Can Fiction Be Used for Social Justice?

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Fiction can be used as a tool for social justice or social change in the way that it interacts with characters and their complexities. I think that in the dystopian genre, more than in any other genre, this concept is concentrated and it allows us to examine extrapolated futures and also the problems in our world. This kind of fiction often elevated the voices of marginalized people and the problems that they face.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic example of the power of fiction. The idea of banning books, of books being burned, books having a power that goes beyond the pages. So if we acknowledge the fact that books have some kind of power behind them, how can that be used for social change and social justice?  I have here three ways.

Accepting ourselves

A lot of people might not even have known about a particular mental health issue or a particular sexual or gender identity before they saw it play out in fiction. And that can be such a powerful thing. This isn’t just a positive thing for people who are able to find themselves in fiction, but it’s also positive for us to be able to see other people who have marginalized identities, to start to understand them better.

Accepting other people

In fiction, you get the totality of a person. In novels, for example, you understand what is going on in the workings of the brain. You can see marginalized people in situations that you might not normally see, in their homes, with their families and friends, in the places where they feel safe or comfortable.

Going out into the world

What takes you a step further, not just to understand, but to want to act on that understanding, is the radical empathy that fiction can create in people. Psychologists Mar and Keith Oatley found that heavy fictional readers outperformed heavy nonfiction readers on tests around empathy.  And psychologist Dan Johnson then found that those heavy fiction readers were more likely to go out into the world and to enact change based on that empathy.

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