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Towards Peace and Justice: The Transformative Potential of Empathy - Part 1

15/09/2014 15:45 BST | Updated 07/10/2014 10:59 BST

The psychological state of empathy and its ongoing practice - in which we imagine ourselves in the position of someone else or of another group of people - is often difficult to summon.

This is particularly true in situations where due to our particular identities, values, beliefs, and prejudices we are invested in maintaining these. We perceive someone or some group as potentially destabilizing what are our 'truths': sense of justice, and the order, both emotional and cognitive, that informs our sense of meaning and purpose, belonging and obligation.

Consequently, we often refuse to empathize, in ways both passive and active, conscious and unconscious.

Empathy potentially undermines the psychological, perceptual, cognitive, and moral order of our lives. It is a powerful and potentially radical act and disposition, one which can engender greater understanding across boundaries of difference and conflict, enable more peaceful relations between individuals and peoples, and foster values of humility, civility, and tolerance.

In so doing, it also enables the pursuit of justice and fundamentally orients us towards respecting others and defending their rights and well-being.

Empathy allows for new ideas and perceptions; independent and original thought and critical thinking.

As human beings, we have a tendency to seek out information and images that confirm our biases and beliefs and to interpret new ideas and images in ways that fit a pre-existing narrative. When we do this we get stuck in a cycle of preconceptions, prejudice, and moral and intellectual laziness; empathy can help us break out of this restrictive and negative cycle of entrapment of conscience and consciousness and inspire and even force us to grow and mature beyond our preconceptions.

Empathy is necessary for sustaining ethical commitment and behavior; it is also essential for enabling compassionate and caring acts.

As an emotional and cognitive state it is often complex and inspires ambivalent, contradictory, and unpleasant emotions and questions about our particular identities, values, and perceptions.

While it is almost uniformly easy for people to feel hurt and hatred, anger, jealousy and greed, empathy is far less easily summoned because it is intrinsically anti-egotistical. It does not provide the easy and immediate gratification of these other far more prevalent emotions and the pleasures of reaffirming pre-existing beliefs and attitudes.

Although it is a powerful and potentially transformative emotion, its power is rarely immediate and dramatic; it does not express itself aggressively because it is an emotion that does not seek to dominate. For this reason it is easily drowned out and marginalized by the strident and blinding emotions of rage and hatred.

We have a tendency to refuse empathy because it is so hard; both as a practice which requires great emotional investment in the context of often powerful social skepticism and even opprobrium and ostracization and also because its consequences can be so impactful on our lives and can change them in jarring ways if we dare to empathize deeply and continually, and not just superficially and momentarily.

Empathy can challenge our relationships and many aspects of our identity - especially if in choosing to empathize we are perceived by those in our families, communities, nations, cultures, and religious groups as somehow being insufficiently committed to those group identities, and even threatening them.

In the way in which it allows us to appreciate difference and nuance empathy threatens all totalizing ideologies and visions; in the way in which it empowers individuals it threatens authoritarian ideologies and rigidly hiererarchical forms of social organization; whether they are systems of faith or politics, ethnicity or culture, class or gender.

Mark Twain famously said about travel that it is "fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." Indeed travel can be another very immediate way of cultivating and experiencing empathy and it is the empathy which it cultivates which proves so fatal to those pathologies.

Empathy is not a panacea; it is no guarantee of ethics and justice and its application can be co-opted and used in negative as well as positive ways.

Empathy can be simplistic and unreflective - a person may empathize in ways that fundamentally misunderstand a complex conflict situation, attributing emotions and values to one party to a conflict that may be less a reflection of reality and more a projection of the identity of the person who empathizes and how he or she wants to perceive the people with whom he/she empathizes.

In situations of protracted conflict, where immoral and inhumane acts have occurred by both parties to a conflict and there is a long history of tension between them empathy must be tempered with humility, and the patience required to develop an understanding of the history, politics, and broader social reality of conflict.

Indeed empathy can be abused to fuel prejudice and injustice and conflict when it is deliberately limited to a particular group.

Such narrow, chauvinistic forms of empathy often have particularly destructive social consequences. Facile political ideologies and proclivities, such as the idea that power can be neatly divided between the 'powerful' and the 'powerless' with injustice automatically attributed to the former and justice to the latter and thus a demand to empathize exclusively or primarily with the purported 'powerless' can also be damaging and further fuel conflict and injustice.

Still, empathy's overwhelming tendency when applied fairly and without prejudice is as an enabler of the type of emotional, cognitive, and perceptual orientation that is most likely to engender ethical action that respects the rights of others and refuses bigotry and discrimination.