There is an intriguing thesis at the heart of Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The Harvard psychologist argues – contrary to popular opinion – that humankind has become progressively less violent over the past few thousand years. We might feel surrounded by terrorism, civil wars and gun crime today, but [...]
In the spring of 472 BC the people of Athens queued up to see the latest play written by Aeschylus, the founder of Greek tragedy. The Persians was an unusual production, and not only because it was based on an historical event rather than the usual legends of the gods. What must have really shocked [...]
Peter Kropotkin was one of the greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century, who managed to multi-task as a Russian prince, renowned geographer and revolutionary anarchist. In this interview with Phonic FM, a wonderful community radio station based in Exeter, I discuss how Kropotkin’s ideas about ‘mutual aid’ relate to my own work on empathy, and why Kropotkin is a prophet for the art of living in the twenty-first century. The interview lasts around 50 minutes.
Earlier this week I went to an entertaining talk by the writer Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink and other bestsellers. Midway through he made a throwaway comment about the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. ‘Imagine how it felt to be the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima – how do we feel about that kind of moral responsibility?’ The implication of this rhetorical question was that the pilot must have been desperately wrestling with the ethical consequences and dilemmas of releasing the world’s first atomic weapon on the unsuspecting city.
Malcolm Gladwell is mistaken. In actual fact, the US Air Force pilot, Paul Tibbets, experienced no profound moral quandaries about his actions, either before or after dropping the bomb that killed an estimated 140,000 people. In a revealing interview with the oral historian Studs Terkel in 2002, when aged 87, Tibbets described exactly what happened on the historic mission in the Enola Gay.
One of the greatest challenges of leading an empathetic life is trying to step into the shoes of people who we consider to be ‘enemies’ or whose views and values are very different from our own. If you’re on the receiving end of a racist comment from someone at the pub or a torrent of unfair verbal abuse from your boss, the idea of trying to empathise with them would probably be the last thing on your mind. If you came face to face with the person who had recently burgled your house, could you overcome your anger to see the crime from their perspective, and understand the circumstances that may have driven them to it?
Empathising in such instances might seem like wishful thinking. But consider the case of Jo Berry. In 1984 her father, Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, was killed by an IRA bomb at the Party Conference in Brighton. In 1999, one of the IRA members responsible, Pat Magee, was released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Jo’s response was a desire to meet him.
Welcome to my new blog about empathy – the art of stepping into the shoes of other people and seeing the world from their perspective. I believe that empathy can help us escape from the narrow confines of our own existence and guide us towards more adventurous and fulfilling lives. Empathy is also a radical [...]