Empathy is Not the Purpose of Film; Worship Is (Part 3)
We finally get to the third and last chapter of our "worship" trilogy of blog posts. This has been my biggest and most ambitious series to date, and the one I've been most proud of. I've tried to lay out my view that the true, primary purpose of the medium I--and I believe most of those reading this post--all love, is worship. And I'm grateful that you've all stuck through these arguments to the end.
In Part 1 of this series I argued that the main purpose of film, contrary to popular opinion, is not empathy. I argued this by showing that empathy isn't what people go to the movies for and empathy isn't what people most people actually need. In Part 2 I defined worship as praising something you value more than yourself and demonstrated that people overwhelmingly go to movies that do just that.
We close by answering one, very important question: is worship good for us? It may be what we most want. But we want a lot of things--many of them not good for us. I like eating junk food, skipping exercise and wasting ours on social media. But those thing--especially in large doses--are not good for me. So is worship good for me?
Well, yes. Yes it is.
Studies are surprisingly very clear and unambiguous on this: worship is great for people. Worship, sometimes called awe has deep and measurable benefits to people, making them both healthier and more moral. People who spend time experiencing something bigger than them that fills them with awe--such as being at the grand canyon, or a beautiful church, or--become more peaceful and less stressed. They also become more humble, less selfish, more loving, and more generous to others.
From Psychology Today:
Recent studies exploring this complex emotion have discovered compelling connections between the experience of awe and enhanced critical and creative thinking faculties, improved health, a sense of embeddedness into collective folds and an increase in pro-social behaviours such as kindness, self-sacrifice, co-operation and resource-sharing. Awe is also one of the few emotions that can reconfigure our sense of time and immerse us in the present moment
Watching stories about heroes is especially good for us. According to Dr. Jonathan Haight, watching someone you admire causes you to experience a state called "elevation".
When people experience elevation, they feel a mix of awe, reverence, and admiration for a morally beautiful act. The emotion is described as similar to calmness, warmth, and love. Haidt argues that elevation is “elicited by acts of virtue or moral beauty; it causes warm, open feelings in the chest.” ... The emotion of elevation, which warms and uplifts us, also includes a desire to become a better person. According to Jonathan Haidt, elevation “motivates people to behave more virtuously themselves.” The elevation we feel upon witnessing a heroic act transforms us into believing we are capable of heroic acts ourselves.
This makes sense. When you admire someone you are drawn to be like them so you can be like the kind of person you admire. Yet, people often fall into the trap of seeing stories about heroes as trivial entertainment. The fact is, nothing trivial is happening when you are watching stories about heroes
Then again, you might wage a reasonable counter-argument: worship has also inspired some of the world's greatest evils. You might say religion partly inspired the crusades and radical Islam, worship of Aryan superiority inspired Nazi Germany and worship of white supremacy inspired slavery and segregation. This is a very good counter-argument. In fact, in my first post in this series I argued that The Birth of A Nation caused harm by creating empathy for the Ku Kux Klan. But you could just as easily say that it caused harm by creating worship for the Ku Kux Klan. So given that worship and empathy are both capable of doing good and creating harm, why do I say worship is more better than empathy?
First of all, even when you worship the wrong thing, you still are developing all the virtues we spoke about before. You are still becoming more humble, more generous, more altruistic. If what you worship causes you to dehumanize a group of people, that's monstrous, but you are still increasing your virtues toward the people who's humanity you acknowledge.
But there's another reason.
Because worship can dehumanize other people, but empathy without worship has to.
What film, empathy, and worship all have in common is that they force you to choose what you think is most important. The camera will make you see some things and leave everything else out. The audio will make you hear some things and ignore others. The story will show you the lives, motivations, hopes, dreams, cares and fears of some people, and ignore others. The editing will cause you to see connections between some things and no connection between others. Empathy is the same. You cannot both feel the bliss of romantic passion between two lovers and the single man watching them feeling lonely. You will choose one. You cannot both empathize with the students dealing with the tyrannical teacher and the hardworking teacher dealing with disobedient students. You will choose one. You cannot equally empathize with the oppressor and the oppressed. You would be immoral not to choose one. But empathy itself cannot tell you which group to empathize with. Now, empathy can teach you something. You can learn through empathy to see the humanity in everyone. But that knowledge cannot teach you which person to side with when two sides are at odds. And left to itself, empathy will leave you with two options: either you will empathize with the person who is most like you, or you will empathize with whoever the person telling the story wants you to. The first makes you a narcissist. The second makes you a puppet.
Worship makes you choose which values, not people, are most important. Do you value family or individuality more? Do you value heroic self-sacrifice or personal fulfillment? Do you value romantic love or independence more? The Fast and Furious franchise values family over selfish ambition. Romantic comedies such as Crazy Rich Asians value romantic fulfillment over family. Superhero movies such as Spider-Man and The Dark Knight argue that heroic self-sacrifice is more important than romantic love. These stories are all about choosing which values and ideals are most important, and they make the case through their stories what values should trump other values. None of these movies say that the contrary values are unimportant (Crazy Rich Asians doesn't say family is bad and The Dark Knight doesn't say that romance is evil) but that the values they are defending are simply more important. And because the protagonists embrace the highest values, they are worthy of praise and our primary attention.
But here's the thing: anyone can embrace these values. Worshipful movies don't care so much about who you are as what you believe in. Anyone can be a part of the family in the Fast and Furious. Anyone can embrace romantic love in a rom com. Anyone can be a hero in a superhero movie. This is why Fast and The Furious has been historically one of the most successful and diverse franchises in Hollywood--because people are watching it for the values of heroes and family, not because the people in the movie look like them. This is why Crazy Rich Asians made so much money from white people--because they were their to see people find love, not to see white people. This is why Black Panther and Captain Marvel killed at the box office with white men--because they are there to see heroes, not people who looked exactly like them. I'm not saying that in worship movies people don't prefer to see people they relate to in the role of the hero. I am saying that in a worship movie it doesn't matter nearly as much because the focus is first on the value, then on the people who get to participate in it.
And that brings us to the last major point, one that is on everyone's lips today.
You may have noticed: everyone is talking about representation today. Particularly in film and TV. Everyone is talking about how important it is for women and minorities to be represented in the arts. Everyone talks about the damage never seeing yourself onscreen does to your self-esteem. Everyone is cheering on films that bring more diversity to the world of film, everyone calls out films that aren't sufficiently diverse or traffic in whitewashing, everyone celebrates it when another glass ceiling is broken, whether it's women or ethnic minorities--in front of and behind the camera. This is a fantastic thing.
However, there is one thing that people are getting wrong in this discussion.
People are talking about representation as if it is equally important regardless of what kind of representation it is. They talk about the importance of seeing people who look like you on screen, but they don't ever say that it matters what they're doing on screen. This is a lot like the discussion around empathy. People talk like what matters is to feel what someone else is feeling, but that it doesn't matter what that feeling is. People talk like what matters is that you see someone who looks like you onscreen, but that it doesn't matter what you're doing on screen.
But that's not true.
It's not just any representation that is giving so much joy and dignity to people.
It's worshipful representation.
There is a reason that Black Panther was the highest grossing film of 2018. There is a reason that it inspired hashtags and article after article by authors of color praising the film and often admitting to weeping over how deeply the movie affected them. There is a reason that Oprah Winfrey thanked Bob Iger for making that film, and said in no uncertain terms that Black Panther "gave us life". She did not say that about any other film that came out that year. Remember: Black Panther was not the only film by a black director with a black cast speaking about the black experience that came out in 2018. That same year we had BlackkKlansman by the legendary Spike Lee, If Beale Street Could Talk by director of Moonlight based on the celebrated James Baldwin novel. We had Sorry to Bother You. We had Blindspotting by Daveed Diggs from Hamilton. We had The Hate You Give, based on a best-selling young adult novel. We had The Equalizer 2 by the director of Training Day. We had Widows, by the director of the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. Many of these movies were critically acclaimed, all of them focused on representing the black experience, and most of them were focused on building empathy for the particular sufferings that black people have experienced in America. Yet, those movies barely registered at the box office. Nobody penned articles weeping with gratitude for people making the movie. Oprah didn't stand in front of the film producers and say that the movies gave her life. Most notably, very few black moviegoers went to see these movies.
Here's why: the representation that most gives us dignity is representation that says we can be beautiful. People desire two things most: 1. to find something to worship, and 2. to be able to be part of the thing we worship. Representation in a worship film tells us we can be part of what we worship. Representation that gives us life is the kind that says we are capable of being heroes, of being kings, of being leaders and lovers who love and are loved in return. We need the heroes to be flawed, yes, and to look like us, yes, so that we can see ourselves in that story. But what kind of story do we want to see ourselves in? Stories about empathy build sympathy--which is good--but they do not build respect or self-esteem. They teach us that we and others deserve to be pitied and need the help of others. Stories about heroes who look like us teach us that we are capable of greatness and therefore deserve respect and admiration.
We stared out this series by comparing two Ryan Coogler movies: Fruitvale Station, a film about a young black man who is killed by a cop, and Black Panther. We said that according to the people who believe that empathy is the primary purpose of film, Fruitvale Station is a more important film than Black Panther. Yet, while Fruitvale Station is a very important film, there is so much that Black Panther does that Fruitvale Station can't do.
It gives people what they most want.
It gives people what they most need.
And it, ironically, actually creates more empathy.
People love people most who love deeply what they love deeply. There is a reason why, in the Biblical New Testament, Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." and that the second is to "love your neighbor as yourself". (Matt 22:37-38, NIV) When you love something with all your heart and you find someone else who does as much as you, you love that person as well. You build a community around that. When we make movies that draw large numbers of people to worship what's worthy of worship, we draw people together to build communities around things that they share love for. Black Panther binds our culture together. Game of Thrones binds our culture together. Star Wars, Frozen, Lord of the Rings. Those things and the values they represent become the basis for our communities rather than our ethnic and economic identities. If what we worship is most important to us, then that is what we will build our communities around, and those who share that love will be the people we invite in to our lives. And the better the object of worship, the better off we'll be.
And that is why filmmaking is so important. We are not entertainers or therapists. We are worship leaders. We inspire and draw people to worship what we worship. We guide them to love what we think is worthy of love. And that is an awesome and terrifying responsibility. Because if we get it wrong, we can draw them to love something evil. The Birth of a Nation inspired the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and The Triumph of the Will inspired loyalty to the Nazi regime. Yet if we speak honestly and rightly and show them what is truly beautiful in the world and worthy of their worship, we can lead others to the meaning and purpose of life itself.
And I can think of few things more important to do than that.