Empathy: An Anchor in the Storm

empathyWords fail me — fail all of us, really — in the flurry of awful emotions after the violence in Paris last week. Speaking just for myself, I can’t possibly get my mind and heart around the horror of the reality that innocent people were systematically murdered for publishing cartoons. I suspect that many of you reading this post feel the same way. What I’m finding, though, is that beyond this reaction there is much territory for us to explore.

Many media commentators have weighed in on the matter. Every author I’ve read agrees that what happened is horrific. Beyond that there is little agreement. Arguments swirl around many questions, including the poverty and exclusion of Muslim communities in France (and more broadly in Europe); the legacy of colonialism; the sanctity of free speech as a universal value; the quality and intent of the work published in Charlie Hebdo (and whether or not it matters). And many, many more questions.

My head is spinning, and I have been trying to find somewhere to anchor myself in sorting through all the words I have been hearing and reading. I would like to offer you something that I hope will help you if you are struggling with this, too.

On Friday evening I heard some words from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the radio. He said a lot of positive things, and even delivered a portion of his speech in French — a rare and meaningful effort from a high-ranking American official.

At one point he said the following:

Today’s murders are part of a larger confrontation, not between civilizations — no — but between civilization itself and those who are opposed to a civilized world.

As I listened I had two reactions in rapid succession. First, I could feel pride welling up inside of me — the pride of defiance, like a mental fist-pump: “Yeah! You tell ’em, John!”

Right after that, though, I had a different thought: Really? Is that a useful thing to say? Does it help us move forward in a meaningful way — or, more to the point, in a way that promotes peace, understanding, and compassion?

In other words, if we collectively act in the spirit of these words, what kind of a future can we expect for the world? My answer is: not one that seeks to bridge such sharp divides among people.

I believe this portion of Secretary Kerry’s remarks is misguided, because it succumbs to the same temptation that has steered humanity wrong throughout our entire history, and which has been and will continue to be the main source of bloodshed in our species: the temptation to dehumanize, demean and separate rather than find commonality and kinship of purpose.

At first glance “dehumanize” may seem a bit strong, and maybe even inaccurate. If not fully dehumanizing, the words at least point in that direction: If “they” are “opposed to a civilized world,” then who — or what — are they? Are they even human? The words at least leave open the possibility that they aren’t fully human, and thus “we” are clearly superior to them.

Dehumanizing is a natural thing to do, especially when we feel under threat. So I’m not surprised that John Kerry, as a human being, would dehumanize, just as we all do in our weaker moments. Secretary Kerry is also a political figure, and is expected, at times such as these, to “circle the wagons” — to solidify who “we” are, and what “we” stand for, as a way of making meaning out of tragedy.

The problem is that dehumanizing always leads us astray. If we wish to close the gaps that separate us, and to cut the ropes that bind us to hatred and distrust, then we need to try harder. We need to do the real, deep, and challenging work of examining our own biases — and, as part of that process, to try, impossible as it may seem, to see things as others might see them. When these “others” are murderers, then this becomes some of the most challenging work there is. But it doesn’t let us off the hook. If we want a peaceful world, we simply have to try and understand the motives of those whose actions we find so incomprehensible.

If you have 18 minutes to spare, I strongly recommend this brilliant TED talk by Penn State Professor of Sociology Sam Richards, entitled “A Radical Experiment in Empathy.” He expertly guides us through what such an exercise could look like.

My encouragement to all of us is to challenge ourselves, through this difficult time, to keep a mental ear out for our tendency to dehumanize, and to fight it with the most powerful antidote we have: empathy. Let’s seek out knowledge about those we understand least well, even those we fear the most, and try as hard as we can to understand how and why they see the world so differently than we do.

I think many of us fear doing this because we are afraid that if we can understand evil, we will become evil. Or, that in order to see things from a deeply different perspective, we must give up something about who we fundamentally are. I also believe that this fear is unfounded: if we are brave enough and persistent enough, we have the capacity to understand, and to do so while remaining true to who we are and what we believe.

If each of us — day by day, year by year, generation by generation — does this “impossible” work with ourselves, I believe we will see a world with far less bloodshed and suffering.

Here at International House we are engaging in a number of conversations about how we can best support our residents, along with other members of the UC Berkeley community, during such difficult times in the most impactful ways we can. We welcome your ideas and suggestions.

About Jason D. Patent

Jason is the inaugural director of the Center for Intercultural Leadership at International House Berkeley. His career spans the education, business, and non-profit sectors. He has spent over ten years living and working in China and is passionate about helping China and the U.S. to understand each other better. Jason holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley.
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One Response to Empathy: An Anchor in the Storm

  1. Pingback: Time to talk our way through the Charlie Hebdo attack | I-House: Where UC Berkeley Meets the World

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