Empathy: A Global Imperative for Peace

By Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, Professor and Chair of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Indiana University

An article calling to attention to the critical importance of empathy in human affairs, explaining how the employment of coarsening discourse can work against a civil society, and raises the crucial question of why empathy matters.

This essay maintains that interplays between empathy, goodwill and other-regarding behaviors can make a huge difference in arguing one type of community into existence (one based on inclusivity, peace, respect, and universal  human values) as opposed to arguing another kind of community into existence (one based on turmoil, meanness, wretchedness, genocide, and heaps of trouble).  The author calls attention to the critical importance of empathy in human affairs, defines empathy, explains how the employment of coarsening discourse can work against a civil society, and raises the crucial question of why empathy matters.

Drawing on the work of nineteenth century abolitionists as one keen example of empathy’s spatial reach, the author explains how empathy relies on bringing “the faraway nearby” as a tool for social change.  She argues that empathy is the crucible of intercultural relations.  It helps us to understand people whose values, views, and behaviors are different from our own, whether one is feeling sorrow for individuals who were massacred in Amritsar, Indian in 1919, or whether one feels the anguishing pleas of many innocent women and children today in war-torn countries.     Employing vivid stories, she clarifies and connects issues surrounding global justice, while maintaining, “humanity itself is a dignity” that is owed to all human beings regardless of their standing in global society.

In the final section of the piece, the author offers a pedagogy of empathy as a practical approach to improving human relations and fostering peace. A pedagogy of empathy includes knowledge and information-based skills that help global citizens respond to and manage intercultural encounters caringly and competently.  It focuses on skills that  citizens need to develop empathy, factors that influence empathetic competence, and approaches to improving empathetic effectiveness.  This discourse-focused study of empathy and conflict offers several practical uses of empathy that have huge consequences for civil society. Furthermore, the author argues that goodwill lies at the very core of empathy, and that it is made possible when we give people the benefit of the perceptual doubt.   Goodwill is empathetic literacy in practice, and it allows humans to “imagine” what it would be like to “live by someone else’s light.”  The author also recommends talking to strangers as a way of cultivating global friendships and participating in the share imaginations of others.  Talking to strangers allows us to transform our “daily habits and so our political culture.” These are compelling ways that one cultivates humanity!

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