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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The English left must fall out of love with the SNP

There is a distinction between genuine leftism and empty anti-establishmentarianism.

After a kerfuffle on Twitter the other night, I am all too aware that writing something even mildly questioning of the SNP government is the British equivalent of approaching a lion pride on a kill. Nevertheless, seeing the almost hero-levels of mental gymnastics tweeted by Mhairi Black, in the week of the Hillsborough inquiry whereupon Nicola Sturgeon posed with a copy of The Sun endorsing her re-election, prompted me once more to consider just how spectacular the distance has become between the SNP that stood against Ed Miliband versus the SNP today and in government.

Mhairi tweeted: “So Kezia wants to put up the taxes of Scottish people to subsidise Tory cuts that her party supported in Westminster?”. Confused? So am I.

This follows in a series of SNP revisionism on what austerity is and the excuses the SNP has hidden, not quite so conspicuously, up its sleeve to not act on its new tax powers, so as not to break its bond with Middle Scotland. They insist that Labour’s plans for a penny tax are not progressive, and have framed it in such a way that an anti-austerity plan has now become a subsidy for cuts Labour actually haven’t supported for more than a year now. Just like that, the SNP is a low-tax mimicry of Toryism.

But it isn’t ‘just like that’. The SNP have governed from an economically cautious stance for seven years. For a brief period, they borrowed Ed Miliband’s clothes. But once the Red Wedding had been completed, they returned back to where they started: as successors to New Labour, though that is hardly fair: they are far, far less redistributive.

So why is it, in the 2015 election, and even today, many of us on the left in England still entrust our faith in SNP rhetoric? Still beat the drum for an electoral ‘progressive’ coalition with a party that doesn’t seem very happy to embrace even the concept of higher taxes?

My theory is that the SNP have successfully, indeed more successfully than any party in Britain, adopted the prime hobby of much of the Left: ‘againstism’.

‘Againstism’, clumsy I admit, is to be against everything. This can include a negative framing of being anti-austerity but not pro-anything in its place. But in this instance, it means to be anti-establishment. The latter, the establishment, is what Labour as a party of government always has aspired to be in competing to be the national government in Westminster - which is why elements of the Left will always hate it and will always vote against it. In a way, some of the left is suspicious of governance. This is occasionally healthy, until it prevents real progressivism from ever being elected.

While in government, Labour could be seen as sell-outs, rightly or wrongly, because they became the establishment and had no one but themselves to blame. The SNP are the establishment, in Scotland, but can nevertheless exercise ‘againstism’, even with new tax powers. They always will so long as Westminster exists, and so long as their main motivation is independence. This is why the bogeymans that sustain nationalism are not natural allies of social democracy; to achieve social democracy would be to remove the bogeyman. This means that the Lesser New Labour tradition within which they govern will continue to go unnoticed, nor be doomed to eventual death as New Labour itself suffered, nor be looked back on as an era of neoliberalism. The SNP can just avert attentions back to the Westminster establishment. ‘Againstism’. Paradoxically, the way the SNP have managed to come to exploit this is because of New Labour's devolution. Devolution has created, for the first time, the perfect environment for an establishment in one part of the country to blame the establishment in another. It has allowed for the rise of an incumbent insurgent. The SNP can campaign as insurgents while still being incumbents. It is a spectacular contradiction that they alone can manage.

Insurgency and anti-establishment politics are not, of themselves, a bad thing. We on the Left all dip our toes in it. It is a joy. It is even more fun for us to be successful. Which is why the celebratory mood that surrounded the SNP gains in Scotland, a paradigm shift against one incumbent for another, is, objectively, understandable. But these insurgents are not actually insurgents; they are the illusion of one, and they have had the reigns of power, greater now for the Scotland Bill, for seven years. And they have done little radical with it. The aim of an anti-establishment politics is to replace an establishment with something better. All the SNP have done is inherit an establishment. They are simply in the fortunate position of managing to rhetorically distance itself from it due to the unique nature of devolution.

This is why some of the Left still loves them, despite everything. They can remain ‘againstists’ regardless of their incumbency. They do not have the stench of government as a national Labour government did and inevitable would have. So the English Left still dream.

But now, with this mounting evidence and the SNP’s clumsy revisionism, it is up to the English Left to distinguish between genuine leftism and empty anti-establishmentarianism, and to see the establishment -via governance- as something to define for itself, to reshape as something better, rather than something to be continuously against. This is, after all, what Attlee's government did. The SNP have not defined the establishment, they have continued someone else's. It's up to us to recognise that and fall out of love with the SNP.