Are We Failing At Empathy?

July 31, 2014 11:17 PM

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Screenwriting is an art of fakery. Put a few words of convincing jargon into the mouth of a cop or a corporate lawyer or a starship commander and the audience will believe you are an expert in criminal justice or antitrust law or the rebel alliance on the planet Xenon. Having written a screenplay about historical events in the Middle East doesn't make me an expert on the region. But spending all day every day at a desk trying to project myself into the minds of other human beings, real or imaginary, has forced me to think in a sustained way about one particular subject: empathy. The ways in which storytellers inspire or coax or educate audiences to bring them to care about a person.

In the thoughtful new documentary Life Itself, the late film critic Roger Ebert describes film as "a machine that generates empathy." Without empathy for a character, the audience will go to the lobby for popcorn or start thinking about whether that Chinese place is going to be too crowded on a Frid...

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