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The empathy revolution

Barry Gittins and Jen Vuk |  13 February 2014

Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, by Roman Krznaric. Random House, February 2014. Website

Cover of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution features the title Empathy in colourful block letters against a field of whiteJen

It's our first column for 2014 and it's fair to say that Barry and I are aiming straight and unabashedly for the heart with Roman Krznaric's Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.

There's sound reason why one of Britain's leading 'cultural thinkers' would tackle such a weighty topic. As Krznaric writes, empathy (the 'Golden Rule') has its foundation in major spiritual traditions including Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism and Christianity. Empathy, he adds, lies 'at the very core of human existence'.

Most of us like to see ourselves as empathetic, but what does it mean to really 'imagine oneself in another's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas, and actions'? And how do we get there? 'A first step is to humanise our imaginations by developing an awareness,' writes Krznaric, as 'we all possess deep wells of pain and sorrow that we can draw on to help bridge social divides and create empathic bonds'.

Artwork and literature provide the perfect conduits; especially those endeavours that call for true engagement by doing away with the 'invisible line' separating viewer and subject. As Krznaric reminds us, it's no coincidence that one of the world's great empathisers was a writer, George Orwell. While Orwell would go on to finesse his craft as a novelist, there was nothing remotely fictitious about his sombre recollections as an itinerant, Down and Out in Paris and London. Here, what we also had, in black and white, was empathy 101.

'While challenging his prejudices and assumptions,' Krznaric writes. 'Orwell's journeys also helped him make new friendships, develop his curiosity...' What Orwell would have undoubtedly experienced was the 'adventure' of 'good conversation. If you bring two people together with different viewpoints and experiences, the encounter between them can create something unexpected and new.'

I'm not sure that Krznaric is telling us anything we don't already know (after all, the call for greater empathetic thinking was suitably laid out in Jeremy Rifkin's 2010 tome The Empathetic Civilization). And while the subject matter may lend itself to revolutionary thinking, it doesn't naturally lend itself to a gripping read.

That said it's difficult not to be swept up by Krznaric's wave of optimism — don't you agree, Barry? The ideas and thought processes that buoy them are highly accessible and discerning. As Krznaric reminds us, true empathy requires 'sheer courage'; an attribute seemingly in short supply, but no less within our grasp.


While realpolitik can drive us beyond a healthy scepticism to cynicism and indifference, Krzaric contends that when we look beyond the real — through imagination, creativity, vulnerability and networking (via various conduits) — we can bring about the ideal of 'empathy on a mass scale to create social change' and even go about 'extending our empathy skills to embrace the natural world'.

The man's a dreamer, albeit well-researched, articulate and at times poetic. But when you consider the plights raised, including 'political and ethnic violence, religious intolerance, poverty and hunger, human rights abuses, global warming', it's demonstrable that we need him and his comrades. Without the dream, we're stuffed.

Jen is right to wonder just how we are to move from the dream sequence to actual engagement; how does Krznaric suggest we pull the levers to move the empathic engine of social change along?

In the inculcation spectrum of nature/nurture/culture the author highlights parenting and experiential learning /education as pivotal to developing empathy. This is not new ground, philosophically, intellectually or spiritually. Still, A Handbook for Revolution does showcase considerable research heft and powerful case studies of lives enriched or partially healed through compassionate exploration of 'the other'.

The handbook also lives up to its generic description by listing the grunt work and resources needed to turn children and adults into empathic beings: novels, non-fiction books, films/plays, websites etc. His proposed empathy museum is inspired, with a storytelling hub, 'human library' (discussion with 'open-minded volunteers'), interactive theatre performance workshops, fair trade experience, science experiments and dressing up box.

In all honesty, the book has a meditative effect on me (I nodded off a few times). Some terms deployed are especially tiresome (such as balancing introspection with 'outrospection', turning on 'our empathic brain', getting 'in touch with your inner ape', pursuing the status of 'homo empathicus' etc.).

Overall? I sincerely applaud the author's fundamental principle — we need to give a toss. Like Jen, I found Krznaric's optimism infectious.

Pursuing his inner transcendentalist, Krznaric opens his tome with Henry David Thoreau's question, 'Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?' I'd see the bigger miracle occurring if knowledge of other people's suffering actually led to change in our own lives and actions. Thankfully, that is a miracle I see happening every day.

Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.



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Submitted comments

Empathy - a big subject. I think an important thing to remember about caring, about having a sense of what someone else is feeling is that it doesn't mean we also have to have those same feelings. It's saying "I can feel for you." (Emphasis on "for"). But it's a big ask when we're caught up in our little world, isn't it!

Pam 13 February 2014

The Bible tells us that everyone is our neighbour; the Koran emphasises Compassion - feeling with others; Buddhist teachings stress that every thing in the universe is related and inter-related, and therefore interdependent; the Jains respect all living things; the New-Agers sing of the love which creates and holds all things together; Humanism teaches social justice and human rights for all people regardless of faith, nationality, gender, sexuality, shape, size or colour; and all such Inclusion reflects the Golden Rule - that we should only ever do to other people what we would like them to do to us. It's simple really. Pity that the greedy and the resource-stealing land-grabbers use all these ideas to divide us into 'us and them' to cater to their own self-interests by amassing great wealth and causing suffering. Without all the propaganda and fear-mongering, and the shameful destruction of unnecessary wars we could all get along.

Annabel 14 February 2014

"In the inculcation spectrum of nature/nurture/culture the author highlights parenting and experiential learning /education as pivotal to developing empathy." Anyone who can write/type/pen a sentence such as this is not showing/feeling/nurturing much empathy with the poor reader, in whom it might prove pivotal in his/her decision to read/not read on. An empathetic author would probably realise that pop-psychological terms such as 'the other' tend to inculcate the glazing over of eyes and a spectrum of 'I've got better things to do/think/read' thoughts.

John Vernau 15 February 2014

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