to fiction. It seems that the abolitionists of the late 1700s were convinced of the persuasive power of literature as well.
The recent study centers on popular reading mostly, measuring the effects of works from non-fiction to genre fiction to literary fiction. The participants were given a test after their specified readings to measure their ability to infer the emotions of others, or their overall empathy. The study found that those who read more literary fiction specifically tended to have a higher degree of empathy for their fellow man.
At the end of the 18th Century there were very few forms of entertainment or even news dissemination. Being able to speak to a person directly was often the most assured way of getting one’s point across, but that can come with its own set of obstacles, and reading facts and statistics in news print was often so far removed from the situation itself as to leave people indifferent to whatever the news may be.
We identify with the protagonists in fictional literature by experiencing their lives alongside them. While the study stuck to fictional literature and seemed to find detrimental accounts with non-fiction, I have to wonder what exactly constituted non-fiction. Books like The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano and The History of Mary Prince give their readers an easily digestible account of events that arguably happened, much in the same fashion as straight fiction. These accounts are not just a list of historical events, but rather stories that fashion an emotional appeal and create a true connection with readers. Equiano and Prince are more than just statistics, or even footnotes, and reveal themselves as people real as whoever might be reading about them.
This was quite a feat to try to make slaves relatable to the everyday man, but even more so to the men in control. This new perspective was instrumental in the push to abolish slavery in Britain and the colonies. While in America slavery was still widely legal and accepted as a way of life, people encountered slavery everyday, but in Britain slavery had been abolished, but only within the country itself. The colonies of Britain were still largely dependent on slave labor so while the practice was mostly unseen in Britain proper, the problem was still rampant in the British economy.
Equiano’s account in particular allows the reader to see from the perspective of a slave in surprisingly economic terms. He argued that it was in the best interest of the burgeoning global economy to not enslave people, to not take them from their own country to work for some other country. But instead to allow them to create their own industry and economy that would then bolster the others both in terms of production and consumption.
Throughout the narrative Equiano sees white people as cruel and mean even to each other, but realizes after meeting a good deal of them that they are not intrinsically evil, but that the institution of slavery has made them so. Showing how a man can change his mind about anything and anyone on the basis of empathy, even if they are the victim.