I Feel Your Pain – Or Do I?

As hairline fractures across both society and the political spectrum have split into broad canyons, the need for empathy feels very pressing at this particular point in time. Brexit and Trump are symptomatic of some seriously deep-rooted divides, and a breakdown in trust, tolerance and communication. Is it any wonder that empathy is having a moment as we try to find a way forward?  There are plenty of recent publications exploring empathy – ‘Fostering Empathy Through Museums’; Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It’ (its author, Roman Krznaric, also established the Empathy Museum); and of course, ‘The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society’ by the former chair of Arts Council England, Peter Bazalgette. More empathy sounds like a practical solution, but it gets sticky when scaled up to an institutional level. Some have also voiced doubts that empathy is even a thing – it’s impossible to prove that our understanding of another’s perspective is accurate, and is it arrogant and misguided to assume that we could even gain such insight?  

The current emphasis on empathy seems to be as much about reducing our own self-interest as it is about taking an active interest in others. The further we disappear up our own fundaments, the less exposure we have to ideas, lives, and situations that differ from our direct experiences. Consequently, our ability to take that imaginative leap and put ourselves in another person’s position is diminished. Seung Chan (Slim) Lim’s fantastic TEDx talk, ‘How Empathy Fuels the Creative Process’, discusses empathy as a form of connectedness. Lim tells a very personal and honest story about his attempt to empathise with a friend with bipolar disorder. He admits to seeing himself as a problem-solver, and it was only when he owned up to his own prejudices and assumptions that a stronger connection was forged between them.

It is perhaps not surprising that socially-minded museum practitioners have been exploring the role of empathy in their practice. Mike Murawski’s blogpost, ‘The Urgency of Empathy and Social Impact in Museums’ is filled with links to interesting related projects and is a great place to start for an overview of the topic. He makes the argument that we (museum practitioners) cannot separate ourselves from our institutions; “it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people… Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.” Along similar lines, the Empathetic Museum takes a human-centred approach, and promotes institutional empathy as a means of engaging more meaningfully with communities. They advocate for organisation-wide commitment: …the empathetic museum must have a clear vision of its role as a public institution within its community. From this vision flow process and policy decisions about every aspect of the museum- audience, staffing, collections, exhibitions and programming, social media, emergency responses…” They have developed a practical and actionable ‘Maturity Model’ to help museums become more empathetic, measured against the following characteristics: Civic Vision; Institutional Body Language; Community Resonance; Timeliness and Sustainability; and Performance Measures.

Suse Cairns (aka Museum Geek) offers another perspective on institutional empathy and museums. In her post, Can Institutions Be Empathetic?’, she raises the issue of “entrenched oppression” and observes that institutions perpetuate dominant cultures and power structures. Changes to these restrictive working practices are difficult and entangled with the other institutions with which they interact.  I think mapping the traits of individuals to institutions is problematic. I agree that institutions won’t change themselves – it takes people within institutions to drive these changes – but I don’t think it follows that the institution is solely the sum of its staff. Additional components, such as formalised structures, incentivising strategies, leadership models, and institution-specific cultural norms all play a part too. One person can’t be an institution, in the same way that one person can’t riot – and the actions of the collective can’t always be atomised to the individual. To speak of an institution as being empathetic brings to mind the controversial decision of the US Supreme Court in 2010 to “extend to corporations for the first time full rights to spend money as they wished in candidate elections” (see NPR article, When Did Companies Become People?’ for the full story). Obviously, encouraging institutional empathy is not the same as allowing multinationals to influence political campaigns, but in both cases the distinction between the individual and the institution has been blurred.

Paul Bloom’s book, ‘Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion’, offers an interesting point of view – check out Salley Vickers’ review in the Guardian for a useful summary: “Bloom is especially vocal on the need for rational objectivity in political and social policy and the dangers attendant on decisions prompted by empathy because it is ‘innumerate and biased’”.

In another Museum Geek post, On the Paradox of Empathy’, Cairns makes the point that empathy is “highly selective”. Apparently we empathise with some things more than others – “the cute over the ugly, or the person more like us than the one who isn’t” (if you’ve read my post, Other People and their Terrible Habit of Differing Opinions, this won’t come as a surprise).  It seems that our capacity to empathise only goes so far; an article in MISC magazine (vol.24 2017), titled ‘In the Shadow of Excellence: Exploring the Dark Side of Progress’, raises some of the ethical issues linked to self-driving cars:

“Let’s say you are in a self-driving car and the brakes fail. The car can either slam into a wall, killing you and the other passengers in the car, or it can swerve and kill a group of nearby pedestrians. Which people should the car be programmed to harm, and which should it protect? Should the algorithm controlling the car always act in a way that minimizes the number of people killed?… researchers found that most people believed the cars should be programmed to behave in whatever way minimised the loss of life. Yet the study also found that most people would not want to purchase one of these cars themselves. Instead, they preferred to purchase a car with an algorithm that would protect them and their families as passengers at all costs.”

Charming – but can you blame them?

In my Churchill Report, I identify empathy and listening as key attributes of creative museum educators. The depth of interest taken in other people is striking, whether working with the public, or with artists, or with community partners, or with colleagues. So much museum education is built on collaboration, and that in turn requires finding common ground and negotiating compromises. I used the word empathy to summarise what I saw as reduced self-interest and the active effort to really understand someone else’s point of view or experiences. On reflection, perhaps rational compassion is a better phrase. I like how it retains what I consider to be the essential ingredients of empathy, but it removes the assumption that ‘I feel your pain’. Perhaps demonstrating rational compassion is more constructive.

PS – there’s an interesting conference coming up in Amsterdam (26-27 October), Through Different Eyes, that will be exploring empathy and design thinking.

IMAGE: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O76526/netsuke-sukenaga/

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