Vice President-elect Mike Pence got a talking-to by the cast of the Broadway show “Hamilton,” when Pence was in the audience last Friday. “We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir,” said Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr. He spoke from the stage after the performance, reading remarks written by the cast–a cast which is multicultural and multiracial. “But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
These statements became front-page news, as President-elect Donald Trump tweeted an angry command to the “Hamilton” cast to “apologize!” But even more important than what the cast of “Hamilton” thinks of Mike Pence is this: What does Pence think of “Hamilton”? What’s his reaction to the show, in which the contributions of immigrants are celebrated as central to the nation’s founding? Did it cause him to feel even a tiny bit differently about immigration, and about the people that his campaign has targeted?
I’ve been thinking about the arts and their power to elicit empathy ever since I attended a panel on Islamophobia a few weeks ago, organized by the Atlantic Council. The event was titled “Overcoming Myths and Engaging in a Better Conversation.” It was a timely discussion, with Europe facing a flood of refugees from the Middle East and Trump calling for a ban on Muslims, and for “extreme vetting.” Academics, journalists and diplomats shared views on the damaging and ill-informed ways that Muslims are perceived and treated in Europe and America.
One of my favorite authors, the brilliant religious scholar Karen Armstrong, made cogent points on the commonalities and false divisions among faiths, and the fatal consequences of misperceptions. Others stressed the importance of recognizing that Muslims are not a monolithic group, but are a diverse community with many different worldviews.
I had been invited by Vuslat Dogan Sabanci, who chaired the panel. She is the publisher and CEO of Hurriyet, a daily newspaper in Turkey, and she graciously reached out to me after reading my book. Grace, in fact, figured prominently in her opening remarks. What’s most important in starting the better conversation that she hoped for, she said, is to listen.
“I first mean good listening, which is listening with the goal of understanding the other side,” Dogan Sabanci said. “So the other side can talk fearlessly in the field of respect–and grace.”
At the lunch that followed, a reporter from Al Jazeera spoke up. “We’ve done a good job of reporting on Islamophobia,” he said. “But how do we create empathy?”
That is the most important question, isn’t it? Front pages are filled with reports of fleeing refugees and violence and cruelties, but does this news arouse fellow feeling, or does it stoke fears that further divide us? Will even more panels and commissions and community dialogues start to warm our hearts?
I suggest we turn to the arts. The arts stimulate our sympathies, because in viewing art we can feel something of another person’s experience. The artist leaves palpable traces of his or her emotions, sensations and imagination in the artwork. And in our response, we feel some measure of these sensations in our own bodies. We’re not feeling exactly the same thing that the artist felt, but there is a bridging of artist and viewer. Our immediate, visceral reaction mingles with our imagination in a world of more feeling than intellect, of pure human connection.
“What brings fellow-feeling into being is the imagination,” wrote Leon Wieseltier in an op-ed in Washington Post. He goes on to quote Adam Smith, in his Theory on Moral Sentiments: “Sympathy, as Smith observed, is produced ‘by changing places in fancy with the sufferer.'”
I’m privileged to have this experience many nights in any given month, through my work as the Washington Post’s dance critic. This past summer offered up an especially powerful example. I had been invited to give a talk at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, in Becket, Mass., and while there, I saw a transcendent performance by Compagnie Herve Koubi, a troupe of 17 men from Algeria and Burkina Faso. Koubi had grown up in France, and in his twenties he discovered, to his astonishment, that his parents were Algerian, a fact that they had concealed from him. Disoriented and unmoored, Koubi finally traveled to that country seeking his tribe. He found it among the urban street dancers. Many of them became members of his company, and they are exquisite: athletic and musical and deeply sensitive. The work they performed at Jacob’s Pillow was titled “Ce que le jour doit a la nuit” (“What the day owes the night”). The music included Bach and traditional Sufi chants. The dancers tumbled, twisted, plunged and soared in a fearless blend of martial arts, capoeira and modern dance, communicating aching vulnerability, ineffable yearning and the strength of brotherhood. Watching them, you fell in love with these beautiful young men who were so elegantly and courageously opening their souls on the stage.
“These are the people Donald Trump wants to keep out of our country?” I heard someone in the audience ask rhetorically, and incredulously, afterward. The kind of understanding that happens through art hits hard, and goes deep. It’s not a cliche to say that boundaries dissolve through the arts and their realm of feeling. I’d like to see more investment in exporting art across borders, bringing Muslim artists into contact with non-Muslims, whether through live dance and theater, or film (“Desert Dancer,” about a dance company launched in Iran, where dancing was banned, was poignant and eye-opening), or exhibits such as the Smithsonian’s “Art of the Qu’ran.” I’d like to see embassies help bring artists overseas, with funding help from organizations that might otherwise host panels and policy meetings. Talk is fine, but hearts are opened not in lectures but through the workings of the imagination. This is the landscape of vulnerability, and the birthplace of openness, understanding and, finally, empathy.
Related story: Leon Wieseltier’s essay, “How voters’ personal suffering overtook reason–and brought us Donald Trump”