Why do some people feel more sadness for victims of terrorism in Paris than they do for those in Beirut? Why is seeing pictures of injured people in New York more painful to look at for some than those in Kabul? Why do terrorist attacks in the west get more media coverage than those elsewhere? The answer is to do with empathy, or the lack thereof. Empathy is the basic human ability to emotionally connect to others, to share their pain, to understand their view point. It goes above and beyond sympathy. Mohsin Hamid, a world famous fiction writer from Pakistan, says:
Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself. – Mohsin Hamid
Empathy helps bind us together in a positive way. When you watch a movie, the reason why some people cry at the death of what is essentially a fictional character, is empathy. Movies make you feel like you have a positive connection of some kind because you now know enough about a character to care whether they live or die. The emotional opposite of this is knowing who the bad guys are, which causes you to have less empathy for them. This is why we weep for the deaths of Mufasa and Bambi’s mum but not for Scar and Shere Khan. In this essence empathy is a kind of social glue:
Empathy is considered by many psychologists to be essential to cooperation, problem-solving, and to human functioning in general. Researchers have described it as “social glue, binding people together and creating harmonious relationships.” Empathetic people are more likely to forgive others for small errors, like running late. Asking narcissists to imagine themselves in others’ shoes can help shrink their big heads. Empathy helps people behave more generously. – Olga Khazan
A key aspect of empathy is listening. If you listen compassionately, openly, honestly, and genuinely to what others are saying, you will hopefully come to understand who they really are and what they really want. You end up validating the other person’s humanity and the pain they may be facing. This does not mean giving sympathy for the devil, being a pushover, or going beyond accepted norms. Case in point is the recent comment made by singer Erykah Badu who said “I see good in everybody, I saw something good in Hitler.” Maybe should have kept that one to yourself Erykah.
Add to this the appearance of Trump (the stupid man’s smart person) in 2016 on a late night chat show with Jimmy Fallon, where Fallon tussled his hair and much hilarity ensued, as did criticism of Fallon for humanizing someone so disliked by so many. Aside from a few obtuse examples such as these, empathy results in a better understanding and humanizing of others.
So what makes us feel more or less empathy? One reason could simply be down to numbers. The more victims of a terror attack, the more sympathy we exude. Other reasons why there could be an empathy gap include geography: the west is seen as more stable than other parts of the world, so an attack in a more stable country like Britain is deemed more shocking than one in a less stable country such as Iraq. Also, media organisations find it easier to get their reporters to New York than to Karachi, hence the distortion in media coverage. Another reason could be familiarity, as explained from an American perspective by David A Graham:
Americans are much more likely to have been to Paris than to Beirut—or to Cairo, or to Nairobi, or to any number of cities that have experienced bloody attacks. If they haven’t traveled to the French capital themselves, they’ve likely seen a hundred movies and TV shows that take place there, and can reel off the names of landmarks. Paris in particular is a symbol of a sort of high culture. Just as a mishap in your hometown hits harder than one two towns over, the average American is likely to relate more closely to violence in Paris than in other parts of the world. There is also a troubling tribal, or racial, component to this familiarity factor as well: People tend to perk up when they see themselves in the victims. – David A Graham
However, many are worried that our society, with its personal brands and Snapchats, is losing the crucial characteristic of empathy. The reasons for this decline are manifold. Way back in 2006 then Senator Barack Obama said Americans should talk more about the “empathy deficit” than the federal deficit. Today in Britain we now have a minister of loneliness to help combat the recognised epidemic of mental health issues. In 2016 the UK reached its highest level of foster care in 30 years, with more than 70,000 children in care. Plus we have the highest number of rough sleepers than ever before, a trend that has been on the increase for over 7 years now. Add to this the fact that we are increasingly more and more submerged in our own digital bubbles, where we rarely read about or listen to viewpoints other than our own.
Every day I read in the news that we are having to deal with increased sexism (hence the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns), racism (white supremacy is on the rise in Russia, Europe, and the States), xenophobia (fear of immigrants and refugees is at its highest across the west), and classism (the working class are being undermined by government at every turn, just look at the victims of the Grenfell tower tragedy in London). And fear of the other seems to be route-one for our politicians on their path to power, exemplified so ruthlessly by the very stable genius Trump. All of this adds to and further causes the lack of empathy we are increasingly surrounded by.
Whilst problems do certainly exist at lower, more personal levels, they also exist at higher levels too. The Doomsday Clock, a metaphorical measure of humankind’s proximity to global catastrophe, was moved 30 seconds ahead. It now sits at two minutes to midnight, which is as close as the world has ever been to the hour of apocalypse. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced the Clock a notch closer to the end of humanity on Thursday 25th January 2018, after what the organization called a “grim assessment” of the state of geopolitical affairs. In moving the clock forward the group cited “the failure of President Trump and other world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change.”
Adding to this doom-and-gloom is a recent article in New Scientist magazine (Issue 3161, 20 Jan 2018) which referred to the crumbling of Western civilisation. It spoke of “cycles of inequality” that have resulted in Western societies becoming “dangerously unequal.”
The West might already be living on borrowed time…However things pan out, almost nobody thinks the outlook for the West is good…If we don’t reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, tackle inequality and find a way to stop elites from squabbling among themselves, things will not end well. – Laura Spinney
Harsh words indeed. All these factors, along with many others, directly or indirectly reduce our levels of empathy, and subsequently reduce the social glue that holds society together. Maybe this is why we are seeing in front our very own eyes the breakdown and fragmentation of our communities.
An area where empathy is most definitely needed is that of Islamophobia. We all know how badly Muslims are portrayed in the media. We all know how hate crimes have increased dramatically (a recent news report states that since Trump came to power the number of anti-Muslim groups has increased three-fold). A better and more realistic understanding of Muslims would help to overturn this ever rising tide of Islamophobia.
So how best to reverse this decline and become more empathetic ourselves, not just towards Muslims but in regards to all of us? One of the most effective and simplest ways is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. In other words, talk to each other, find out more about each other, listen to and learn from each another. Academic research done in this area says similar things, as noted by Jennifer Williams:
There’s a theory in psychology and sociology known as the “contact hypothesis,” which says that prejudice and hatred between different groups — racial, religious, or otherwise — often decreases when the two groups actually have contact with one another. The idea is pretty simple: Once you get to know people from the other group, you begin to see them not as stereotypes or caricatures, but as real people with all sorts of different views. – Jennifer Williams
People who fear Islam, or think negatively about it, should try talking to an actual living, breathing Muslim and you may be pleasantly surprised. You may even experience a miracle:
Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? – Henry David Thoreau, from his book Walden
Islam itself has empathy as one of its core principles. Muslims are taught that the entire Muslim population across the world is like one body, so if any one part of that body feels pain then the rest of that body knows about it and should do something to help. A recent example of this are the many Muslims from Britain who have gone to Bangladesh to help Muslim Rohingya refugees, ordinary civilians who are escaping genocide in Burma.
In order to help with this understanding, please find below a handpicked selection of quotes, clips, and links, all to do with actually getting to know the ‘other’ that we fear or think so little about. These examples are of people who are either suggesting or have themselves taken the plunge and spoken to Muslims, all with positive results. Enjoy!
Maz Jobrani is just living his life
The American-Iranian comedian was asked by the magazine Atlantic Monthly in 2016 to comment on Islamophobia and the effect it has on children. Part of what he said was:
I’ve been telling people the best thing you can do is try to make a friend from those backgrounds. Go to a Persian restaurant and eat food there and talk to the people that work there and get to know those people. And you will see that most people in this world are just trying to live their lives, they’re just trying to put food on the table, and make a living and keep their family happy. – Maz Jobrani
A hotel for refugees is a good start
If you cannot or do not want to speak directly to Muslims, at least watch others talking to them. A good place to start is Hotel For Refugees, which is a BBC documentary that was shown late last year. The hotel in question is the Abbeyfield, a former four-star hotel in the small Irish rural community of Ballaghadereen. The Irish government had plans to settle several hundred refugees in the hotel, something which divided the town, with some believing it to be their Catholic duty to extend a charitable hand, and others anxious about the impact of so many strangers on the town. The program ended up showing that over time, and with better understanding, positive relationships started to form between the refugees and the townspeople.
Her week as a Muslim changed her for the better
The Channel 4 documentary My Week As A Muslim was one of the most controversial programs on British TV last year. The program followed white 42 year old Katie Freeman, who now works as a healthcare assistant in the NHS. Katie lives in Winsford, Cheshire, and is frightened of Muslims. So how does she try to overcome this? She ‘brownfaces’ to become a pretend Pakistani Muslim and lives with a Muslim family for a week to see how the other half live. Katie literally takes the ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ mantra one step further by walking a mile in someone else’s face. The whole thing reminded me of a weird reverse White Chicks transformation.
However, once you get past the controversial ‘brownface’ make up and prosthetics applied to a white woman, this is a brilliant documentary that truly does change perceptions in the right way, and it does so right in front of our very own eyes. If you get the chance to see it please do.
Deeyah Khan befriends her enemies
In the ITV documentary White Right: Meeting The Enemy, shown on TV last year, Emmy Award-winning film-maker Deeyah Khan meets US neo-Nazis and white nationalists face to face and attends America’s biggest and most violent far right rally in recent years. The documentary is brilliant as it shows how quickly some of these neo-Nazis change their points of view after meeting Deeyah, for many the first Muslim they have ever really met. In an explanation of why she made the documentary, Deeyah explained as follows, suggesting empathy shown will hopefully be reciprocated (which it was, by more than one person):
What makes me more afraid is how organised, how galvanised the white far right are. They truly believe they are the victims. They feel like they have everything to lose and that’s worth fighting for. I spent my life hounded by men like this and I left liberated from the fear because I realised they’re people who are just as messed up, in pain, broken or struggling as any of us. They just don’t have either the support or means to deal with some of the things they’re dealing with in a healthy way. I absolutely am not asking for people to feel sympathy for these guys – I don’t feel sympathy for them – but that does not exclude my ability to try to empathise with them. Having experienced racism my whole life, I decided that hating them or being afraid wasn’t enough for me anymore. – Deeyah Khan
Empathy begins with familiarity, especially on TV
Just as meeting the right Muslim can change your perception for the better, so can reading the right book, or watching the right drama on TV, or watching the right movie or play. This is a point noted by Mark Honigsbaum who, in asking how we can become more empathetic, gives the following answer:
The most common answer is by fostering greater perspective-taking. Decades of scientific research show that people are kinder to those they view as human beings. The reason is that, when we make the imaginative effort to step into the shoes of another person and see things from their perspective, we become less capable of ignoring their suffering…Novels, television and the internet can also foster greater empathy by exposing us to the perspectives of people whose lives we would not otherwise consider. – Mark Honigsbaum
And here is what you can achieve with the right kind of play:
Plays can create empathy. If you put a Muslim character on stage, and make him a full character, you’re making it possible for the audience to feel empathy, and a little empathy on both sides would help. – Motti Lerner, Israeli playwright and screenwriter
And here is what you can achieve with the right kind of TV drama. The TV channel ITV is currently showing a controversial drama called Next Of Kin, a six-part drama about terrorism that takes place in Britain and Pakistan. It has received fairly good reviews, including the following:
Next of Kin…a brutal family thriller, full of suspicion…Archie Panjabi returned to our screens in a brutal and shocking thriller centring on a Muslim family in London…It was, if nothing else, refreshing to see a Muslim family portrayed so naturally – a gaggle of individuals bound by love, frustrations and jokes and whose normality is as suddenly and thoroughly upended by tragedy as anyone’s could be. – Lucy Mangan
‘They took the hatred out of me’
John Dutcher, a 61-year-old house cleaner in Omaha, Nebraska, has openly admitted that he hates Muslims. “I am one of those guys who would want to put a pig’s head on a mosque.” But all that was before six families of refugees, including from Syria and Afghanistan, moved into his apartment building. They were all Muslim. John then learned about their harrowing stories escaping war-torn countries, and slowly but surely, his feelings about Islam and Muslims warmed. With tears welling up in his eyes he now says “They took the hatred out of me. I never knew how badly somebody could hate someone they don’t even know.” For more details please read the Huffington Post article.
Even George W Bush promoted greater understanding
Do you remember George Dubya Bush, the second worst president ever? Remember when he became president and the world thought it just could not possibly get any worse, at all, in any way, shape, or form? Remember? Anyway, in October 2005 he made some really positive remarks about Islam and Muslims at an iftaar dinner at the White House, especially around the need for greater understanding:
America is fortunate to count such good-hearted men and women among our fellow citizens. We have great respect for the commitment that all Muslims make to faith, family, and education. And Americans of many backgrounds seek to learn more about the rich tradition of Islam. To promote greater understanding between our cultures, I have encouraged American families to travel abroad, to visit with Muslim families. And I have encouraged American families to host exchange students from the Muslim world. I have asked young Americans to study the language and customs of the broader Middle East. And for the first time in our Nation’s history, we have added a Koran to the White House Library. – former president George W Bush
Tommy Tiernan speaks to the right kind of Muslim
The award winning Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan recently spoke to a Muslim on The Tommy Tiernan Show. The resulting interview is both funny and informative and is, for me anyway, a brilliant example of how meeting a Muslim, the right kind of Muslim, can change perceptions (in this case resulting in a hugely positive reaction from Tommy and the audience):
Moeen Ali is a good person to be around
England cricket superstar Moeen Ali on a BBC documentary, England’s Muslim Cricket Stars, spoke about how he hopes to win people over through his actions on and off the cricket field:
There is so much negativity about it, in peoples mind, with the media, etc. For me, as a Muslim to be playing, I am hoping that people look at it and think “Actually, Muslims are not bad people.” Even with my team mates I am sure and I hope that they think that Muslims are good people to be around. There is obviously a minority of people who do commit bad things but that’s in all walks of life I guess. I am hoping that I can inspire other people of all different faiths to not be afraid of practicing whatever they want to practice and still be a cricket player, or a sports player, or whatever it is they want to be. That is essentially my main aim. – Moeen Ali, England cricketer
Jennifer Williams and Arthur Wagner are now Muslims
This is a similar story to that of the American John Dutcher, except this one involves a German who, after spending time with Muslim immigrants, changed his views on Islam and Muslims. Arthur Wagner was a prominent member of the German far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD). The party is known for its virulent anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant stance, with its official slogan being “Islam doesn’t belong in Germany.”
Wagner has called his decision to convert to Islam “a private matter” and declined to comment further to the press. But German media reports that the 48-year-old father of two has been spending his free time doing volunteer work with Muslim immigrants, including providing translation help to Chechen immigrants, since he speaks Russian and is of Russian descent. That personal interaction seems to have been the catalyst for his change of heart. For more details please read the excellent article in Vox written by Jennifer Williams, herself a Muslim convert.
Jennifer became interested in Arabic back in college. This later led her to study Arabic abroad in Morocco. Eventually she felt the urge to read the Qur’an for herself and realized Islam answered the questions she had growing up in a Southern Baptist household. Below is a tweet she posted that went viral overnight and resulted in a “whirlwind” of events over the following months.
The British Army brilliantly shows how it’s done
I end this rather lengthy blog post with a brilliant 40 second advert from the British Army that shows how easy it is to show empathy for those different from yourself: