Part of the foundation of my business is my desire to help underrepresented voices in publishing tell their stories. When I say that, I’m talking about women (especially women of color), people of color, and members of the LGTBQ community. Basically, voices and stories from people outside the dominant societal group, cis white men. Before I get any MRAs up in my face about it, my focus on supporting these voices is not about bashing on or silencing cis white men. It’s about hearing from those outside the “norm”—ideally, to permanently deconstruct the “norm” —because I believe it is vital to a healthy, functioning society.
Stories are the Engine of Empathy
People fear what they don’t know or understand.
Empathy is the capacity to understand, be aware of, be sensitive to, and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. In other words, it’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy opens doors in the walls society builds to separate people into different groups and allows you to make connections with people who are different from you, to see them as actual human beings.
The easiest way to get to know someone is, obviously, by talking to or interacting with them in real life. However, for folks in isolated (read: not especially diverse) places, reading does a good job of replicating the experience. Neuroscientists have found that when you’re reading a fictional story, ” your brain is literally living vicariously through the characters at a neurobiological level.” Reading fiction helps with your ability to take experiences you’ve never had seriously, to see from another person’s perspective.
Long story short, for many people books are the only access they have to people who aren’t like them.
Stories Shape the Culture
The stories we consume have a direct impact on how we see, thinking about, and experience the world. Most people don’t consider books to be media these days, but they do technically fall under that umbrella.
Media is the main means of mass communication (broadcasting, publishing, and the Internet). Most people don’t consider books to be media these days, but they do technically fall under that umbrella. The narratives that dominate the media we interact with are the ones we accept as “normal.” This goes hand-in-hand with our capacity for empathy.
If the only stories being told are those about cisgender, heterosexual, white men, then anyone outside of that mold becomes something else. They become the “other.”
According to The Atlantic, the trend line in support for gay marriage began a steady upward climb around 2009. While there’s no way to establish causality, 2009 happens to be the year Modern Family (which stars an openly gay couple with an adopted child) first aired. In 2008, Harris Interactive did a survey of American adults over 18 and found that two in ten of them had changed their opinion on gay marriage to a more favorable one. Among the reasons they gave for this shift were seeing gay and lesbian characters on TV and film (34 percent and 29 percent, respectively).
All of this is to say that stories shape our views, positively and negatively.
Representation and Diversity Matter
The more we interact with stories that aren’t our own, the better we understand our fellow human beings. Connection and empathy are the only tools we have for dismantling the “us vs. them” mentality created by fear and mistrust. Supporting the voices of folks telling those stories is the first step toward increasing the availability of diverse narratives that depict the variety of human experiences.