Moral Agency and Free Will: Speculative Fiction Fandom and the Discourse of Empathy

Anthropology has long been exploring the relationship between culture and cognition, but only in recent decades has American popular media culture been a subject of its own ethnographic investigations. This turn of gaze coincides with inquiry into underrepresented communities and variations in social experience as they are affected by issues such as gender, race, and ethnicity. Recent events in the U.S. stemming from tensions between such groups asserting their rights and those who resist their concerns, sometimes resulting in violence, have set in motion a national dialogue which frequently invokes the subject of empathy. This project is an investigation of empathy among one of the oldest Internet-based communities, that of Speculative Fiction Fandom, a self-identifying community of interest whose practices revolve around speculative fiction texts. Speculative fiction is a genre of fiction which explores the nature of humanity through narratives which speculate about life under different world conditions. It is a broad container for what are today prolific in popular media culture, including the subgenres of superhero fiction, science fiction, and supernatural fiction. The Speculative Fiction Fandom community is an ostensibly racial-, ethnic-, and gender-diverse community, and so its ordinary discourse is a fertile field to better understand the processes by which diverse people in discursive contexts have empathy, or not, for those others outside their own social groups. Through an analysis of the discourse centered on the thought-experiments of speculative fiction popular media, the relationship between culture and cognition may be illuminated through the identification of key rules for empathy.