Monday, July 18, 2005

Entertainment, Emotion, Love, Empathy, Ethics, and Saving the World

I have finished writing a book about entertainment, which will be published by Paradigm Publishers in February, 2006. Its title: Two Aspirins and a Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society.

But I haven't said everything important on the subject. In cleaning my office space I was about to dump all the papers and clippings I had saved for seven years as potential sources for my writing, but it felt like an impending loss. I had squeezed my text ruthlessly, eliminating much fascinating material. Instead of sending my research documents to the dumpster, I am going to use this blog as a way of sharing some of what I've learned, revealing connections that most people have not noticed. Actually, I keep running across more new material on these topics every couple of days. I’ll explore the multiple effects of entertainment -- at least the kinds of entertainment that involve telling stories. People rarely recognize the enormous impact of fiction and drama, and certainly we don't use it much for motivating the public to engage in the necessary social reforms to save our planet.

But before addressing the societal impact of entertainment, I’ll mainly focus on the intrapersonal physiological level, since it is only through our imagination that fiction works its magic. And the most obvious impact of the imagination is on the workings of the body -- notably the arousal of our autonomic nervous system, which also affects our immune and endocrine systems. Watching a particular movie can affect your health in a major way, for good or for ill, just as your social relationships affect your health. In fact, you can experience intense personal relationships with imaginary characters who are as important to you (or even more so) than the real persons in your life.

This experience of attachment and closeness to the characters of a show is often considered pathological, but it is quite normal. Indeed, individuals who form intense "parasocial" relationships with fictional characters tend also to have extremely close relationships with their real friends and lovers. Imaginary relationships with, say, soap opera characters do not substitute for genuine intimacy, but usually accompany it. instead of regarding this as a psychological disorder, we might more appropriately encourage it.

What makes fiction and drama powerful? Our empathy for the characters. And philosophers prize empathy as essential to moral development. It is certainly true that a good movie about a complex but flawed personality may broaden the minds of viewers, making us more insightful, tolerant, and compassionate. However most shows and novels do not set out to do this; it is far more common for writers to encourage viewers or readers to blame someone in the story. For example, crime and war shows are all about finding some culpable person or group who supposedly should be incarcerated or killed. This lends excitement to a plot, but without necessarily fostering wisdom, compassion, or problem-solving behavior in the audience.

So if you're interested in these topics, check in with me from time to time. I intend to write an entry two or three times every week — partly because I am so interested in the topic that writing a normal-sized book is not enough. I must keep going!

Perhaps I should say a word about myself. I'm a retired female sociology professor from the University of Toronto. I coordinated the peace and conflict studies program at my college during the last 13 years of my career and am continuing to edit an independent publication, Peace Magazine.


Blogger Louise said...

Hi Metta Spencer, Thank you for this interesting read. I am organizing a conference on Positive media, in Copenhagen, Denmark, in march 2012. I think it would be great if you could join us. Please send me and email ASAP (I cant find your email adresse) and I will tell you all about it.
All the best.
Louise :)

7:16 AM  

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