Writing things
of a frivolous nature.

Increasing Empathy

In the Indonesian killings of 1965 - 66, where an estimated 500,000 people were killed, Anwar Cong was the leader of a death squad in North Sumatra. He was responsible for murdering 100s of people in cold blood.

“A little alcohol, a little marijuana, a little ecstasy. Once I’d get drunk, I’d ‘fly’ and feel happy. Cha-cha! It was like we were killing … happily!”

The documentary ‘Act of Killing’ follows Anwar Cong as he re-enacts the murders he helped commit in the style of his favourite films and eventually, after being put in the position of the victim, he begins to realise the weight of some of the actions he was responsible for.

“Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here? I can feel what the people I tortured felt. All the terror suddenly possessed my body.”

“Actually [Anwar], the people you tortured felt far worse because you know it’s only a film. They knew they were being killed.”

Anwar proceeds to break down.

I picked ‘increasing empathy’ as a problem which needs solving, during my search for a vocation, because I believe empathy has an important role in our decisions which then affects our actions. The ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes directly affects how we treat that person. This could be someone we know or someone we’ve never met.

If we can increase empathy then more people may help charities, become more active and hopefully make better decisions which will have a good impact on society. It could create a more tolerant culture.

We also need to be confident that the people making decisions for the good of society can relate to the people it will affect. Could you imagine MP’s who can’t empathise? It could be the difference between treating someone like a migrant or a refugee.

Finally, the last reason empathy peaked my interest is that it’s a skill which can be trained. There a great piece on 'Engineering humans with more empathy' over on io9.

Who’s doing it already?

I was surprised to see that there are a few people and some established organisations already trying to promote empathy:

  • The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California ‘studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society’. They cover more than just empathy, including altruism, compassion, and gratitude, & provide fellowships, writing and education programs.

  • The Ashoka Initiative seeks to create ‘changemakers’ by providing skills so anyone can try to solve complex social problems and support social entrepreneurs. An example of which is startempathy.org. Start Empathy is a program which provides resources for teaching empathy to children. There are quite a few schools around the world who have already taken up the program.

  • Roman Krznaric is the founder of the Empathy Museum and Empathy Library. He has also written a book about Empathy - Why it matters and how to get it. He also runs awareness training for judges. Needless to say if anyone knows anything about empathy it’s probably him.

  • Seung Chan set up realizingempathy.com which strives to ‘share a simple, integrative, and comprehensive model of what empathy is, how it can be better realized & faciltated through conversations with arbitrary objects of our perception, be it people, computers, or our own thoughts and feelings.’ They have a book and Seung Chan runs regular workshops.

Suitable for a vocation?

Not for me. The main reason I won’t pursue it further is that the scope is too large. How do you go about changing someone’s emotional or mental process when they have no immediate motivation to change it? Make them invested in something not directly related to them? There are some clever people with great ideas but I don’t think I’m one of them. It’s been interesting looking into increasing empathy and so I’ll certainly be perusing the Empathy Library and watching great documentaries like the ‘Act of Killing’ because I still believe it’s an important idea.


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