The Role of Imagination in Fostering Positive Social Change

Hugh Schulze
10 min read

In today's society, there seems to be an increasing number of people who believe that compromise or compassion is evil, as they proclaim their Rightness over others. But is this worldview really effective in creating positive social change? The problem with this mindset is that presenting evidence and facts often leads to pushback. However, there are people working towards creating empathy, building bridges, and finding common ground to bring about real change.

She was definitely a black or white kind of woman, that Ayn Rand. Of course, there have always been people who have proclaimed (OFTEN IN ALL CAPS) that they are Right and the other side is Wrong…

There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.
– Ayn Rand

But at c|change, we wonder if these days there may be an increasing number of people who believe, like Rand, that the middle – call it compromise or compassion or common ground – is evil.

If we accept this worldview, do we even bother engaging those wrong folk? Or do we stand up and argue until they see our Rightness?

The first approach usually leads to anarchic acts of passive aggressiveness (“No. I’m FINE.”). The second to willful acts of power and force. (“We’ll see about THAT.”)

Why Being Right is Not Enough

The problem with arguing your way to Rightness is that, as a 2017 article in the New Yorker reported, research shows that the more evidence you present, the more likely you are to see push back. Facts may be true, but often they are not persuasive.

The article references three recent publications that address the current zeitgeist in the room: Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, by Jack and Sara Gorman, The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. In their collective 1040 pages, the authors demonstrate how it is we can reason ourselves into things that simply are not right.

At this point in the discussion if you still find yourself with Ayn Rand and her Objectivist friends, I doubt there is much you’ll like hearing about people who are doing something about opening up conversations, finding some middle ground and building empathy.

People Working For Change

At the end of each year, c|change shares some small token of gratitude and appreciation to our friends and creative collaborators. This year we decided to do something a little different: we went out and talked to seven individuals who are creating positive social change. For the next three months, we’re going to post snippets of these interviews – but you can see a sneak preview of the work of all seven at our website:

At this time, it seems that the world could use more creative conversations about how to build bridges, rather than drive disrupted people further apart. For us, social change requires empathy. And empathy craves imagination.

An Empathetic Example

One of the people we interviewed was with Gail Stern, co-founder of Catharsis Productions. Catharsis Productions delivers sexual violence prevention education – using theater, role-playing and humor – to colleges, universities and the United States military. They have a number of programs, but what has made their approach so effective over the last 20 years is a sense of building empathy.

“One of the ways in which we train our own educators,” Gail explains, “is a program called Why They Fight the Facts about why people resist data on sexual violence. And they’re taught to really understand that people have an emotional response that triggers their cognitive defensive system. In a nutshell: ‘You made me feel bad. You must be wrong.’ And if you don’t understand that, as an educator, you’re never going to break through. So, we explore the different reasons why people might respond negatively.

What we know scientifically is that the brain has a fight or flight mechanism. Essentially, it responds negatively and protectively to information that threatens your view of yourself or your entire belief system and worldview. And it’s that part of it that makes it so difficult for what we do.”

“We have to be compassionate enough to say, ‘I know you never thought of it this way. I used to never think of it this way, but now that I know, gosh. Don’t you think we should do something about that?’”

“And instead of saying the, ‘You suck. You failed.’ We use the ‘we.’ ‘Why do we do that? Why do we tolerate that?’
And you get agreement. And they’re relieved that you can identify with them. ‘Yeah. Yeah. You’re just like us.’ And we say, ‘All right. So now that we agree this is a problem, what do we do about that?’ And that is genuinely transformative. One of the things I say is we give amnesty for ignorance. Okay. You didn’t know, but now you do. So what are you going to do now that you know better?”

The Implications of Empathy and the Lack Thereof

Lack of empathy as a failure of imagination has long been a topic of discussion among philosophers. But for us, you can hear the hollowness where empathy is lacking when you read the work of someone like Ayn Rand. Her characters, like those in Atlas Shrugged, are cardboard cutouts and stereotypes, either Heroes, Fools or Villains. (Right, Wrong or in the middle.) Of course, the heroes usually sound exactly like her.

As one writer put it: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
The Booker Prize winning author of The Life of Pi, Yann Martel, talks about the necessity of “The Empathetic Imagination”, not only as a necessary tool for a writer to inhabit the worlds of novels, but of human beings to navigate the world and their relationships. Speaking of empathy, he writes: “The empathetic imagination allows you to travel just as catching a train for a plane does.”

We highly recommend the interview.

Visit our year end website to read and watch the extraordinary stories of seven people creating empathy today:

At c|change, we believe that positive social change requires empathy and imagination, and we've interviewed seven people who are making a difference. Gail Stern from Catharsis Productions, for example, is using theater, role-playing, and humor to deliver sexual violence prevention education, while building empathy and understanding in the process. Empathy is the key to breaking through to people, to show them a better way. So, let's focus on empathy and imagination, and strive towards a better, more connected world.