An Introduction to Our Topic: Empathy

Welcome to the first issue of Dawson College’s Inspire Solutions e-newsletter. Empathy – the capacity to put ourselves in the other’s shoes, to identify with how they feel, and to understand the world from their point of view – seemed to be the ideal focus for our first issue as it is the basic capacity that safeguards our humanity. It is that powerful emotional response that can breakthrough even under the worst conditions, where our humanity seems all but lost.

In sociologist Stanley Cohen’s fascinating book, States of Denial, he stresses that the differences between those who participate in the suffering of others through “looking the other way” and those who reach out and help others are few. They essentially can be summed up by the latter’s extensivity, which he characterizes as “caring for others beyond immediate family and community, feeling part of a common humanity, being sensitive to moral violations and even seeking out opportunities to help” (2001: 263)As educators seeking to promote a more peaceful world, this is what we must inspire in our students, and the root of this capacity lies within our empathy.

Our keynote speaker from Dawson College’s last pedagogical day, mediator and educator Karen Ridd, told a powerful story about empathy from her days as a volunteer for Peace Brigades International. After being arrested and taken to a notorious torture center in El Salvador, she hears through her blindfolds the worst of what humans can do to each other. When a Canadian embassy official comes to take her out, Karen refuses to leave a colleague, who was arrested with her. The guards, shocked, ask her whether she wants more – a not so subtle allusion to rape, and Karen responds by saying that she, like them, can not leave a companion behind. This simple statement silences them, leads to the release of both women, and perhaps most significantly, makes them the talk of the center, as other guards come to “have a look at them” before they leave, almost as if they too want to hold on to this example of a human response in a place where empathy for those who suffer has disappeared.

Our positive emotions have been receiving more attention of late from both philosophers, who are increasingly seeing empathy as the foundation of human morality, and scientists, who have come to see that empathy is an innate, but fragile, capacity that needs to be reinforced by our environment. We are finding that it is not a uniquely human capacity, but one essential to the survival of mammals; that sex differences in empathy are far smaller than we typically think and increase as we get older, pointing to the influence of gender socialization (Scientific American 21.2); and that the part of our brain, the amygdala, that plays a key role in fear and aggression and can be triggered when we encounter someone “different”, remains inactive if we have come to see “others” as individuals. A recent study from the University of Michigan does however give us reason to be concerned as it suggests that levels of empathy among college students are almost 40% less than they were 20-30 years ago (“From Students, Less Kindness for Strangers?” New York Times 27 June 2010). 

The Dawson community has contributed some wonderful pieces to this issue, including Greta Hofmann Nemiroff’s provocative essay, “Can Empathy be Taught”; Daniel Goldsmith’s  inspiring look at how an appreciation of the interconnections within the natural world can unlock an empathic understanding; Julie Mooney’s vision of an educational environment where the unexpected can arise and authentic selves are revealed; and Cory Legassic’s examination of the potential danger of promoting empathy without a sense of responsibility.  Cynthia Martin and Denise Brend have offered musings on empathy from the disciplines of political science and social services, while Gloria Lalonde has provided some thoughts on a classroom-tested assignment that ensures a role for the personal in our academic discussions. You will also find links to several other writings on empathy and access to some powerful videos, including Jeremy Rifkin’s classic, The Empathic Civilization; journalist Krista Tippett’s reflection on the virtue of compassion; Primatologist Franz de Waal’s wonderful Ted’s Talk on empathy, compassion and reciprocity among non-humans; and Karen Ridd’s passionate talk at our Fall 2011 conference on building an empathic and caring classroom.

Enjoy and be inspired. 

Pat Romano

Humanities, Dawson College


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