Apr 172013

Barack Obama has already been here.  As long ago as 2006 too.  This link comes from a Guardian article on the fascinating subject of empathy which you can find here, with RSA video to boot.  The Obama excerpt first, from the former:

Cultivate empathy

…There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.

As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You’ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going on in your own little circle.

Not only that — we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they’re all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can’t learn and won’t learn and so we should just give up on them entirely.  That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away are somebody else’s problem to take care of.

I hope you don’t listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential — and become full-grown.

Meanwhile, Kath – over at Speaker’s Chair – kind of (though not exactly) puts in a good word for Margaret Thatcher: her thesis (I think) being that the fight Thatcher’s way of seeing engendered in the rest of us has, very after the event, left a better Liverpool – indeed a better Britain – behind it:

[…] But, grudgingly and gradually, I have allowed myself to consider another point of view.

At first, this thought was a deep secret, a sacrilege never to be uttered. But I believe it to be true: Margaret Thatcher helped make Britain a better place.

When Thatcher came to power, the country had already descended into a pit of economic and industrial chaos. Trade unions leaders were guilty of militant savagery. Successive governments, Conservative and Labour, were guilty of appeasement.

It didn’t take much to set things alight , and Thatcher created one almighty blaze.

Forest fires are pitiless things. They sweep away the bad and the good. But they foster new life, new beginnings.

I find it hard to forgive Margaret Thatcher’s indifference during the 1980s; the callous way she abandoned Liverpool and its people.

But the city is a different place now. It is a better, more optimistic place than the one I grew up in; better than had Labour clung to power in 1979.

Maybe Margaret Thatcher was our mighty fire.

Mind you, as a commenter to Kath’s article also points out, we can agree the country needed change without agreeing the change it needed was Thatcher.

If, in times of crisis, I was to ask for a transformative leader, a leader capable of catalysing huge movements, the kind of leader who might crystallise a moment in history and make it clear for the rest of us so we could understand it, and then productively work alongside it, then I would far rather the Obama approach of attempting to make good an empathy deficit one has with one’s fellow men, women and children than the declamatory gymnastics of Margaret Thatcher’s politics from that terribly cruel 1980s.  To argue that the 1970s had become a time of appeasement, and that as a result we needed a fire to rise from phoenix-like, is to gloss over just a little the terrible consequences of some people getting burned.  Especially when such a conflagration might not have been necessary in the first place, if only we’d had a bit of that empathy Senator Obama refers to.

Talking of which, we then have the comparisons drawn between the Iron Lady and our much-beloved Winston Churchill to deal with in this legacy.  I’m sure there are many.  I prefer, however, to focus on a  substantive difference.  Churchill fought a war to win a peace in desperate circumstances.  And in the event, once this goal was achieved, the country wished to move on and elect quite a different Prime Minister.

In Margaret Thatcher’s case, the relationship she had with the war fought under her premiership was far more complex.  And, even where not intentioned, it helped redeem her figure in the light of a country who would vote for her again as a result.

Thatcher inspired the people perhaps in much the same way as Churchill.  But the circumstances and consequences were very different. I’m not sure that Churchill could have possibly lacked empathy to the degree that Thatcher clearly did.  Those wartime speeches of his resonate of a vast understanding of the suffering of quite ordinary people.  I cannot remember a single thing that Thatcher said of the civil war she imposed on her own people which indicates even slightly her comprehension of the suffering whole communities were exposed to – or, even, what that suffering actually meant in human terms.

Thus it is that whilst both the above-mentioned were products of their time, even as Obama is a complicated product of his, the empathy deficit the latter has rightly highlighted was very much more part and parcel of Thatcher’s reign than anyone else’s.

She resolutely didn’t need to be liked.  She revelled in not being cared for.

That’s the difference between people who are able to put themselves in the shoes of others and those who find it impossible – in fact, quite unnecessary.

I prefer for those who are to lead my country to be the former and not the latter.

The latter, let it be said, may serve to win wars – but the peace they leave behind them is destruction squared.

Entropy is what we need now: that is to say, a calculable transformation.  The possibility of winning a peace without the weapons of war.

The possibility of finally moving on from everything that has come before.

Apr 202012

Four recent examples of how some people turn other people into sometimes painlessly mortal enemies – simply by jettisoning their own empathy gene.

Firstly, from today’s news, these curious statements:

“This summer the roads will be thick with bicycles,” Griffin wrote. “These cyclists are throwing themselves on to some of the most congested spaces in the world. They leap on to a vehicle which offers them no protection except a padded plastic hat.

“Should a motorist fail to observe a granny wobbling to avoid a pothole or a rain drain, then he is guilty of failing to anticipate that this was somebody on her maiden voyage into the abyss. The fact is he just didn’t see her and however cautious, caring or alert he is, the influx of beginner cyclists is going to lead to an overall increase in accidents involving cyclists.

That is to say, the cyclists are to blame when accidents take place – and perhaps mortalities too.

Empathy not possible then?  None at all?

And any particular reason?  Well.  Mr Griffin does actually choose to supply one:

“The rest of us occupying this road space have had to undergo extensive training. We are sitting inside a protected space with impact bars and air bags and paying extortionate amounts of taxes on our vehicle purchase, parking, servicing, insurance and road tax.”

He concluded: “It is time for us to say to cyclists, ‘You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up’.”

According to Mr Griffin, the norm is now an expensively cocooned environment, a technology-ridden existence and a wall of computers between action and act; the abnormal – searched out by these dangerously strange cycling bods who quite ludicrously like to remain in touch with the planet – being fresh air, the wind in one’s hair and energetically exercised bodies.

Words just fail me (well, they haven’t – but you know what I mean …).  Mr Griffin has used the reality of driving a car to explain why cyclists are wrong.  In the event, though, all the explanation really serves to do is reveal why he is unable to empathise with the reality he finds it so hard to be supportive of.


Secondly, this disgraceful prejudice, expressed with equally disgraceful clarity, in a blogpost titled “Should people on benefits be allowed to vote?”:

Is it ‘fair’ therefore that those whom do not positively contribute to government revenue (i.e the ‘net receivers’) should get to participate in the voting that helps to determine the political party and direction in where the country’s monies are spent?

And the mechanism used to allow the writer to reach this conclusion?  Yet another case where the empathy gene is summarily discarded for a “rational” explanation – in this case dragged out of a Darwinian capitalism:

It would be terribly ‘unfair’ of you to give equal representation rights to the chap who contributes 50 times more than the next person.  In the same way as if you own 60% of shares of a company, you’ll get 60% of the voting rights at the Annual General Meeting.  People with no financial stake in a company cannot turn up to the meeting and determine who the board representatives (the purse holders) are.  Even some of the couscous eating tent-frequenting anti-capitalists would find such a concept somewhat laughable.  Why do we accept one person, one vote then?

Although the author no longer belongs to the Tory Party, there would be plenty of people who might argue that neither should Cameron & Co.  As far as I can see, the thesis underlying the above words is that the country and its democracy should be given up to corporate capitalism.

As we were, dear friends.  As we were …


Thirdly, in a debate on the subject of removing the right to Legal Aid for asbestos victims, we have a totally desensitised government minister acting in the following way:

Labour MP Helen Jones told the House of Commons: “During the last debate, many of us were dismayed by the conduct of the minister on the front bench, who giggled and grinned through descriptions of people dying of mesothelioma and what they suffered.”

“Mr Speaker,” she continued. “I have to say that in almost 15 years in this house, I have never seen conduct which so demeans a minister of the crown and which is so damaging to the reputation of this house.”

Remember, this is a government minister who has been responsible for piloting a law through Parliament which may very well serve to benefit his own business interests.

Business before pleasure maybe?

On the strength of this week’s antics, it would seem that pleasure and business are equal partners.


Finally, this awful testimony, also from today:

Breivik himself maintains he is sane but a practitioner of political extremism.

Earlier on Friday, he insisted he was “under normal circumstances a very nice person, very caring about those around me”.

He said he “absolutely” understood why his testimony was horrifying to others.

But said he had embarked on a deliberate programme of “dehumanisation” in 2006 to prepare to carry out killings.

He added that empathy was not possible, as he would “break down mentally” if he tried to comprehend what he had done.

Asked if he could feel sadness, he said “yes”, saying the funeral of a friend’s brother had been his “saddest day”.

No further comment possible.  No further comment needed.

Except, I suppose, that – of all the above four cases – the only inkling of an awareness of the importance of empathy in human relationships has, quite paradoxically, been expressed by the man in the last example.

A man who, by doing so, admitted to awful crimes committed in its deliberate absence.

The other three meanwhile?  Not a sausage it would seem.

Nothing deliberate, anyhow.