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Empathy and its Role in Radical Social Change

Check out this video:

So here’s a pretty interesting video on the power of empathy based on the philosophy of Roman Krznaric (and various others).  I don’t think we necessarily need to know a lot about Krznaric or the scenarios he talks about in the video to have a productive and interesting discussion about it.  My favourite type of philosophy doesn’t necessarily involve reading heaps of philosophy and then critically analysing it (though there is certainly a place for this); it involves finding an interesting concept and running with it.  So with this in mind I want to focus on the general message of the video: that is, that empathy can be the driver not only of knowledge of oneself, but also of radical and much needed social change, and specifically with the latter half of this message – if others want to take up the former ‘knowledge of oneself’ part go ahead!

Exactly how important is empathy to radical social change?

I think empathy is incredibly important to radical social change, because empathy helps us to understand things not only at a rational, academic level, but also at an emotional level; a level on which most humans live and which most humans strongly relate to.  I think most of us would say that understanding is key to radical social change, and I hope to show how empathic understanding is an important component of this understanding.

There are plenty of situations in which a rational, academic understanding can only take us so far.  Reading about wars, droughts, famine and various other instabilities throughout the world, for example, can sometimes seem a little surreal, a little detached from reality.  The human impact of various conflicts is often (not always but often) lost in a sea of detail and numbers and that is a great, great loss.  War, after all, is as much about the lost husbands and sons, the raped wives and daughters as it is about power shifts in local or global political systems.  Empathy, I think, is key to understanding and really feeling the impact of such events, though in some ways it is also tho most difficult way to do so because it hits you HARD.

Yet, empathy is not only applicable in obviously emotional events like war.

Take a case concerning environmental issues: we can’t figure out how to change companies that pollute profusely without understanding why they do.  Once we understand that part of the reason that companies pollute profusely is because polluting is cheap (monetarily, legally and ideologically), and that ultimately, companies are there to make a profit and fear losing support from various stake-holders, we can use this understanding to target campaigns that aim to change such practices.  The most effective campaigns, in this case, are those that pander to the company’s desire to make a substantial profit, whilst still protecting the environment (note: these, may be the most effective, that doesn’t mean they are the easiest to create).  Book learning can take us part of the way in this understanding, but I think understanding the needs, desires and particularly fears of companies on a non-academic, emotive level, requires empathy.

Empathy is not only a useful tool for those who have already decided to act (by informing their understanding of the situation); it can also be a useful tool for motivating people to act.  It was one of the great catalysts of civilian protest against the Vietnam War, for example.  When people actually saw what was happening in Vietnam on TV as opposed to merely reading or listening to radio reports about it, they were more easily able to empathise and sympathise with the troops and civilians involved.  They comprehended the atrocity of war on an emotional rather than purely rational, academic level and this caused a wave of emotionally-driven protests predominantly in the USA but also here in Aus.  Krznaric further evidences the idea that empathising, understanding and really feeling the impact of situations can be a great catalyst for action, in his discussion of the Anti-Slavery movement in the USA and UK.  If we want to motivate people to take action on any given topic, one of the most effective ways of doing so is to appeal to their emotional rather than rational side (and this is not necessarily a negative thing!).

If we want to support radical social change we need to encourage people empathise with the victims of a give situation and thus encourage them to act, and then encourage them to empathise further with all the relevant parties in the given situation, so they will be able to decide how to act most effectively.  Empathy is not the only condition necessary for social change (having the physical, economic and ideological security to empathise in the first place is also key) but it is clearly an important one.  When Krnzaric asks, who should we empathise with? I think the answer is really, whoever we want to understand, whoever we want to interact with and make a difference toward.  Empathy is important for radical social change.  It is important in informing the understanding and thus actions of those who have already decided to act, and it is important in motivating people to act in the first place, both of which are important to implementing effective social change.  That’s how I see it.  What do you think?

Note: there is also a very significant and related issue regarding empathy’s role in making moral judgements, and I’ve hinted at here and there but haven’t gone into it in depth (I didn’t want to make this too long!).  For those who are interested see Wilks, Colin. 2002. Emotion, Truth and Meaning. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht. Particularly chapters 5 and 6.  There’s a couple of copies in the Auchmuty Library.