Empathy not guaranteed. Photo: Flickr/SPERA.de Designerschuhe, Taschen und Accessoires
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Will walking in the shoes of a Syrian refugee or an Etonian help you empathise? Roman Krznaric thinks so

Roman Krznaric speaks about his new project, the Empathy Museum, and why he believes it has the power to make visitors more empathetic.

“Every major city has a holocaust museum, so why shouldn’t they have an empathy museum”, says Roman Krznaric. He is talking to me about his newest venture, the Empathy Museum. 

It's a project that aims to salvage us from our self-absorbed and narcissistic lives by engaging with people we may not normally come across. These are words I’ve heard already on the promo video for the museum, but am no less struck by the uncomfortable premise.

Empathy, it seems, is quite the hot topic. The Independent reports that, despite the hours we spend online communicating with one another, “empathy is not spreading effectively”, while I’m sure everyone will be relieved to read the Guardian’s claim that empathy “could be the thing that saves us [from extinction]”.

Which is why Krznaric is giving us all a helping hand. He has spent the last few years co-founding The School of Life with Alain De Botton, a project that aims to promote “emotional intelligence” through culture. Its courses, which include titles such as "The Art of Sadness" and "The Secret History of Your Emotions", promise to enlighten you for the small sum of £45 a session.

Krznaric’s attentions have now turned to the creation of a museum all about empathy. A travelling, interactive project that will open in September, as part of London's Totally Thames festival.

The key thinking behind the museum is to take us away from our “hyper-individualistic society”, moving “from an age of introspection to an age of outrospection” (buzzphrases I recognise well from Krznaric’s promotional work).

“I define empathy as to be able to step into someone else’s shoes,” remarks Krznaric.

Which might explain the "empathy shoe shop". It’s an activity where you wear shoes that belong to someone else. “They may be those of a Syrian refugee, or a Chinese factory worker,” Krznaric tells me. “You will be wearing headphones and hear a recording of them talking about their own lives.

“You’ll see the world from their perspective, and literally be walking a mile in their shoes”.

I’m not entirely convinced the saying really works when taken literally.

But Krznaric is hot on his metaphors, as you can see from the museum’s promo video below. Clever layering graphics show Krznaric seeing the world (literally, again) through someone else’s eyes. An activity he mentions, and one that still makes me wince, is the theme park-esque invitation to “take your place among your fellow workers, and experience the relentless pace of a sweatshop factory”.

Combined with the trendy minimalist graphics of the video, this invitation feels quite shocking: the possibility of spending a few hours in a fake sweatshop in order to understand how the other half lives seems, to me, condescending to say the very least.

I ask Krznaric whether he thinks this might be problematic. It’s important, he replies, that it’s not just about empathising with the marginalised, but "with the rich and powerful, too". And for this he has a solution! While I doubt that many "old Etonian investment bankers" will be willing to volunteer, you can still get your empathy hit by wearing their shoes (they're designer, don't you know).

“We are also going to be developing projects where you bake bread with people who are, for example, asylum seekers or people from other realms of life: you bake bread with them and then eat the bread together,” says Krznaric. 

The symbolism is clunky, but Krznaric proves much more convincing on this idea. The thinking comes from the Contact Hypothesis: “The idea is that if you have two groups of people who hate each other . . . you should get them to do something together”.

He adds: “In 500 studies of contact between people of different ideals, in 96 per cent of cases getting them to do something together builds empathy and breaks down prejudice.”

The museum strives to make us less self-involved. Yet there is something smug about the whole endeavour: a kind of self-congratulatory emotional awareness that says, "well done me, I am capable of empathising with this poor person". The examples of minority groups used (Syrian refugee, Chinese factory worker, and so on) will certainly be worse off than the average person who visits the museum.

The whole idea behind the project makes perfect sense. Clearly we should all strive to be more empathetic, and I’m all for the "empathy revolution" Krznaric is so fervently promoting in his work. But the museum itself hinges on a tactlessness that doesn’t bridge social gaps, but reinforces them.

Krznaric assures me that, “it’s not just going to be a voyeuristic observer of someone else”. I can’t see how, with an activity called “the human library”, it can be anything otherwise.

The Empathy Museum opens in September 2015; its first opening will be part of London's Totally Thames festival.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.