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In times like these, it can feel like entertainment doesn't matter. It does.

Roger Ebert’s idea that movies are “a machine that generates empathy” applies to the whole of entertainment.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, from Life Itself
Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, from Life Itself
Magnolia Pictures

Early in the morning on November 9, 2016, the world turned upside down — or right side up, depending on your perspective. The outcome of the most divisive presidential election in recent memory has left half the country reeling, the other half celebrating, and millions of onlookers at home and abroad asking questions with no easy answers: How did we get here? Where do we go from here? Is this the end, or just the beginning?

These are big, extraordinarily complicated questions that I — someone who has spent her career writing about entertainment and pop culture — am not prepared to offer substantial answers to. (I’ll leave that to my Vox colleagues, who are working their butts off right now to do just that.) But I am prepared to wrestle with some other questions that have been plaguing me since I woke up on Wednesday to the reality of President-elect Donald Trump and the large portion of the population whose views he represents: How do I, and everyone else who writes and thinks about culture for a living, engage with entertainment right now, and in the months and years to come? What value does entertainment have in a country, a world, with such huge problems and such deep societal scarring?

Entertainment is often considered synonymous with frivolity and distraction, which may very well be what many people are craving right now; remember a few short days ago, when we were all waiting for the election to just be over so we could return to our normal lives? There’s certainly something to be said for escapism during stressful times, and entertainment can most certainly provide that. But it’s a temporary fix. Sooner or later, we have to engage with reality.

Entertainment can help there, too.

At its best — or sometimes even its just-okay — entertainment can broaden our view of the world. It can expose us to realities and experiences far removed from our own, or offer a new perspective on what we think we already know. We just have to let it. We have to make an effort to reject the assumption that entertainment should provide comfort first and foremost, should soothe our troubled souls by parroting our own beliefs and tastes back at us.

This may not sound like a particularly fun or easy way to engage with entertainment, but it can be a rewarding one — and now, possibly a necessary one. But it requires a certain amount of thought adjustment when it comes to the expectations we place on our entertainment. Thankfully, a diagram for how to make that adjustment has already been helpfully provided by the late Roger Ebert, a man whose genuine love of movies and culture shone through in even his most critical stances.

Back in 2005, at a star dedication ceremony at the Chicago Theatre, Ebert gave a speech that included a passage encapsulating his personal view of the power of movies [emphasis added]:

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

A clip of this speech opens Life Itself, Steve James’s truly excellent 2014 documentary, based on Ebert’s memoir, that also captures the final months of an extraordinary life. (Ebert died in 2013 of complications from the thyroid cancer he battled for several years.) The idea of movies as a “machine that generates empathy” has taken on increased resonance among film lovers in the time since Ebert’s death, but his characterization of how to engage with film can easily be expanded to entertainment more broadly.

The overwhelming surprise many people felt at the confirmation that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States speaks to many things, but perhaps loudest among them is the idea that we as Americans have increasingly isolated ourselves from one another, both geographically and socially. We’ve created our own personal ideological enclaves that leave little room for the acknowledgement, much less the understanding, of other viewpoints, beyond an outright rejection of those viewpoints. And what we’ve ended up with is a nation divided beyond its own comprehension, a nation that elected a leader many considered an impossibility.

Watching the right movie or TV show or reading a certain book is not going to have a direct effect on this division; most people will continue to gravitate toward cultural objects that align with their own tastes, which are generally informed in some way or another by their worldview. And that’s okay, to an extent. I don’t mean to suggest that consuming the culture targeted at those whose views you disagree with is a singular, efficient way to reach ideological compromise.

Rather, this is a call to reconsider how to engage with entertainment when you wake up in a world that no longer seems like the same one you went to bed in, a world full of people whose outlook you don’t understand. Don’t simply look to entertainment for distraction; look to it as a tool to help better understand our world and our culture. Engage with all entertainment as Ebert did with film, with the hope — hell, the expectation — that it will provide understanding, even enlightenment.

Every piece of pop culture —from a Snapchat story to a Saturday Night Live sketch, from a YouTube video to a concept album, from an underground cartoon to a superhero blockbuster — is the product of humans with whom we share this country and this world. And every piece of it, no matter how seemingly frivolous, ill-considered, or incendiary, tells us something about those humans. We don’t have to agree with what they say, or even respect how they choose to say it. But by making an effort to empathize with the experiences that spawned that cultural object, and with the experiences it presents, perhaps we can gain a little more understanding.

And in times of confusion and upheaval, a little understanding might just be a better salve than mere distraction.

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