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Towards Peace and Justice: The Transformative Potential of Empathy (Part 2)

12/08/2014 14:36 BST | Updated 11/10/2014 10:59 BST

In situations of conflict, where group identities are powerfully present and there is a tendency for the in-group to glorify itself and attribute negative traits and discriminatory, often hateful characteristics to the out-group - a form of collective narcissism that locks in prejudice and denies the individuality of others and devalues them - often going as far as questioning their humanity and their right to dignity and freedom, and in the more extreme cases even their right to life - develops.

If unaddressed, it can grow and become extremely destructive and difficult to stop once it is normalized and becomes socially acceptable, acquiring a dangerous momentum.

We live, by and large, in the aggregate, in a permanent state of empathy deficit. If empathy were a more common value there would be less violence and discrimination in the world, both structurally in collective ways and interpersonally, individually.

The many forms of persecution that undermine human rights would be far less common if we would make it a practice and a commitment to empathize across boundaries of culture and class, gender and sexual orientation, race and religion, ethnicity and political identity.

How then, can it be encouraged?

There are many ways of engaging empathetically. This is particularly true of the arts, as it is often through reading literature, viewing theatre and movies, and looking at art and photography that the many defense mechanisms that limit our empathy are challenged.

Even individuals and groups who powerfully resist empathizing with those who they consider to be their enemies, or against whom they harbor hatred and rage, can be inspired to empathize in such ways.

Several years ago I found myself viewing a movie that created empathy through a simple storyline.

The movie deliberately destabilizes the identity, prejudices, and sympathies of its characters and its viewers in ways that ultimately enrich the moral and emotional contours of both.

In so doing it chips away and ultimately breaks down our often ossified capacity for empathy and the fear and resistance that makes it hard to exercise and makes many if not most of us unwilling or at least very cautious, suspicious, and stingy empathizers.

The movie cultivates empathetic generosity, and it does so without bombast and with relatively little didacticism and sanctimoniousness - which so often mar artistic works that seek to inspire the empathetic imagination but do so with a heavy hand that may feel artificial and contrived.

The Other Son imagines what would happen if the very foundation of our religious, ethnic, and national identities was upended in the intimacy and immediacy of our family life.

In the context of the recent conflict in Israel and Gaza it is particularly timely and essential viewing.

The power of the arts may be like the power of water to erode rock - most of us do not suddenly become more empathetic and ethically sensitive and aware after watching a movie or reading a book.

It takes time, repeated and extensive engagement, and a willingness to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones and make a sustained effort.

But sometimes a movie, a book, a photo, an essay can open a chink in an armor, can make us vulnerable in the best possible way to the liberating empathetic possibilities ever-present in our hearts and upon which the realization of universal human rights, human dignity, and ethical decency depend.

Link to the movie review in The Majalla:

http://www.majalla.com/eng/2012/11/article55236030