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Our empathy is failing in a world of abstract concepts – but there is a solution

Beyond every conversation about the statue of a racist is someone who has to wonder why their country builds monuments to people who think them “worse” or “less than” on the basis of their skin colour

Tory claims refugees want 'to pull down UK's statues and rewrite history'

It is almost certainly not the case that Stalin said that “one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic”. But that quotation nonetheless points to something essential: we struggle with abstraction.

We simply do not engage in the same way with concepts as we do with people. Facts and figures often leave us cold – so cold they fail to give us a real understanding of a situation, or move us to action even when action is necessary. We have trouble feeling what they represent, or – that vital thing – empathising with the individuals concerned.

This occurs to me whenever the national conversation turns to something like the value of a statue of a slaver, or of an honest appraisal of a beloved but flawed historical figure. It comes to mind when I hear the term “woke” or “cancel culture”, or when a comedian mocks a vulnerable section of society, and all we seem able to talk about is free speech. These kinds of discussions are increasingly familiar to all of us. My point is that they are not about right or left; but about understanding where the other person is coming from and seeing the world through their eyes.

Consider this. Increasingly urgent warnings about the rate at which our planet is heating up have not motivated us to address the climate emergency, despite the strong human motivation for avoiding danger. It was not till the publication of a photo of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach, that world leaders changed their approach to the refugee crisis, and that many of us understood the catastrophe unfolding in the Mediterranean.

The senseless killing of George Floyd said so much about the poor health of our societies that up to 26 million souls around the world took to the streets. How can it be that something terrible has to be brought to attention, and so viscerally, for us to recognise what is truly going on and, in a large number of cases, change our perspective? “One death is a tragedy...”

Living as we do in a world in which we are bombarded with abstract information, with ideas and numbers divorced from their emotional meaning, it seems increasingly necessary for us to seek out and listen to people talk about their experience, especially if it is one that is not available to us. When we do this, we are exposed to a different kind of information, something with more context and emotional resonance. We empathise; but we also learn things that we perhaps would not think to ask because all of us, thanks to our egos, suffer from a grossly limited perspective.

In 1884, Emile Zola visited the mines of northern France to learn about the lives of the working class, and encountered a horse while he was there. The miners thought he was joking when he asked how they got the horse in and out of the mine each day. The horse was brought down as a foal, grew up in the mines, and never saw daylight. Believe me when I say that just writing this was hard enough to get through.

Our empathy is demonstrably falling. We are drowning in concepts and jargon and soundbites, all of which serve to supersede or at least distance us from reality. A single honest conversation with someone directly affected by the things we so confidently discuss on the basis of what we have only read does us good. It is often enough to shatter our illusions and free us from the schemes we impose on the information we read.

But I do not think that we are bad people because we are not sufficiently moved by news of something awful taking place in our world. I do not think that we are bad people because we are taken in so readily by abstract facts and figures, which always give off an impression of authority, or because we chronically mistake the map for the territory. Nor does recognising the existence of a problem necessitate action; that is a different matter.

The reality is that we have spent much of our collective history in small groups, interacting face-to-face. Now we live in a world of things. But we have to acknowledge at least that we are fallible, that we are not all-knowing. Perhaps we should consider what happens when we become too detached, too dispassionate. Perhaps we lose something of our compassion.

What I am driving at, I suppose, is that knowing and understanding are different. Understanding demands context, and that is best supplied by the individuals concerned. If we do not really appreciate what some data point or principle means for people, then – since our fates are so closely intertwined – we do not truly understand what it means for us as well.

We understand the abstract through the particular. We are not all blessed with the capacity to see through things and place ourselves in the shoes of a real person. Was it Kafka who said that war was “a monstrous lack of imagination”?

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Of course, this does not get us entirely off the hook. It is a national disgrace that anyone in the United Kingdom goes without food, or has to sleep in the street. And more still: there are those who – and we all know this – are motivated to escalate a discussion as rapidly as possible to the realm of the theoretical or notional, away from concrete reality, and even to manipulate language to diminish its emotional force – to call all refugees “economic migrants”, as if risking your life was a typical part of climbing the job ladder.

Perhaps these people are protecting themselves from confronting the truth of the matter. Perhaps they are attempting to convince us of something that I am convinced does not serve us – any of us.

Behind every global increase in a degree celsius, there is someone who dies from heat. Behind every negative economic trend there is someone who goes hungry. Beyond every conversation about the statue of a racist is someone who has to wonder why their country builds monuments to people who think them “worse” or “less than” on the basis of their skin colour. And behind every protracted debate about free speech, there is someone who is attacked or pushed to the margins of their own society for being who they are. And behind all skepticism and hostility to change, there are human beings with reasons. Too often, the tribalism of this historical moment makes us think we are relieved of the responsibility of hearing the other side of things.

And so it is healthy, at least once in a while, I think, to abandon ideas for reality, to spend time with people and listen to them describe their lives. One person’s experience does not paint a perfect picture; that goes without saying. But listening to people qualifies our ideas, gives life and context to cold, dead data. It makes us, I believe, a little bit wiser. That is essential in these troubled times. And it is also, I think, a privilege.

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