by Yohan J. John
I. “You realize fun is a new thing, right?”
A few months ago I watched Indian-American comedian Aziz Ansari's new show, Master of None. During the Parents episode, I found myself confronted by a feeling that struck me as rare. I couldn't even tell if it was a good feeling or a bad feeling. It wound its way into me and tickled my soul. It felt vaguely embarrassing. Eventually I realized that it was the feeling of relating.
I imagine many young people felt this way at some point or the other during Master of None. The show manages to nail millennial anxiety and indecision on the head. And yet it's not nearly as dour and bitter as other shows that are praised for their apparent realism — think of Louie, or Mad Men, or The Wire. It's actually optimistic and good-natured; the word 'chipper' comes to mind.
Not every millennial can relate equally to all the situations portrayed in the show. I recall reading that at least one white fan of the show said she enjoyed every episode except the Parents one — that one she didn't quite 'get'. But it was the Parents episode that really grabbed me. It managed to capture the particular sort of generation gap that emerges between first generation immigrants and their kids. Even though my family is very different from the ones portrayed in the show, as an Indian whose parents moved to America I could appreciate the situation: the older generation has clearly gone through much harder times than their kids, and has struggled quite a bit to create opportunities for their kids to live comfortable and vaguely hedonistic lives. (To obsess over finding the best tacos in New York, for instance.) At one point Ansari's character Dev's father says ” You realize fun is a new thing right?” This is only a slight exaggeration of how many of our parents seem to feel. Fun is secondary, and not something they talked about much with their parents.
The kids — my fellow post-immigration, post-colonial millennials (whew!) — are vaguely aware that they ought to be more appreciative of their parents' sacrifices, but don't quite know how to go about it. This is partly because we have no idea how to go about anything, really: careers, relationships… everything about adulthood all seem impossibly hard to navigate. Master of None explores many of these sources of anxiety, but it was only during the Parents episode that I found myself getting choked up, and wishing I could be a better offspring. I suspect that the friends I was watching the show with — a Pakistani-American and a Chinese-American — were also tearing up a bit, but I was too engrossed (and embarrassed) to check.
So why did that feeling of relating seem so strange and rare? It's because I was reminded of something that I've been desensitized to: there is very little television (or cinema or literature) about people like me. There are very few shows in the west that are focused on Indians (or non-white groups, really). And movies from the motherland remain quite cartoonish — I rarely come across characters that I find relatable or even believable (though this is rapidly changing). But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy fiction. I feel quite fortunate to be living through a golden age of television. (I don't feel as lucky to be subjected to the golden age of comic book movies, however.)
Master of None somehow makes me look back on all my favorite shows — The Wire, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica — and wonder if there are people out there getting more out of these shows, because they can relate more than I can. (I had a similar feeling in college when someone told me that women enjoy chocolate far more than men do because it gives them a quasi-orgasmic feeling. I have no idea if this is even true, but ever since then I've wondered if chocolate is wasted on me.)
II. That time my friends called me a sociopath
Some months before watching Master of None, I mentioned to a group of friends that I rarely relate to characters in fiction. I had recently read a few articles on relatability, and I wanted to link the concept with a book about Celine Dion (more on this later). But before that could happen, everyone jumped on me. To my extreme bafflement, my friends all seemed to agree that I was either objectively wrong about my ability to relate… or I was a sociopath.
After an hour of chaotic debate, we realized that our conversational ship had foundered on the rocks of semantic disagreement (as usual). It turns out people have wildly divergent opinions about what the word 'relate' means. When I used the word 'relate', I thought it meant something like 'resonate strongly with the situation being depicted'. In my head this was distinct from what I thought of as 'empathy': the ability to feel at least something of what a character is portrayed as feeling. So when I said I couldn't related to much fiction, what I meant was that the situations described in books, movies, and TV shows seem far removed from the situations that I find myself in.
However, my friends thought I was claiming that I felt nothing when, say, Simba's father Mufasa died in The Lion King, or when Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. They thought I was saying I did not feel the #feels. This explains why they thought there was a sociopath lurking among them. For a few moments I started to doubt myself, wondering if maybe I was in fact some kind of emotionally stunted creature.
But then I recalled that fiction does in fact frequently reduce me to a puddle of tears. So basically we needed to define our terms — particularly 'empathy' and 'relating'. I empathize with Hamlet's state of despair and indecision. But I don't relate, because I cannot claim to know what it is like to ruminate about avenging my father's murder at the hands of an uncle who married my mother.
There is a handy set of definitions in an article on Psychology Today that help put the relatability/empathy discussion on slightly firmer footing. We might call this the Hierarchy of Feels:
- Pity is “a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones.” You pity someone when you feel bad for them, but not with them.
- Sympathy is “a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement.”
- Empathy is “a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.”
- Compassion is “more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience.”
So pity is just a bit better than the bare acknowledgment that someone is suffering. Sympathy adds an element of concern and care, but doesn't involve sharing a common emotion. Empathy does involve shared feelings, so we might also call it 'emotional resonance'. Compassion impels us to move from the world of feelings to the world of action. In my experience people have strong opinions on what to call these four sorts of feeling, but I think we can all agree that the feelings are distinct.
So where does 'relating' fit? I'd say that relating is a subset of empathy that involves more than just shared perspective, but also shared circumstance. People who have gone through similar experiences often gravitate towards each other. Support groups are often like this: we place trust in them because the members have been through similar situations. And as a consequence, people who haven't shared an experience are often told that they won't be able to relate: “You don't know, man. You weren't there!”
The 'sociopath' conversation eventually got round to more productive territory: the difference between sympathy and empathy. Compared to empathy, sympathy can seem more distant and wishy-washy. One friend dismissed sympathy as something that was under voluntary control. By contrast, empathy was spontaneous and uncontrollable — in fiction it implies that the creator has successfully hypnotized us. We simply can't help but feel what the characters feel. I hadn't thought about how volition played into all this, and initially it seemed like a major strike against sympathy. Sympathy seemed dangerously close to affectation: something you can put on if you just choose to care.
At this point I remembered the other piece in my sympathy-empathy puzzle: Celine Dion. Or rather, a book about Celine Dion, written by the music critic Carl Wilson.
III. Sympathy for the Devil
The book Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is an exercise in sympathy, rather than empathy. Carl Wilson starts his exploration of Celine Dion's place in musical culture by examining his own lack of empathy for the singer and her fans. Wilson has what is often called the 'rockist' sensibility: at the start of the book he describes his love for Elliot Smith, a darling of the underground. Smith's song for the Good Will Hunting soundtrack was nominated for an Oscar for best song. This seemed like a great opportunity for an 'underrated' musician to hit the big time. (Wilson is deeply aware of how conflicted the fans of the underground are about even contemplating mainstream approval.) But the overgrounding was not to be. Elliot's song collided with the iceberg that was 'My Heart Will Go On'. Wilson and his fellow alt and indie fans were subjected to the ignominy of watching Elliot Smith's performance being upstaged by Celine Dion's grandiose theatrics. Then, adding insult to injury, Madonna announced that Dion had won the Oscar with visible amusement at the thought that anyone else might have won.
In this moment all of Wilson's hatred of mainstream showbiz found a focal point in the person of Celine Dion. She became for him an embodiment of the corny, schmaltzy, safe, musical pabulum that record companies foist upon the undiscerning masses. An anecdote involving Elliot Smith himself later turned the Wilson's critical instinct back on itself. Elliot Smith had repudiated a fan who slagged off Celine Dion in front of him. He had met Dion backstage at the Oscars, and said that she was actually nice. She didn't deserve to be hated by someone who didn't even know her.
Wilson sets out to examine the roots of his own hatred, and to try to understand the appeal of Celine Dion. Wilson guides the reader through his intellectual and emotional journey: psycho-social theories about Dion's Québécoise upbringing; philosophical theories about the good, the bad, and the kitschy; and socio-economic theories about taste, class, and privilege. He interviews several die-hard Celine Dion fans, and even attends a concert. He gets very close to understanding what fans see in Celine Dion. At a few points he manages to connect — fleetingly — with the music. But lasting empathy proves to be a bridge too far, so Wilson has to settle for sympathy.
I relate very strongly to Wilson's rock snob sensibilities, so I was quickly caught up in his quest to fine commonality in a musical sensibility alien to his own. The easy and thoughtless response would have been to simply shrug and say “one man's mean is another man's poison” or “different strokes for different folks”. Instead, Wilson chose to make an effort to understand why people are so divided by taste. This kind of effort cannot always lead all the way to empathy (to say nothing of compassion), but it has a very good chance of leading to sympathy. In a sense, sympathy just is the willingness to put some effort into understanding someone else's feelings.
Some months before I read Wilson's book, a friend had mentioned that he once went for an Enrique Inglesias concert in Delhi. My immediate reaction was derisive laughter. I couldn't believe that someone like him would pay money for an experience of that sort. After reading Let's Talk About Love, I've started feeling quite guilty about this kind of elitism. It's the anti-social opposite of sympathy — it pushes people away from each other. (Wilson quotes a British critic who dismisses Dion's fans as “grannies, tux-wearers, overweight children, mobile phone salesmen.” As if these people just naturally deserve scorn.) By contrast, the effortful task of being sympathetic is fundamentally pro-social and constructive. In the right circumstances it can lead to empathy. And even when it doesn't, it exercises our emotional muscles — perhaps making it easier to empathize when the opportunity does arise. So instead of just valuing our spontaneous, “natural” moments of empathy, I think it also makes sense to value the difficult, awkward, and not-guaranteed-to-succeed process of sympathy. What else can make us better people?
This brings me back to relatability. It struck me recently that Anglo-American pop culture occupies a unique position in the world. Despite this, the producers of films and TV shows often have extremely parochial interests: they are unwilling to perturb the typical middle class viewer with characters that they won't easily relate to. Far too often relatability is intertwined with skin color, race, and socio-economic background. But it's not just the target audiences that consume mainstream media. Minorities have little choice but to watch what is available (or wall themselves off from the wider culture). And all around the world people are consuming the cultural output of English-speaking countries. Clearly for all these people, differences in ethnicity or skin color are not particularly strong barriers to empathy. A sad possibility is this: mainstream middle class people, particularly in the west, have far more opportunity to relate to fictional characters that minorities do. Minorities have many opportunities to empathize with characters in books, movies, and TV shows, but they have fewer opportunities to relate. Perhaps as a minority, surrounded by fictional representations that are far removed from one's own life, one must exercise one's empathy muscles a lot more. With plenty of relatable characters to choose from, members of the mainstream might not have to try too hard, since they're rarely confronted by perspectives and situations that are very different from their own.
The topic of minority representation in popular culture is a fraught one — it goes way beyond relatability, touching on more weighty issues like racial and cultural stereotyping, economic inequality, and active discrimination in the entertainment industry. Aziz Ansari explores some of these issues in the episode “Indians on TV”. The call for more diversity on TV and in the movies can often sound like it's is aimed solely at helping minorities. But I think that the majority can actually benefit too. By creating opportunities to try and sympathize with characters that are very different from themselves, majorities can explore emotional faculties that may often lie dormant. This can be a powerful impetus for sharing and solidarity — social forces that are increasingly important in our fragmented and multicultural polities. And if majority communities are more often confronted with situations that aren't in their comfort zones, perhaps they can even learn to sympathize with something minorities experience on a daily basis: the alienating feeling that most people around us do not, in fact, relate to us.