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The problem with only liking things we find relatable

August 25, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
The social media culture of “likes” is contributing to our conformity, says novelist and creative writing teacher Charmaine Craig. Instead of trying to empathize with the unfamiliar, we “like” and find refuge only in the things that seem most relatable. Craig offers her humble opinion on why we should move beyond what’s “relatable” or “likeable” and begin to open up to the unfamiliar.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In the age of social media, there is an elevated emphasis on so-called “likes.” Novelist and creative writing teacher Charmaine Craig sees a disturbing trend. She explains in tonight’s “In My Humble Opinion.”

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CHAIRMAINE CRAIG, Author, “Miss Burma”: In addition to being a novelist, I teach fiction at a university. And something that drives me crazy is students rejecting a piece of writing because it’s not relatable,” or because its characters aren’t likable. Recently, I was teaching “Anna Karenina,” and one of my brightest graduate students wrote off the novel because she found the characters’ thinking to be too different from her own.

Well, maybe literature isn’t here to hold a mirror up to our own way of thinking. The word relatable is relatively new, and it strikes me as more than a coincidence that its rise correlates with that of Facebook and its culture of likes. When we say we like something, we’re really describing ourselves more than the thing we like. That character, that photo, that idea reflects my preferences, my outlooks, my tastes, me.

There’s nothing wrong with liking or disliking, but when we only like things we find relatable, or we are only interested in people we find likeable, we’re implicitly holding up narcissism and conformity, and we’re critiquing difference.

I grew up in this country, and there’s no way that my peers would have described me as relatable when I was young. I was shy to the point of extreme awkwardness, this height 5’8″ at age 11, terrible at team sports, and impossible to categorize racially or culturally. My father was a descendent of people who arrived on the Mayflower, and my mother, a mixed-race refugee from the country now called Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Partly because I’m culturally and ethnically kind of anomalous, I’ve rarely related to people in my life. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned from and respected and felt for them. And that’s really what I want to say: that there’s a difference between relating or liking, in our current sense, and being curious and empathic.

Would I rather people like my novel or be affected by it finally? To be moved or affected by a piece of literature isn’t necessarily to see ourselves reflected in it or to like everything about it, we might disapprove of or want to fight with its characters; we might never have been exposed to the kinds of social settings or modes of thinking it describes.

And yet, if we open ourselves to such a piece of literature — to a novel like “Anna Karenina” that attentively describes other human beings, with all their passions, foibles and insights — we might find it opening itself to us, in turn. We might even feel something like love emanating from its pages, a love that comes with an author’s feeling for humanity, for readers, and for characters that, in life, might at first be very difficult to relate to or like.

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