Good novelists create a mind meld between you and their characters. And thinking what others think, feeling what they feel – that’s called empathy. Reading novels is empathy training.
So it is no wonder, explains historian Lynne Hunt, that the French Declaration of the Rights of Man – the first declaration of human rights – was written in the 18th century, at a time when more and more people were reading novels. Human rights are, after all, premised on empathy. To respect the right to life and liberty of people different from you requires imagination. The Dutertian who cannot see the world through the eyes of drug war victims lacks that imagination.
The link between human rights and the novel was present in the Philippines as well. The first person to translate the French Declaration into Tagalog was himself a novelist, an empathetic and sensitive man by the name of Jose Rizal. He translated the declaration to prepare the Philippines for eventual separation from Spain, believing that true independence did not simply require freedom from a colonizer, but freedom from the indignity of a society that does not feel.
That someone like Rizal, who could enter the mind of a poor Indio mother like Sisa or a landless farmer like Cabesang Tales, believed in human rights is hardly surprising. He was not only a novelist; he was also a man steeped in the humanist tradition. His imagination and feeling were broadened by the study of the arts.
I have argued before and will continue to insist that a society that celebrates a criminal against humanity like Duterte is a society in a moral rut. Part of that moral rut stems from a lack of moral imagination. And that imagination is retarded further by our narrow, vocational view of education. We produce technicians before citizens, workers before human beings.
In public forums, I often get asked how progressive Filipinos can restore faith in human rights and democracy after this nightmare of Dutertismo. In the short run, the solution is to stop electing murderous demagogues. In the long run, the solution is to collectively read and write better stories. – Rappler.com
Lisandro E. Claudio (@leloyclaudio on Twitter) teaches history at De La Salle University. He is the host of Rappler.com’s web series Basagan ng Trip.