Years before embarking on a career writing what might be broadly called ‘popular philosophy’ books, I had another career as a political scientist. I still enjoy flicking through the academic journals in my old field. When doing so recently I came across what ranks as one of the most startling – indeed frightening – graphs I’ve seen in years. It appears in the July 2016 issue of the respected Journal of Democracy.
The graph (see above) shows that around 75% of today’s US citizens who were born in the 1930s believe it is essential to live in a democracy, whereas for those born in the 1980s the figure plummets to around 30%. This generational decline is evident in Europe too, although it’s not quite as steep.
Pretty scary, huh? It looks like democratic values are distinctly out of fashion with millennials.
It fits a trend, of course: the growing disillusion with democracy-as-we-know-it is evident in the rise of anti-system, far-right politicians like Trump and Le Pen, as well as the declining trust in government and traditional political parties.
So what is to be done? How can democracy as a system of government be saved from this impending failure?
One solution can be found – you guessed it – in the ancient philosophy of carpe diem. Most people associate it with an individual philosophy of everyday life. But seizing the day can also happen on a collective scale to bring about social and political change.
These feel like turbulent times. From mass shootings in the US to the rise of far-right parties and terrorist attacks in Europe, we seem to be entering a new age of extremism.
If there is any solution to this, I think empathy has to be part of it.
In this new five-minute video for Aeon Magazine, I argue that tackling extremism, and creating a more moral world, requires shifting our focus from empathy as an individual emotional response to empathy on the collective level.
The empathy critics are on the rampage. Led by the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, the anti-empathy brigade claim that empathy is a weak or even distorting force in moral life and public affairs. The most recent convert is Peter Singer, perhaps the world’s most influential moral philosopher and author of classic texts such as Animal Liberation. In a recent public conversation I had with him as part of the Empathy Festival at Blackwell’s Bookshop Oxford (see photo), he argued that ethics should be led by rational thinking rather than empathy (of course, I didn’t agree).
In response to Singer’s claims, I have written an article at Open Democracy, called Welcome to the Empathy Wars. It makes the case that critics like Bloom and Singer are fundamentally mistaken, particularly because they fail to recognise the crucial role that cognitive empathy plays in establishing human rights and social justice.
Do have a look at the article, which is based on my book Empathy, and make up your own mind. Whose side are you in the Empathy Wars?
The report, which builds on my book Empathy (but goes far beyond it) is part of Friends of the Earth’s exciting Big Ideas project that is drawing together the key ideas and insights we need to create a sustainable future for humankind. It challenges the belief that empathy is a fuzzy feel-good emotion and argues that with a bit of smart thinking it can be transformed into an innovative and powerful campaigning tool.
Here are four fascinating facts from the report, just to give you a taster:
The wealthier you are the less empathic you are likely to be, and people with psychopathic tendencies who lack empathy are four times more commonly found amongst senior executives than in the ordinary workforce.
Teaching empathy skills to school kids (yes, it can be done) not only makes them value relationships more, but increases their motivation to take action on environmental issues and immunises them against the lure of consumer culture.
A review of more than 500 studies showed that in 96% of cases, face-to-face contact between people of different ethnic and religious groups reduced prejudices and social divisions, and built community solidarity.
Over 7 million people have visited the empathy-based exhibit Dialogue in the Dark, which challenges assumptions and stereotypes around disability.
Overall, the report argues that building a world where we care more about the issues that matter to all of us – from grinding poverty to environmental collapse – requires using empathy to create a cultural shift from buying to belonging, where we jettison the hyperindividualism of the twentieth century and start to take collective values seriously. But there are no quick-fix solutions. We need to embark on a generational project of ‘deep lobbying’ that overhauls our education systems and sets us on course for a more empathic civilisation.
BBC Radio 4 is celebrating the New Year with a marathon ten-hour dramatisation of Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. As part of the festivities, I’ve written an article for the BBC on seven lessons we can learn from the life of the bearded sage for the art of living in 2015. Read the article here, which is based on my book The Wonderbox (published in the US as How Should We Live?). But if you want a quick taster of his top tips for a happy life:
You can always tell when a new idea is becoming popular – people start critiquing it. That’s certainly the case when it comes to empathy, a concept that is getting more public attention today than at any point in its history (the frequency of Google searches for the word ’empathy’ has more than doubled in the past decade). Continue reading →
It was exactly 30 years ago that George Orwell set the opening of his novel 1984: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Most people know Orwell for this novel, and his satirical tale Animal Farm. Less well known is that he was one of the great empathic adventurers of the twentieth century. In the following short clip from my RSA Animate The Power of Outrospection, I describe how Orwell learned to step into other people’s shoes when he became a tramp on the streets of East London in the late 1920s. Orwell was one of the major inspirations for my new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.
I’ve been giving a lot of talks in the last few weeks about my new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. And almost every time someone asks me about the personal experiences that led to my own interest in empathy. So here I’d like to share one of these experiences – a kind of epiphany – from my time growing up as a teenager in Hong Kong.Continue reading →
Is global empathy in decline? Are our societies becoming less caring and more narcissistic? Have we become numb to media images of human suffering, such as photos of children traumatised by air strikes in Syria? In this article in the Guardian, I explore the recent decline of empathy in Australia, as well as other countries such as the UK and USA – and try to offer some innovative solutions for reversing the trend.
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.