The day empathy saved the world

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:

What it feels like to drop an atomic bomb

Paul Tibbets, the man who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

In May 2010 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. Continue reading

The Empathy Top Five: Who are the greatest empathists of all time?

The moment has finally come for the Outrospection blog to put its cards on the table and boldly declare who are the greatest empathists of all time. Our selection committee has been painstakingly deliberating over the choices for several months, and you might well be surprised by the results. No, Barack Obama does not appear in our top five, even though he believes ‘the empathy deficit’ to be the greatest scourge of modern society. And not even famed empathetic individuals such as the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa or Jesus Christ have shown what it takes to make the grade. Continue reading

The view from the diving-bell

‘When I came to that late-January morning the hospital opthalmologist was leaning over me and sewing my right eyelid shut with a needle and thread, just as if he were darning a sock. Irrational terror swept over me.’ These words appear in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s remarkable autobiography, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (1997). In 1995 Bauby was at the height of his career as editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine, when he was suddenly struck by a massive stroke. Although his mental faculties were unimpaired, he was left completely paralysed and speechless, a rare condition known as Locked-In Syndrome. The only part of his body he could move was his left eyelid, which he used to ‘dictate’ the book, having developed a system of repeated blinks to represent each letter of the alphabet.

Continue reading

Watch an empathy film this Christmas

Perhaps you are looking forward to falling asleep in front of a mediocre DVD on Christmas Day as you digest an oversized lunch. But if you care for a more stimulating afternoon, I can recommend treating yourself to an empathy film instead. So, what are the options?

A fascinating genre that can expand our empathetic imaginations is war movies depicting the perspective of enemies. Recent examples include a pair of films directed by Clint Eastwood in 2006 about the Battle for Iwo Jima in the Second World War, one from the viewpoint of US soldiers (Flags of Our Fathers), and the other seen through the eyes of Japanese soldiers (Letters from Iwo Jima), which is entirely in Japanese. The inverted lens challenges simplistic notions of nationalism, patriotism and triumphalism, and makes war seem far from glorious while at the same time breaking down the barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Continue reading