The tragic story of Lidice, a Czech village destroyed by the Nazis, formed part of a recent Cultural Value project investigating the power of storytelling to develop empathy, compassion and understanding. John Holmes discusses the findings.

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Kimberley Watson

In February last year a team of researchers in the Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies at Staffordshire University, led by Dr Jackie Reynolds, was awarded a six-month grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, as part of its Cultural Value initiative. The aim of the research was to improve our understanding of the potential of arts and culture to develop reflection and empathy across geographical divides.

The project drew on a unique case study: that of the relationship between Stoke-on-Trent and the village of Lidice in the Czech Republic that was destroyed by the Nazis in June 1942. In response to this horrific event, local doctor and Councillor Barnett Stross launched the ‘Lidice shall live’ campaign in September of the same year, rallying local working people to donate to a fund that contributed to the rebuilding of the village after the war. Ordinary working people donated in many cases up to a week’s wages to this campaign in the middle of the hardship of the Second World War. In recent years, the links between Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent have been refreshed with cultural exchanges between the two places. It is striking that in all of the civic engagement and partnership working we choose to explore, express and celebrate these ties almost exclusively through arts and culture.

Arts and cultural events can be the process by which marginalised groups are able to construct and tell their own truths

Our research study examined why we would choose the medium of arts and culture to rekindle the fellowship between these distant geographical communities. We assembled a mixed group of academics and creative practitioners to explore this theme through research, which included focus groups, workshops and a field trip to Prague and Lidice to meet creative practitioners there.

The academic research team explored the theory and philosophy of narrative and its importance in helping us make sense of our experiences. This had a profound impact on how we might approach empathy as a narrative construct: that our emotions are informed by how we might describe them or tell stories about them. We considered theories as to how making sense of the world always involves the expression of some stories and the silencing of others. If we understand the concept of power as being the ability to throw the spotlight on one story at the expense of another, we can also understand how empowering storytelling through the arts can be. Arts and cultural events can be the process by which marginalised groups are able to construct and tell their own truths. We also considered theories that the first step in justifying abuse or violence against another person is to dehumanise them through narratives that describe them as non-human, and this is a critical step in the cycle that promotes genocide or ethnic cleansing.

We explored the idea that storytelling approaches in an arts and cultural context might have what we termed a ‘superpower’ to develop empathy, compassion and understanding. In analysing the findings, a number of key themes were identified in response to this idea.

Rather than focussing on the content of stories, we started to ask ourselves what stories do. We considered that stories are not just there to describe an outside reality but to bring about a transformation in those listening to the story or engaging with a storied event. One theme that arose is that stories allow us to connect with other people because they allow us to realise our commonalities. Some people spoke of this in terms of stories “striking a chord”. A public artist in one of the focus groups noted that it was easier to empathise with someone when you could recognise yourself in the subject. Another aspect of the superpower of stories was the way in which they help us to know the other person as an individual, enabling us to empathise in a way that would be virtually impossible with a large number of people.

There is a sense that in the face of many, such as the six million who perished in the holocaust or the millions who are dying currently of starvation, we feel somewhat paralysed or overwhelmed. One artist described how once you know someone’s story and recognise the father, mother or lover and locate them within a village or a family home it links into your immediate emotions as you begin to see the person in front of you. Perhaps some of the most powerful examples of arts and culture generating empathy, compassion and understanding are those that present people’s individual stories in a way that challenges stereotypical, negative constructs of particular groups as ‘the other’.

In a filmed interview, a team of artists from B Arts in Staffordshire described one such example. They ran a project involving young asylum-seekers and refugees who were new to Stoke-on-Trent. They developed a play that was based upon the stories of the people taking part and toured it to primary schools. Built into the performance was an opportunity for conversations between participants and schoolchildren to enable connections between individuals. One of the artists described how they could tell that empathy had developed as a result of these connections: “…well the start of the show in the school hall… there was a distance between the audience and the staff and the performers… and then having seen the piece and listening to those stories… that barrier between the two broke down. There was then no barrier between the two, no distance between the two…”

So why do we choose the medium of arts and culture to link distant geographical communities in ways that foster empathy, compassion and understanding? Our findings suggest that arts and culture can convey stories that have a superpower to connect people by striking a chord, enabling us to identify with individuals and challenge stereotypical ideas of the ‘other’ – a truly remarkable thing in a world that sometimes seems overwhelmed by social and racial tensions.

John Holmes is Visiting Research Fellow at Staffordshire University.
johnandrewholmes@icloud.com

Other members of the research team included Janet Hetherington, Dr Ann O’Sullivan and Dr Kelvin Clayton. Full details of the research including short documentaries and research reports are available from the Staffordshire University Cultural Value blog.

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