Podcast: Empathy, mutual aid and the anarchist prince


Download (right-click to save file) | Open Player in New Window

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.

Is kindness good for you?

Just in case you missed it, yesterday – November 13 – was World Kindness Day. As part of the global festivities, I was interviewed by Rosie Ifould in the latest issue of Psychologies Magazine about the relationship between kindness and empathy. As I point out, kindness is not without its problems:

‘It can sometimes be a little too easy to describe actions as “kind”. If a wealthy individual gives away some money to a charity, how valuable is their gift if it hasn’t involved much of a personal sacrifice?’

‘I once interviewed rich Guatemalan oligarchs who were sometimes “kind” to their indigenous coffee plantation workers – for instance giving them days off for special Mayan festivals. But these same oligarchs also exploited their workers terribly, paying them less than the minimum wage and subjecting them to racist abuse. Kindness does not necessarily require having a sense of social justice, which is one of its weaknesses.’

You can read the full interview here.

On a related matter, some people try to be kind to themselves by shopping. But as I discuss in a recent article on the art of shopping in The Observer Magazine, we are in danger of making a Faustian bargain.

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 a philosopher, certified insane, thinks about his doctors

I live around the corner from one of the world’s most remarkable streets, Cowley Road in Oxford. It’s a hive of different cultures – Bangladeshi, Moroccan, Chinese, Ukranian – and has a vibrancy that cannot be found in the cobbled medieval lanes of the city centre. It has even been the subject of a fabulous book, Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey, by James Attlee, in which the author wanders up Cowley Road philosophising about the sex shops and curry houses. But if there is one thing that makes Colwey Road truly remarkable, it is Alan Human. Continue reading

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

How to empathise with a hedgehog

Although you may not have spent much time contemplating the character of hedgehogs and our relationship with them, I know a man who has. Ecologist Hugh Warwick is the author of a brilliantly funny and engaging book called A Prickly Affair: The Charm of the Hedgehog, which has just come out in paperback, receiving rave reviews in The Guardian and elsewhere. I spoke with him about his mania for hedgehogs and what his researches around the world – he tracked down a hedgehog in China named Hugh and attended the International Hedgehog Olympic Games in the Rocky Mountains – reveal about our understanding of human empathy with animals. Continue reading

Should you empathise with your father's killer?

Jo Berry (right) standing next to Pat Magee, the man who killed her father.

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. Continue reading

Inside Obama’s Brain: In Conversation with Sasha Abramsky

sasha abramsky editSasha Abramsky is one of the most original and politically insightful investigative journalists writing in the US today. He is best known for books such as Hard Times Blues, a penetrating critique of the US prison system, and Breadline USA, which reveals the hidden scandal of everyday hunger and poverty faced by American families. He is also a Senior Fellow at the New York City-based Demos think tank. His new book, Inside Obama’s Brain, attempts to delve inside the mind of the 44th President. I spoke to him about the book, and the central role that empathy plays in Obama’s political vision.
Continue reading