In an elegant experiment on empathy sociologist Sam Richards attempted and succeeded to encourage an auditorium full of Americans to sympathise with Iraqi terrorists.
If this experiment was a success surely developing empathy for any social group is possible, right?
Following the 2011 Summer UK riots Diane Abbott defiantly claimed that "cuts don't turn you into a thief". Then my intelligent friends failed to grasp the connection between poverty and crime, between social exclusion and anti-social behaviour, between labelling people as "mindless thugs" and them behaving like mindless thugs.
The lack of empathy was both heart breaking and telling. I peddled the infamous Stanford prison experiment like mad. It implicated labelling and situational circumstances as much (or even more so) as any 'innate' nastiness in explaining people's negative behaviours. These results subtly shift the blame, spreading it out amongst us all instead of focussing on the singular 'baddie'.
Talyn Rahman-Figueroa, young director and founder of diplomatic organisation Grassroot Diplomat thinks these misconceptons are damaging:
The foremost issue is that young people do not feel that they are relevant members of society. The image of young people being hedonistic, self-centred NEETS needs to change and this can't happen if older generations continue to describe us in that way.
Nick Clegg's recent drive, the Youth Contract, mainly involves financial incentives for businesses to take on young employees and apprentices. It feels like a well-meaning albeit superficial idea that relies on short term results.
And whilst the government's push to devalue certain vocational qualifications may have some merits, the lack of consultation with education experts to create it betrays how hastily it was developed.
Too many MPs are making decisions based on little or no dialogue with experts and young people themselves (arguably the best experts of all). In many professions including one I recently left behind - engineering - failure to consult experts and stakeholders can result in financial ruin or catastrophic accidents.
I worked in offshore construction. Accidents were common and, although very rare, people did sometimes lose their lives at sea. Each incident resulted in an fevered investigation into root causes and depending on the severity of the incident, might result in institutional changes to the company so future accidents were avoided. Sadly it seems there is no social damage great enough to illicit a similar reaction from our government.
What empathy looks like
One solution to youth disenfranchisement are organisations that engage children and teenagers in exciting ways: banger car racing, motorbike mechanics or even agricultural activities. Here at the Island Project in Derbyshire we increase young people's confidence by encouraging them to care for farm animals. There are well documented links between these projects and a decrease in local anti-social behaviour.
Perhaps we are so successful at this because we actively try to empathise with, not patronise, each child that passes through our farm gates despite them having complex emotional and learning needs. It's challenging and unusual, but if every other system they've passed through has failed them we need to be different.
And whilst empathy is important it's never a reason to absolve blame. It is possible to exercise empathy whilst simultaneously believing in justice being administered to those who deserve it. These ideas are completely compatible.
Practical ways to improve empathy
I asked Talyn Rahman-Figueroa what suggestions she had for improving the way politicians handle youth issues. Here are her suggestions.
The art of public discussion needs reinvigorating:
Politicians need to be more accessible to young people. Get on social media platforms and direct your questions at young people who may be listening to you. Go with questions not answers. It is not always about saying the right things but hearing the right people.
Politics needs to become more inclusive:
Invite young people of other backgrounds to participate in work experience or public forums and actually listen to them. This will make politics more appealing to them and help young people to mobilise themselves when the time is right.
Update the way we vote:
Make voting accessible to young people. Move away from churches, schools and community halls and bring voting booths to trendy cafés, shopping centres, cinemas and train stations where there are plenty of young people around.
If anyone is still unclear how initiatives such as the Island Project help alleviate youth unrest a quick visit to our farm will help. A spectacular personal transformation tends to occur with our young visitors - they start to relax. It's hard to be angry at the world after all, with a cuddly ferret nuzzled up in your coat sleeve.
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