Empathy not guaranteed. Photo: Flickr/ 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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.