Stories of Empathy versus Stories of Fear

March 06, 2017 0 Comments empathy, fear, stories, narrative, politics, Legion

We are here tonight to talk about violence or maybe human nature. We're here to talk about human nature. Wait. A quote. A great philosopher once wrote, "In times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself." This is the root of all our problems. By this I mean "we." We are the root of all our problems, our confusion, our anger, our fear of things we don't understand. Violence, in other words in ignorance. Figure your shit out. That's what I'd say.

This was the opening dialogue from this week's episode of one of my new favorite shows on television, FX's Legion. The man speaking this dialogue is a middle-aged mutant. He is setting up the narrative that will follow. What I like about this opening dialogue, is that not only is it a very timely exposition given the current climate in the U.S. but also that it sets up this ultimate question about human nature as a story or narrative yet to come. He is narrating to the audience in a single shot exposition about the theme of the episode to come; he then distances himself from the narrative by telling a story from a philosopher. He expounds on this concept of narrative, immediately following the words above with:

There are two types of stories we tell our children. The first kind: Once upon a time, there was a fuzzy little rabbit named Frizzy-Top who went on a quantum fun adventure only to face a big setback which he overcame through perseverance and being adorable. This type of story teaches empathy...The other kind: Oliver Anthony Bird if you get too close to that ocean you'll be sucked into the sea and drown. This kind of story teaches fear. For the rest of their lives these two stories compete. Empathy and fear.

Here, he actually, puts the discussion of the main theme of the show into hypothetical, yet very relatable, stories that children get told. But his discussion of types of stories is what fascinates me. Stories of empathy and fear proliferate everywhere in our world. These stories help define our environment in very material ways. For example, there were scientific studies done that showed that children who grew up reading Harry Potter exhibited more empathy. "For decades it's been known that an effective means of improving negative attitudes and prejudices between differing groups of people is through intergroup contact – particularly through contact between “in-groups,” or a social group to which someone identifies, and “out-groups,” or a group they don’t identify with or perceive as threatening. Even reading short stories about friendship between in- and out-group characters is enough to improve attitudes toward stigmatized groups in children. " In Harry Potter, the differing groups are the muggles, half-bloods, and pure bloods. And in the end, Dumbledore's politics of love and hope overcome Voldemort's divisive politics of fear.

But it is not just hearing stories that is important to our human nature; the stories we tell are equally important. And these stories can be found in all parts of our life. For example, I have written before that the power of narrative is important in startup culture and brand identity. But today I want to give examples of stories that we tell our employees and colleagues. Some stories are stories of fear: you better hit this deadline or there will be consequences; you better not disagree with my strategy or I will ostracize you; don't speak up if you see a process that is wrong; the work you did is terrible or has these flaws. Forbes identifies people who operate in this way as "fear-based managers."

People misunderstand what the term "fear-based manager" means. It's true that these managers wield a big stick and use it to club their employees into submission. They use fear to control people instead of trusting their teammates and inspiring them to do great things.

Yet the term "fear-based manager" doesn't only refer to the fact that these lousy managers threaten their employees and keep them on edge in order to keep them compliant and docile. The term "fear-based manager" refers to the manager's own fears, as well.

The reason so many managers treat their employees as badly as they do and keep them in line with unnecessary rules, policies and punishments is that the managers themselves are in a state of fear. They don't know who they are behind the business card.

Their professional identity is their only source of personal power, and they more than anyone else in their sphere know how fragile that power is.

In contrast, people who manage with empathy inspire their employees. They tell stories about trying, failing and learning from experiences; they tell stories about communal culture and sharing knowledge; they tell stories of transparency and openness; they tell stories about not knowing all the answers and needing help; and they tell stories that inspire communication, mutual respect, etc.

Another example in politics is the rhetoric of our last president and our current one. There speeches can be classified as speeches of hope (Obama) versus speeches of fear (Trump). Take this quote from Trump at the Republican Convention. "Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country." He is using the fear of terrorism, police violence, environmental regulations, economic insecurity, etc. to justify policies that disenfranchise, divide, and turn us against one another, rather than unify us. As the dialogue from Legion said, he was giving into our basest human nature to use ignorance, the fear of what we do not truly understand, for violent means.

Yet, these fears, while certainly able to stoke the imagination and rally humans behind a cause are not based in any material reality. They are real but the likelihood of these things is ridiculously low. For example, the likelihood of being killed by a terrorist who entered the US as a refugee is 1 in 3.6 billion. This has inspired many lists like this of every day things that are more likely to lead to your death. Cows, stairs, dogs, etc. Yet, when stories of fear rule you get laws, actions by your fellow citizens and actions that are violent.

Contrast this with Obama's constant messages of hope and change. While he may not have always succeeded in achieving these things, he certainly inspired them are inspired policies that brought the country together, encouraged civil and human rights, and led to sweeping cultural change. "Hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be." Or this speech from Election Eve:

These stories encourage us to work together; they encourage us to accept our differences as inevitable and something to be celebrated because in our differences we can find little innovations, learning experiences and change for the better; these stories teach us to work together for a better world in which everyone has a level playing field of opportunity; these stories tell us to seek new knowledge and learn as much as we can about our world.

There are many more examples I could give but I think you get the point. Legion's opening dialogue concludes with the mutant saying:

And that brings us to tonight's play, a work in five acts about a fuzzy little bunny who got too close to the ocean and what happens next. Let us begin.

This is important because it shows that there our lives will always be stories of fear and empathy in concert with one another. At the same time we will be the fuzzy little bunny who is adorable and persevering and the boy who is too close to the ocean. But what happens next is the critical question the dialogue is posing to us here. We can either react to the ocean in fear and stay away from its endless horizon of possibility or we can embrace the ocean and open our eyes with empathy to the world. It largely will depend on the stories we read and the stories we tell. I personally choose empathy and will always try and combat fear wherever I experience it in my life.

What stories have been important to you in your life? How have stories inspired you? Is human nature inherently violent? What will our story be? What is your story? Discuss below!

Ryan C. Smith
Austin, TX Website
I help startups operationally succeed in product, marketing and sales; I am a creator of product and builder of the future - interested in tech inflection points. No power in the verse can stop me!