Spend a few minutes at the start of a day looking at headlines in newspapers, posts on social media, the news being put out by television and radio stations, and you might see how we are subjected to a never-ending deluge of opinion that is aimed at changing the way that we think and how we view the world. Some of these I view as positive, the plight of those who are suffering from natural and man-made catastrophes deserves to be headlined and we do need to be aware and respond to their hardships. Some of the other storms I find rather more disturbing, the wave of hysteria being whipped up to portray immigrants as thieves and rapists, and the description of African nations as being ‘shitholes’ are among the more extreme views, but alongside these comes a concerted effort to portray those who see immigrants differently as being ‘unpatriotic’, as being traitors to a nation, and the cry that we should put our country ‘first’. Even those who scream and shout that we must put our country first are often found wanting when issues such as the rights of gay people, the unemployed, or the disabled are raised. We face a real challenge between understanding what we mean by empathy and why we need more empathy, and seeing and understanding the selfishness and greed that opposes empathy.
When Barack Obama and others talk about an empathy gap and an empathy deficit in the way we so often view the world around us they raise an important question. Can we look outwards instead of inwards to discover the type of person that we really are? Do we really know what our attitudes and ‘beliefs’ are unless we are prepared to move outside the ‘comfort zone’ that we create? The obsession of one man to build walls to keep people out of a country he believes ‘belongs’ to the USA is not so unusual if we look at how we sometimes react. The appeal of those who asked the question ‘How would you feel if you had a Muslim / Polish family / refugee / immigrant living next to you?’ was to a person’s comfort zone and the idea that you could build a ‘wall’ to separate you from these ‘outsiders’. Millions may have voted for just such a wall in a recent referendum in the United Kingdom without realising what the appeal of such a question was.
So how do you feel if your neighbour is Asian, or Polish, or Nigerian, or Mexican? How do you feel if the couple living next door are gay? How do you feel if the family along the street have a member serving a long prison sentence? Do we build ‘walls’ to keep us from these neighbours or do we reach out and put ourselves in their shoes?
Most of us find it relatively easy to show empathy after a major disaster, feeling in some way the shock, desperation, isolation, that comes after an earthquake. An image of a child who has lost family sitting in front of a ruined home does produce a response that we want to help this child, and others. Those feelings are very real, the giving is real and is done from a feeling of empathy, and we can be proud that we react this way. Do such feelings last? Think of the response to the first refugees from the conflict in Syria, where charities received donations, convoys were sent out to help those in need, calls were made to house those who were being displaced. What has happened over time? Now we see countries putting up barbed wire barriers to keep these people away, refusing to accept ships carrying refugees, anti-immigrant feelings being promoted in the media. These experiences suggest that, for many people, the feeling of empathy can be short-lived.
I had a very sheltered life as a child growing up in the countryside; I never experienced the lack of a roof over my head, or of food on the table, although we were comparatively poor if we just measured ourselves in terms of financial stability. How might my life have been different if I had been born to a family where there was no stability in terms of work, with no guarantee of work, or a roof, or of food on the table? Would I have begged for food, would I have stolen to satisfy hunger? What if I had been the son of a refugee? How would I feel if I were sleeping in the open, even when the temperatures dropped below freezing, if I were glad to see any scraps of food, grateful for any form of shelter? How would I feel if I arrived in a country where I expected to find safety and then found myself the object of hate, beaten up by gangs who had been taught to hate?
These might seem to be very obvious situations where we can consider how we see empathy, but there are many others not so obvious. I might see a T-shirt that I like whilst on vacation, and I might be pleased with a low purchase price so I go ahead and buy the T-shirt. Would my feelings be any different if I had some knowledge of how the garment had been manufactured, and where it had been made, and under what sort of conditions? Occasionally well known ‘brands’ are ‘shamed’ in the media where child labour has been employed, but the outcry is often short-lived. Perhaps journalists should adopt a different approach, highlighting the story of the child making the garment or the dangers faced with poor machinery. We need to hear the story from the viewpoint of those who suffer the hardship and are exploited, and we need to understand their needs. Many will be aware of a well-known company selling bottled water obtained from a large aquifer on a Pacific island, but will be far less aware of those on the same island who are being denied access to clean water because of such activities. If we listened to their story we might be less inclined to sing the praises of this bottled water.
We live in times where climate change is starting to impact on lives, and adversely on the lives of those in areas where sea level rise threatens their homes, or longer droughts threaten crops. As ‘climate change refugees’ start to make their way towards countries in western Europe we should take time to listen to them describe the damage we are creating in their homelands. We are still building ‘that wall’ to live in a comfort zone and ignore the effects of our own lifestyles on others. When mitigating the effects of climate change is proposed we saw one nation openly remove itself from any commitment to help those affected, the preference was ‘the wall’ that shielded their lifestyle and ignored others.
For most of my life I have been aware of changing attitudes towards those who actions have transgressed what is seen as normal behaviour. On one side I have witnessed extreme calls for punishment, a desire to see others suffer and a belief that to inflict suffering is somehow right. At the other extreme there is the idea of reform, of repentance and of retraining to help people back into a society. We need to spend more time considering the lives of those who often end up incarcerated for reasons that we should be able to avoid. We should be asking the question why the prison population does not reflect social and ethnic grouping in the general population. Even the most ardent reformer needs to try and understand the conditions that have led so many to end up incarcerated for long periods of time.
Whilst some may express their frustration by acts of vandalism, or theft, or violence, others may respond differently. A sense of helplessness among young people, of being isolated, or facing a life without the security of owning a home, or even having a roof over their head, a sense of desperation sometimes leading to suicide, or to becoming dependent upon drugs, all these reflect poorly on our ability to show empathy. The wall that we build to protect our comfort zone sees these people isolated in the same way that many were seen as outcasts and beggars in times past. We see these people as being ‘at fault’ when we really should be spending more time listening to their stories and their concerns, listening to their hopes and determining how we can better play a role in their futures. If we continue to build walls then we can never hope to have empathy that helps us put ourselves in another’s shoes. The generation gap can too easily become an empathy gap.