Following on from the discussion about empathy in A Famine Buffet I’ve also been thinking about empathy in relation to development in the UK. I campaign on development issues in the UK with a local group of interested and committed people. A lot of our campaigning involves setting up stalls on the local high street, talking to passers-by about the issues we work on and asking them to support our campaigns through signing petitions or letters to their local MPs. Learning the tricks of the trade – how to attract people’s attention, how to engage them and how to get a positive response all within about thirty seconds – is what has got me thinking about empathy.
So what is empathy? Well let’s start with a simple dictionary definition:
“[Empathy is] the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation.”
I’m no psychologist so this isn’t about the cognitive workings of empathy. What I’m interested in is that empathy means different things to different people and this shapes different kinds of response. This is something that is particularly apparent when I’m out campaigning. You can talk to people who may never have considered that what the British government does affects people in other countries. Or maybe someone has considered it but thinks that there is little that can be done about it, or that our government doesn’t have a responsibility to do something about it. (According to this Chatham House report on British attitudes to the government’s foreign policy, 57% of the respondents thought British overseas aid is wasted and should be reduced.) Or perhaps they have thought about it but choose to dedicate their time and energy to other issues.
Some people may care about development issues because they have travelled to, worked in or know someone form a developing country. They have had the opportunity to see first-hand what global inequality looks like. All three of these are key parts of my sense of compassion to work in and around development. Now that I have seen, I feel responsible to do something active and contribute towards social justice.
This doesn’t mean you have to travel to a developing country to be able to empathise. There are other ways of stepping into other people’s shoes (see the links below). What’s important for me is that empathy goes beyond imagining “a day in the life” to try and understand how people connect the dots between global issues and how these shape different types of reaction. Let me give you an example:
When I was out campaigning about climate justice, and how developing countries should not be forced to pay the price for adapting to climate change through World Bank loans, one passer-by came over to see what we were doing. I started with my prepared opening line, hoping to get a welcomed response. Instead he began questioning who should pay the price for climate change. He had just had to pay five pence for plastic bag in Marks & Spencers and didn’t feel that he should have to give money to a business so that they can say they are ‘green’. This is a valid point and one which, to me, highlights how people connect the dots in different ways. He saw climate justice on our campaign stall and connected it with recycling and plastic bags and how green politics affects his life.
This episode got me thinking about how I connect the dots and it became clear that the Marks & Spencers man and I didn’t empathise in the same way. I don’t think big businesses should profit from ‘green branding’ nor do I think recycling plastic bags is the panacea for realising climate justice. However I do think we need to consider how our actions affect people in other countries. So whilst it might be a bit of faff to remember to bring your re-useable bag I don’t think this is a reason not to act on climate justice. Rather, I would connect the dots like this: re-using a bag is helping to decrease my personal consumption, my personal consumption affects the UK’s national consumption of non-renewable resources, this in turn affects global emission levels, the impacts of which affect vulnerable communities the most even though they themselves have not contributed to the cause. But because of this man’s personal and negative experiences of sustainability issues his empathy did not work in the same way as mine.
This is admittedly an anecdotal example and I don’t in anyway mean to condescend the Marks & Spencers man. Nonetheless it got me thinking about how you get people to consider the lives of people in communities or countries they have never met. It’s something I struggled with in this case. How do you do this without brainwashing people, making them feel personally guilty or relying on ‘developing world’ stereotypes? And how do you do this in such a way that inspires action? Watch this space for my next post which I hope will explore (not answer) some of these questions.
Some links: Here is some material that I had a read of when writing this post…
This Oxfam report looks at the role of empathy education in primary and secondary schools. Through case studies it explores the emergence of empathy education: teaching pupils about empathy as a shared emotional response (if you see a baby crying you too feel anguish) as well as perspective empathy (stepping into someone else’s shoes). It highlights the limitations of empathy education in triggering social change; how do you make the transition from learning about someone else’s lives to doing something active to change the situation that you are learning about? As the report says “we need to learn to see the world from each other’s perspectives and thereby treat one another differently”. To do this, it goes on to argue, there needs to be a greater focus on children’s ability to comprehend the perspectives and lives of others, especially people in other communities or countries who they may rarely ever meet.
This article looks at the role reading can play in triggering empathy. It´s quite un-related (about Harry Potter and Twilight) but nonetheless is a fun read.