Moral Imagination: Why Fiction Matters

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By Helen Kossler

Reading Between the Lines

As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together. President Obama, Arizona, 01-12-11

Moral Imagination.  That is what fiction brings to us.  It brings a way to talk about complex characters. Characters that we admire or hate but who we understand because of the artistry of the writer. Fictional characters, in a way, are more truthful and compelling because we can know them better, deeper and more completely than real people. In good fiction, no one is all good or all bad. In fact, we demand that the characters have flaws in order to be interesting. And yet, we deman something different in real life. We expect others to think exactly like us or to be wrong.  We forget about the baggage we each bring with us and how that influences our beliefs and reactions. In fiction, however, it is the meat of the narrative. We can describe the motivation of a character in ways that resonate with readers and leave them open to new ideas.

Fiction allows us to see the same situation from several perspectives. It teaches us that people can care passionately about the same thing, have completely different opinions about it and yet be worthy people just the same. In political discourse in the US, we have become strangers to this notion. We belittle and deride those who think differently from ourselves and feel morally superior to them.

As a species we seem drawn to stories as a way to explain the unexplainable. We have parables and fables and myths and epics and they have endured for centuries because we learn through them. There’s a reason that the Christian Bible is stories. We learn lessons easily and completely through story-telling. We can access the meaning of a story on an almost wordless plane, as paradoxical as that seems.  It is a primal and powerful way to teach. We can learn a lot through fiction—how to get along, how to understand each other, how to accept differences of opinion.

Consider these powerful novels:

Moby Dick. This novel explores the obsession that all is darkness and evil and that one person, in this case, Captain Ahab, has been appointed by God to battle it. That others will die in the chase is immaterial. Only the object of the obsession matters. It is frightening to see this play out on the world stage, but it is the driving force of terrorists, ideologues and dictators.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a study in the polarities that exit within each of us and the capacity that everyone has for both good and evil.  It will be interesting as the information about Jared Loughner unfolds, how much that dichotomy is presented. But Stevenson saw it clearly in 1886 and gave us a portrait to consider.

Atticus Finch is really the person we should aspire to. He is someone who consciously tries to see the world from the perspective of his neighbors.  Who, despite abhorring the racism of his southern brethren, does not set himself up as morally superior to them. That is the humility that Obama is talking about. That we, each of us, recognize our own foibles, forgive ourselves for them and in turn, forgive others for theirs. Reread To Kill a Mockingbird when you wonder if you can do it.

Fiction is a mirror held up to ourselves. It seeks to explain the unexplainable and while it reflects our experience, it changes it too. Moral imagination is important because it is both empathy and reflection. It gives us understanding and humility. We need to come together as Americans not divide along political party lines. We face enormous challenges that require us to see each other as human beings not ciphers of a political ideology. Sarcasm, cynicism and irony are easy responses because we can hide our vulnerability behind our fear and anger. But it doesn’t get us anywhere and we need to go forward.

A fine book to look at is The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. 

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