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The empathy revolution

  • 14 February 2014

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


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