My new talk from TEDx Athens has just gone online – How to Start an Empathy Revolution. From human libraries to babies teaching empathy, here are the ingredients for transforming empathy into a force for social change. I hope you enjoy it! Please share with friends, family, colleagues and strangers.
Today I’m pleased and proud to announce the launch of my new project, the world’s first online Empathy Library. It’s a digital treasure house where you will find inspiring and powerful books and films that catapult your imagination into other people’s lives. There are Top Ten Charts, you can browse by themes like love or poverty, and join the library to add your own favourite items. Think of it as Goodreads for the Empathy Revolution! Supporting organisations include The School of Life, Friends of the Earth, Ashoka and Roots of Empathy.
Here’s a new podcast from the rather wonderful Aeon Magazine, in which philosopher Jules Evans explores the theme of empathy. I kick off by talking about the history of empathy, tracing the concept from Adam Smith’s ideas in the 18th century and through developments in child psychology over the past hundred years. Then comes Maria Konnikova, who makes the case that Sherlock Holmes was a master of the art of empathy, based on her new book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Finally there is novelist Tobias Jones, who discusses his attempts to create an empathic community at his home in Somerset.
‘It was through books that I first realised there were other worlds beyond my own; first imagined what it might be like to be another person,’ wrote novelist Julian Barnes in a recent Guardian essay. It’s an enticing thought that reading fiction might help us escape the straitjacket of our egos and expand our moral universes. Modern literary theorists are, however, decidedly sniffy about the notion. ‘They see the idea as too middlebrow, too therapeutic, too kitsch, too sentimental, too Oprah,’ according to Steven Pinker in his latest tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Yet Pinker, together with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, psychologist Keith Oatley and historian Lynn Hunt, is amongst a new band of champions for the idea that reading can indeed change not just ourselves, but the world. If we want to put this idea to the test, a good starting point is one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What interests me, though, is not simply the extraordinary social impact of this admittedly sentimental story, but what its writing reveals about the origins of morality itself. Continue reading →
This is the video of a talk I gave at the Royal Society of the Arts, which describes six ways to expand our empathic potential, drawing on everything from the empathy experiments of George Orwell to developments in industrial design, from the struggle against slavery in the eighteenth century to the Middle East crisis today. Discover why the 21st century needs to become the Age of Outrospection.
The full version of this talk is available as a podcast.
It’s about what the last three thousand years of human history can tell us about better living, and explores twelve universal topics, from work and love to money, creativity and empathy. What might we learn from the Ancient Greeks about the different varieties of love, from the industrial revolution about changing career, or from ancient Japanese pilgrims on the art of travel?
‘The Wonderbox is a cornucopia of delights. Completely fascinating, beautifully written and brimming with insights that challenge our entrenched and predictable ways of seeing and doing, it draws on an amazing range of stories from the history of human culture to explain how we can find true meaning in life. Every thinking home should have one!’ – Michael Wood, historian, broadcaster and author of The Story of England
Find out more about the book here. You can buy it from Amazon here.
The book is being launched with a series of five talks at The School of Life, Life Lessons from The Wonderbox, starting January 11 with ‘The Six Varieties of Love’.
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 the audience was that it was told through the eyes of their sworn enemy, the Persians, who only eight years earlier had fought the Athenians at the Battle of Salamis. Continue reading →
To celebrate the Winter Solstice – or Christmas if that is your festival of choice – I invite you to read one of the most moving pieces of empathic fiction ever written. It is a short story by Ursula Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’, first published in 1973. Le Guin says she based her psychomyth parable on an idea from the philosopher William James where he imagined a world in which millions of people could be kept permanently happy on the single condition ‘that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment’. Here is the story in full.Continue reading →
Just as the world’s major cities now have Holocaust Museums, it is time they all established Empathy Museums too. Their purpose would be nothing less than generating a new global culture of empathy by creating adventure spaces where you can explore how to view life from the perspective of other people.
A typical Empathy Museum would not house dusty exhibits inside glass cases. Instead, it would be an exciting and intriguing playground rivalling the finest galleries and tourist attractions that the city has to offer. On rainy Sunday afternoons you might wander through the Empathy Museum with a few friends or your mother-in-law. During the week it is likely to be filled with children on school excursions and inquisitive visitors from countries where the ideal of empathy remains embryonic. The Empathy Museum will ignite the imagination just like the first public museums in the seventeenth century, whose collections of curiosities revealed the wonders of nature and human civilization for the first time. Continue reading →
If you’ve ever sat up late wondering if empathy can save the world, I have good news for you. It can. Well, that is according to Robert McNamara, US Secretary of State from 1961 to 1968. In the Academy Award winning documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, the former bigwig in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – who died last year aged 93 – reveals what he learned about war and foreign policy during his political career. The surprising first lesson is this: ’empathize with your enemy’.
McNamara makes his point through an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He begins by describing the dilemmas faced by the Kennedy administration. Should they use military force to take out the Soviet nuclear weapons that would be pointing at 90 million Americans from Cuban soil? And if they attempted to do so, would the Russians press the nuclear button? One of Kennedy’s advisors was Tommy Thompson, a former US Ambassador to Moscow who knew Krushchev personally. He argued that Krushchev was unlikely to attack, and that they should hold back from military action. Thompson was recorded as saying at the time: ‘The important thing for Krushchev, it seems to me, is to be able to say, “I saved Cuba, I stopped invasion.”’ Luckily Kennedy followed Thompson’s advice and catastrophe was averted. This is McNamara’s comment on the episode:
In Thompson’s mind was this thought: Khrushchev’s gotten himself in a hell of a fix. He would then think to himself, ‘My God, if I can get out of this with a deal that I can say to the Russian people: “Kennedy was going to destroy Castro and I prevented it.”’ Thompson, knowing Khrushchev as he did, thought Khrushchev will accept that. And Thompson was right. That’s what I call empathy. We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.
Empathy, for McNamara, was a strategic weapon of the Cold War. It was one of their ways of beating the Russians. If you understand your enemy better than they understand you, then you are more likely to be victorious. Later in the film he laments that, ‘In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathize…we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war.’ That’s why the US failed.
The Cuban Missile Crisis can be seen as a moment when empathy saved the world. Without Tommy Thompson’s empathic imagination, Kennedy may have opted for military action and the Cold War could have turned into a very hot one. But it also raises questions about the meaning of empathy. Are we willing to tolerate an approach to empathy that permits it to become a strategic weapon of war?
McNamara is really talking about a cynical and self-serving form of empathy that I call ‘instrumental empathy’, which is used to promote personal interests. It is certainly not monopilised by politicians. Crafty casino owners use instrumental empathy to enter the mindset of gambling addicts and design slot machines that will fleece them of their cash. Psychopaths may make a similar mental leap into the minds of their victims in order to manipulate their fears.
McNamara gives empathy a bad name. Instead of using it as an instrument of personal gain, we should promote a more benign approach to empathy that expands, rather than diminishes, our humanity.
In case you a curious, here is the extraordinarily powerful clip on the Cuban Missile Crisis from The Fog of War. As well as music from Philip Glass, it contains original recordings of the discussions that took place between Kennedy, McNamara, Thompson and other top White House aides during the tense days of October 1962: