Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

Snowflake apologetics 

August 19, 2017

I am starting off this post with a series of disclaimers regarding my blog…

  1. Just as a reminder, this blog is a way for me to think things through, which I do best in writing. I wanted to make my thought processes public but semi-anonymous to have a dialogue with people I know, and to make generally available one person’s struggle in comprehending what’s going on. Despite occasional rhetorical posturing, I do not guarantee that I will agree with anything I say in a year (or month…or week…), and the brunt of the ‘shoulds’ are pointed back at me.
  2. This is especially true when it comes to the question of what can be done about the increasing popularity of certain attitudes, beliefs and courses of action. I’m muddling along wringing my hands about what I should do…I share my thoughts about it here, but don’t really mean to be recommending anything to anybody…except maybe me…
  3. Most importantly, I write with awareness (albeit only a mustard seed’s worth) that I do so from a position of privilege as far as race, religion, sexual orientation and socio-economics are concerned. I readily confess that I have no idea what it is like to be without that privilege, and no idea how clueless I am when it comes to the manifestations of this lack of privilege in different geographic or socially constructed contexts. Those who do know what this is like may see this blog as a curiosity, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be mistaken for suggesting that it contributes to the infinitely more experienced and knowledgeable dialogue that is going on in many other places.

So here’s the post for today.

Two ideas that I had been harbouring separately for a long time suggested themselves to each other this week.


I could go on about this for a long time, but I’ll do my best to get to the point. Being ‘sensitive’ is something I’ve often been criticised for, sometimes explicitly and oftentimes implicitly in cultural norms. As far as the former goes, it’s usually like this: person says something; I am visibly defensive or upset; person is annoyed or hurt at my reaction because that wasn’t their intention, so they tell me that I shouldn’t feel bad or be upset; I then feel guilty, weak and wrong as well as upset.

As for the implicit criticism, that’s woven through the fabric of socially unacceptable behaviours, like crying in public or telling someone that what they said affected you badly. It is best immortalised in the phrase ‘you shouldn’t care what other people think’. My fundamental problem with this (apart from the fact that people who really don’t care what others think are sociopaths) is that I don’t choose how I feel. I can choose whether to dwell on it or not; I can choose (and often do) to put my guard up in situations where I might be vulnerable; I can choose how I react; I can choose whether to write self-pitying blog posts about it. But if there’s a secret to being emotionally numb to certain things by choice, I haven’t found it yet.

I’m going on at length about this because I know some people aren’t as ‘sensitive’ as I am and they just don’t understand. They like a good argument with the rental car company if they’re overcharged, or a hearty Facebook battle, or a communal ribbing with co-workers. It’s these lucky people who wouldn’t think all day about one friend’s comment on a stranger’s tweet.

Which, of course, brings me back to my last post. If I think that anything I make public is going to have the opposite effect to the one I intend, I’m not going to post it. But am I judging this from my knowledge of the mindset that I would like to change (as I think I am) or of how I would react if my opinions were (to put it hypobolically) different? Another unanswerable question.

But the admission that you’re all waiting for is, yes, I’m not only avoiding making a bad situation worse, but I’m also saving myself. This is indeed rather cowardly. How do I know that, along with the alt-righters who are ruing the day I chose Berkeley, there isn’t someone who will be positively influenced by a thoughtful piece about the cultural portent of statues or a timely reminder that if you replaced ‘armed white supremacists with a permit’ with ‘armed ISIS supporters with a permit’ things might be a little different. (Which maybe shows that I’m not very good at this kind of thing anyway.)

Honestly, the answer is that I’m not quite ready for that yet. I’m also not sure if, as an unrecovered snowflake, this is the best way for me to resist. I have some friends who are total Old Testament prophets on social media, some who share vitriolic memes, some who try to handle things more serenely. Me, well, I share this blog to my bubble and do research into building empathy and teaching digital citizenship…


I think we’ve all been aware for quite some time that the (actual) fake news, alternative facts and information previously referred to as ‘lies’ but now freed from their modernist ‘meaningful’ definition in a way that would awake in Jacques Derrida a guilty schadenfreude…is all propaganda. Sometimes propaganda in an Orwellian ‘duckspeak’ kind of way, and sometimes propaganda in its more traditional forms, if insidiously masquerading as something else.

What I’ve always understood about propaganda is that it is emotional. What I hadn’t understood before is that the emotion doesn’t only affect those who believe the propaganda, but also those who reject it. And I’m afraid that I often overlooked the fact that everyone sees propaganda; Jews in Nazi Germany were assaulted by it just as much as any other Germans, and those of Japanese origin in the US were harassed by its racist imagery along with every other American. I can’t begin to fathom the alienation and fear that this kind of government-produced propaganda would create in its victims.

But I’ve just now realised that part of my intense emotional reaction to modern propaganda (although nothing compared to that of the targets of these campaigns, I am sure) is that its emotional reach is indeed to everybody. It presents a ridiculous image as fact, and challenges you to refute it, despite its absurdity. And that produces anger, insecurity, fear, hatred, feelings of powerlessness…

For someone like me, who seems to be susceptible this this kind of &@?!, this is emotional quicksand. But what keeps me getting sucked in is that I know that some people believe it! How can they believe that?! What would make you think that was true?? Here are five reasons that I thought of while trying to get to sleep that this is complete trash!!! (That I won’t post for fear of a DIY propaganda deluge the next day…)

And here it comes again: ‘you shouldn’t care about what other people think’.

Well, maybe not. But if they vote and carry weapons and drive cars, it doesn’t matter if I care or not. And I do care about that.


It makes me feel a little better to link up these two things.

Other than that…still thinking…


Empathy and the moral matrix

June 10, 2017

I think this guy agrees with me about sympathy for the devil (as alluded to in last post), at about 20 minutes in:

Can a divided America heal?

More about the moral matrix:

The moral matrix that influences the way people vote

Empathy? Not in my book

June 8, 2017

Empathy? Not in my book
Counterpoint to the literary empathy argument. He makes some valid points about enthusiasm for literature reading as a means to an end (increased empathy.) But I do think that he’s assuming a little too much in suggesting that the argument for literary empathy is limited to empathy for the right kind of people. Empathy for the baddies of literature, it could be argued, is a relatively safe way to understand what drives people to acts that we are tempted to simply label as existentially ‘evil’. Graduates who can think deeply about [unpleasant] others’ histories and motivations are more likely to be able to come up with long-term societal solutions…I hypothesise…

A Typology for an Online Socrates Café

May 17, 2017

I can’t get full access to this article, but from the abstract it looks like they were trying to achieve the kinds of things I’m thinking about. They were looking for (as far as I can tell) good principles for getting students to have serious, empathetic, fact-informed discussions about contentious topics.

Building empathy in an online community of teachers

May 16, 2017

This article looks at a scheme to increase empathy for a minority group, first among teachers and, through them, among students. They also used fiction as a way into empathy, expect in this case it was a popular TV show rather than novels. The intention was also to foster empathy among the participants as an emerging community of practice. It was hoped that they would use the experience to try similar empathy-building activities and discussions in their own teaching, and the online community was also a platform for them to talk about how these activities had gone. The findings suggest that the first phase at least had an impact.

Design Principles for Promoting Intergroup Empathy in Online Environments

All new coping mechanism

May 14, 2017

…a.k.a. doing something, whether worthwhile or not.

So I thought, my big ideas about helping students develop empathy through reading or through supported discussions or through training teachers to do these things with their students, they all hinged on time to do it properly in the form of a PhD or similar big research project. But there’s no reason I couldn’t do a little bit of it at home when I had time (and/or when the latest news item sets me off). 

Basically, this is a heads up that I’ll be posting stuff that I find along these lines. If you’re interested, great, if you’re not please don’t get too annoyed when they appear on your timeline : )

Here’s the first one; it’s along the empathy-and-literature lines although lacking in any significant findings…

The Power of Life Histories: Moving Readers to Greater Acts of Empathy Through Literature and Memoir 

Liberal arts

January 28, 2017

Over the past year, I have had a few different ideas about how to save the world and get a Phd simultaneously. This combination of world-saving and self advancement is perhaps not intuitive, but I won’t go into a critique of capitalism at the moment. What I will go into is my long-held belief that education, done well, could help to address a lot of the sociological and cultural problems that sprout up locally, nationally and globally. My initial thoughts on dialogue across boundaries (social, religious, economic, ethnic, political, etc.) was that it was best begun in schools…partly because attendance is compulsory, but mostly because we would want to instil in young people the skills, abilities and habits to critically assess their own and others’ statements and beliefs, and external input generally.

I then began thinking about other aspects of education, particularly liberals arts. There had been some chat in the media about threats to funding for liberal arts in schools and universities, which I had registered but not engaged with. In fact, I hate to admit it, but my two degrees and journal publication not withstanding, I have never seriously thought about why anyone should study literature. Neither can I remember any teachers, from Kindergarten to university, expounding on why we were reading literature or what it could possibly do for us. The closest I got was a vague sense that this was (in a phrase I never heard as a student) cultural capital, and was just stuff that people would expect me to know. In fact, along with the occasional music lesson, it felt more like a process of getting students up to speed on what was going on in western society to date, with critical viewpoints or contextualisation left up to the historians. For me personally, I just enjoyed it.

When I did start thinking about whether education could help in a long-term overhaul of the polarisation and isolation evident in American (and other western) societies, I was reminded of a couple articles I had read about the power of novels to increase readers’ empathy or emotional intelligence (see here and here). Wanting to know more, I read Empathy and the Novel, which ties a lot of research in the field together. And I realised that part of the reason that I was so intrigued by this idea was that, when considering different issues that I have been confronted with, I often draw on the immersive experience of reading. It helps me to understand why people do ethically or morally troubling things; it helps to understand the lived experience of poverty or abandonment or war; it helps to simply remind us that everyone has a complex interior life.

So I thought about a longitudinal project that studied undergraduates’ levels of empathy throughout a literature course and what other factors came into play (reflection, discussion, etc.). But this idea was a bit too tangential for me in my increasingly alarmed state (as 2016 progressed, and I use the term in the temporal sense only). I wanted something that would get closer to what I wanted to achieve (and involved fewer privileged white students reading primarily privileged white authors, etc.), so my thoughts moved on. But as a concept, I had come to have much more respect for literature as doing something in society. I also began to consider how the approaches learnt in what might be considered esoteric subject like philosophy and Classics were transferrable to life generally–critical attitudes, ability to discuss different opinions with others, integrity, research, etc.

These are the qualities and skills sought by employers recruiting our students (the aforementioned predominately white and privileged ones) to management-track jobs in London. But there seems to be a shift–whether or not it’s related to the reported threats to liberal arts generally (and the actual cutting of some A-levels)–toward less nuanced job-focussed bachelor’s degrees. Alarm bells rang for me when I read JISC’s visions for HE in 2020 and 2030. There was a prevalent theme that suggested that the purpose of education is to directly prepare a student for a job. The idea that a university education was preparing students for Life–civic, personal, cultural and global as well as professional–was almost absent. Instead, it was imagined that every student would do a work placement as part of their degree, and every employer would be able to see a detailed portfolio of the student’s progress through the degree. So we’re back to capital.

I’m not so concerned about what came first (the increasing prioritisation of job-focussed education or the sidelining of liberal arts), but what it will mean if it keeps on going. Will this be another example of slow migration from whole-person education to machine-cog production? Has the term ‘liberal’ doomed us already?