Empathy in the age of social media

Empathy is often viewed as a favourable measure of emotional intelligence but with the disadvantage of rendering the holder weakened.

Mention high empathy levels and you’re likely to evoke the image of someone bursting uncontrollably into tears watching an RSPCA advert (coincidentally something I do almost every time.)

Away from stereotypes, at its core empathy measures how effectively we relate to one another and an individual’s ability to understand something outside of their own experience. Viewed like this empathy is a highly undervalued tool in almost every walk of life.

Companies are beginning to recognise this with Apple offering empathy exercises as part of its training manual.

However, as companies become more attune to the needs of employees and customers there is a sense in which society as a whole is becoming less empathetic.

The polarisation of politics in the West, leveraged to an extent off our ability to pick and choose facts, opinions and news, creates a new public discourse where there is no need to consider another point of view.

Take Momentum (the far-left dominant wing of the Labour party.) Until Corbyn’s party conference speech last week there had been no effort to reach beyond his own supporters – despite consistent polling showing a deep dissatisfaction with the party and its politics outside its own base.

Equally the Remain campaign failed to keep the UK in the EU because it was unable to appeal to voters outside of the center, despite cross-party support. It spoke down to Leave supporters, casting them as ill informed rather than voters with genuine concerns.

In a recent interview with New York Magazine President Obama outlined the link he sees between the nomination of Sarah Palin to the vice-presidential ticket in 2008 and Donald Trump, saying the Republican party needs to examine its center.

There have been at least a couple of other times that I’ve said confidently that the fever is going to have to break, but it just seems to get worse,” Obama said.

However, it was spoken without any empathy for the sentiment driving the wave of populism. I’m not defending Trump, or Palin for that matter – they’re both resoundingly unfit for public office in nearly every way. Yet if those towards the center of American politics, on both sides of the aisle, cannot adequately address the fears and disappointments of an increasingly vocal swathe of the electorate, even if it means admitting failures of their own, the ‘fever’ will never break.

In a graduation speech given to Harvard University in 2011 JK Rowling spoke of the power of imagination as “the capacity to envision that which is not”.  

She asked students to use imagination to place themselves in other’s shoes through empathy in order to bring a voice to the unrepresented.

Of course the ability to understand another’s side perspective doesn’t make their cause right, but it will allow us to engage in debate at a deeper level, addressing concerns of voters, without patronising words and without the thinly veiled contempt so many seem to have for those who don’t agree with them.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t side with Corbyn’s ‘kinder politics’ school of thought, it’s unrealistic. However, smart use of empathy can further a cause. Last year a study conducted by the University of Toronto found that empathy is the key to political persuasion – appealing to a political opponent’s principles, rather than espousing the strengths of your own, is more likely to lead to success.

Doubtless there are those in every shade on the political spectrum who will refuse to look outside their own steadfast opinions, but for many it may open doors to a higher class of discussion.  Furthermore, for those who are looking at the political bottomline – voters- the ability to reach beyond your own experience to relate to those outside your traditional base is a necessity if you are to expand your support. It’s a win-win.

Away from a policy level, the employment of greater empathy in day to day discussion may take the edge of zeitgeist topics such as cultural appropriation. Instead of opposing sides lambasting each other over social media, throwing around accusations of racism against arguments about freedom of speech, the use of empathy to try and understand where the other is coming from may just begin to bridge divides.

If efforts are made to look outside our social circles – be it real or media – away from constant affirmation of our own views, in an attempt to empathise with another’s perspective with an aim of reaching workable solutions rooted in understand and not sound bites, we may actually get somewhere.

I realise this sounds a bit ‘hopey-changey’ as Palin once labelled Obama but there are concrete steps which can be taken on an individual and wider level. Individually we could all work harder to take in a more eclectic range of views and examine our own more closely. Political parties can work to understand the lives of those who don’t support them rather than relying on a core group – something both Corbyn and Clinton need to understand.

Being in touch with a wide group of the electorate does not mean compromising principles, but finding ways to make them effective for a wider group based on an appreciation of others’ lives.

Engaging with others and a wider range of views empathetically may not change your opinions, but at the least it will provide you with knowledge of alternative arguments. Allowing you to defend your own without assumption or naivety.

In a social media dominated world we need to learn to venture outside of our self-affirming information bubbles, deploy a little empathy and be prepared to see things from a different angle. It’s unlikely to bring about world peace but it may add a little more depth to Twitter arguments.

 

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