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.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.