Skip to content

A radical experiment in empathy

April 27, 2011

Some of you know that I wrote my Master’s thesis on the subject of terrorism and how our perceptions and fear of the Other, actually perpetuate the problem of terrorism by not allowing us to have the conversation and communication that needs to take place. My thesis was split into three parts. The first part looked at how our choice of language and the way we frame that language either creates barriers and inhibits communication or brings down barriers and promotes communication and discussion. The second part looked at our actions. The last part looked at how empathy provides us with the best method for opening up communication and to understand those different from us.

It is this last part that brings me to the reason for this post. Over at TED, sociologist Sam Richards conducts a radical experiment in empathy with his audience by setting “an extraordinary challenge: can they understand — not approve of, but understand — the motivations of an Iraqi insurgent? And by extension, can anyone truly understand and empathize with another?”

This is a talk that I think everyone needs to see. The reason is all to clear. We live in a world where we have many “enemies” and we have been conditioned to just hate them, no questions asked. But that attitude hasn’t worked out well for us so far, so maybe we need to try something different. Will it make you uncomfortable? Probably. But sometimes that is a good thing.

At one point during the talk he says that many people ask him why he uses examples like this and he answers:

Because. You are allowed to hate these people [insurgents in Iraq], right? You’re allowed to, man, just hate them with every fiber of your being and if I can get you to step into their shoes and walk an inch, one tiny inch, then imagine the kind of sociological analysis that you could do…in all other aspects of your life…step outside of your tiny little world. Step inside the tiny little world of someone else and then do it again, and do it again, and again and suddenly all these tiny little worlds come together in this complex web and they build a big complex world and suddenly, without realizing it, you are seeing the world differently…everything in your life has changed, and that is what this is about.

His last statement sums everything up perfectly:

I’m not saying I support the terrorists in Iraq. But as a sociologist what I am saying is, I understand, and now perhaps, perhaps, you do too.

This is the goal. Understanding. We could do with a lot more of it.

“While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer,
nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

What are your thoughts after watching it?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2011 11:25 pm

    Fabulous. Thank you for having the courage to post this.

  2. April 28, 2011 1:51 am

    Well, that was very valuable. Thanks for sharing it. I’ll probably post it on my blog too. Oh the things we can learn by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. Hard things. But extremely valuable things.

  3. April 28, 2011 3:23 pm

    I confess, I haven’t listened yet. However, the premise reminds me of the closing argument Matthew McConaughey gives during “A Time To Kill”. He describes this horrific situation he has been defending and then says “now imagine she is white” and the empathy is palpable.

    • May 25, 2011 5:39 pm

      You know, I don’t think I have ever seen that movie. I should definitely do that. I would like to see this scene. Thanks for sharing

  4. Jessie Marie permalink
    May 6, 2011 7:53 pm

    I am a pretty empathetic person, but this…. this stretched me. And revealed some prejudices in my heart and head I had no idea were there. So… thank you. 🙂

    • May 25, 2011 5:41 pm

      You are welcome. It stretched me as well. I am glad it had an impact on you. I wish more people would watch it and be stretched as well. Thanks for your comment


  1. other people’s shoes | … this grace in which I stand …
  2. Do people “look guilty”? « Hands Wide Open
  3. One year anniversary « Hands Wide Open
  4. The illusion of asymmetric insight « Hands Wide Open

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: