Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Empathy and Social Action

Empathy and Social Action

Most Changemaker Campuses, including the University of San Diego, state that promoting empathy is one of its goals.  But what is empathy and why is it important?  Why is it something that is stressed at other Changemaker Campuses and at USD?  I started thinking about this more after reading Nicolas Kristof’s op-ed about empathy and then rereading David Brooks’op-ed on the same topic. 

There are many different definitions of empathy and it is a concept that has drawn the attention of numerous academics.  Indeed, there is a great deal of research, from a variety of disciplines, on the concept of empathy.   In addition, it is an idea that has found its way into our political discourse and policymakers often invoke it as a positive quality (remember when President Obama stated that he wanted to appoint a Supreme Court Justice that would empathize as well as be a sound legal thinker?). 

The most common definition, and the one that both Kristof and Brooks use in their op-ed articles, states that empathy is the ability to feel and share another person’s emotions.  Or to put it slightly differently, it is the ability to “put oneself in another person’s shoes.”  Most of the definitions I found stressed that empathy is about feeling what someone else may be going through.  It is often contrasted with sympathy, which is sometimes defined as feeling sorry for someone else’s condition – but not necessarily understanding what they are going through.  Over the past few months, I have been involved in numerous conversations with colleagues who always stress that USD programs, such as community engagement or changemaking, should promote empathy rather than sympathy.

For the most part, I agree with this.  I would much rather provide experiences for students, faculty, and staff so they could learn to empathize with others rather than simply sympathize.  To do this, however, it requires that we provide for experiences for members of the USD community to interact with each other and with other communities, that we understand the history of those communities or individuals we are interacting with, and that we appreciate the cultural, political, social, and economic contexts in which people make decisions.  Empathy, then, requires that we take seriously many of those courses that we currently find in our Core Curriculum and in our majors or minors, such as, those offered from history, literature, sociology, political science, art and art history, and ethnic studies (just to name a few).  As both Kristof and Brooks agree, empathy is a good quality for someone to practice.  But why?  To what end?

More specifically, why should USD as a Changemaker Campus promote empathy?  As I have discussed in a previous blog, the key aspect of changemaking is taking actions that promote social justice, common good and positive social change.  So, does having empathy actually result in these types of actions?  Kristoff would argue that positive social actions and empathy are intertwined.  In particular, he argues that service immersion trips are one way for students to learn about empathy.  He suggests that these trips create individuals who are much more likely to lead lives where they are engaged in promoting social justice.  Brooks, however, argues that “[e]mpathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.”  He goes on to say that “[e]mpathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.” 

While we can debate whether giving a homeless person a dollar is the type of “social action” that we want to promote, Brooks’ larger point is one that we should take seriously.  Does empathy in fact promote social action?  I am not sure and I only have anecdotal evidence to offer in response to these questions.  I do think it is possible for people who do not have empathy to still take positive social action.  I also believe that it is possible for someone with empathy to take actions that may not produce the positive consequences he or she intended.  Still, through my experiences in South Africa, Uganda, Linda Vista, and City Heights, I am convinced that students, faculty, and staff are much more likely to take action with respect to a social dilemma if they have had an experience which enables them to empathize with the community with whom they are engaged.  I will discuss these specific instances in more detail in a subsequent blog, but for now, I simply wanted to raise the issue of empathy and present some arguments as to whether it is critical to our changemaking mission.

What do you think?  What experiences have you had where you empathized with others?  Did this motivate you to act?  The journey of becoming a responsible, active citizen, who engages with his or her community to promote social justice, requires continual reflection and adjustment.  As a colleague recently reminded me, social change is never linear and it is never inevitable.  If you are on this journey, I encourage you to share your ideas, to take action for those issues that you believe in, and to do your best to understand the historical, cultural, and contextual characteristics of the communities you are immersed.   

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