Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Closing the Empathy Gap with the “unlike”

Last night I had a powerful experience that relates to the issues of discrimination and compassion for people who seem different to “us”.

At a skilfully facilitated session (1) led by Shoshana Faire and Chantelle Ogilvie-Eliss (and initiated by the recently departed social justice champion, Elizabeth Ban) we were asked to tell as personal story that relates to one of four values themes.

 I told a story about something that didn’t happen. I didn’t show up at a birthday party on a boat for my non-Jewish friend Ray. Ray had been a good friend, he helped me when I had car trouble, he was loving and generous in his attitudes and words about me personally and he also volunteered huge amounts of time for a project we did together. Yet, I didn’t attend his special celebration. Perhaps I didn’t forget. It might have never fully registered in the first place. I am ashamed to say it, but at that early stage of my cross-cultural interfaith journey, I think I had a deep mental block about personal friendship with a “goy”. 

The six men and women I sat with shared anecdotes about freedom and cross cultural acceptance. Then we heard from a Hazara boy who recently finished school and a Tamil schoolgirl of 17 about their values, like charity, compassion, caring for others, independent thinking, fun playing volley ball and education. We really connected! I certainly care more now about the plight of asylums seekers subjected to cruel policies in Australia, than I cared yesterday before this session.

I think the power of the experience last night relates to two ideas discussed in the academic literature. One is that “research indicates a strong inverse relationship between levels of prejudice and empathy (2) and suggests that “invoking empathy can reduce racism levels (3) ”. This research found that empathy is more significant than information in countering prejudice. Yet, another scholar argues “We have more empathy for those we see as (being) like us”. In one research experiment “when viewing pictures of faces, people showed more empathetic responses, as measured by physiology and self report, for members of the same ethnic group” and that”empathy leads to helping only in cases when the  person in need is a member of the in‐group (4)”. This sounds like a ‘catch 22’, empathy is key to countering prejudice, yet empathy is least likely in cross-cultural situations, unless of course one can come to see “them” as one of “us”. This was certainly achieved last night. 

It is appropriate that the Torah reading this week deals with the un-kosher bird, called the stork in English but “Hasida” in Hebrew. There is a belief in Judaism that non-Kosher animals have bad characteristics, yet the name of the stork, “Hasida” is related to the word “Hesed” which means kindness. Yet our traditions teaches us that the stork is only “kind to its friends”, or its “own kind” (5). My prayer is that more Australians can extend our tradition of mateship to our fellow humans seeking safety and a better life on our shores. Let us all realise that “they” are “us”.

1)    The event was hosted by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in collaboration with the Sydney Alliance
2)    Batterham, D. (2001). Modern racism, reconciliation and attributions for disadvantage: A role for empathy and false beliefs? cited Pedersen, A., Walker, I., & Wise, M. (2005). Talk Does Not Cook Rice: Beyond anti-racism rhetoric to strategies for social action. Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30.
3)    Finlay & Stephan, 2000 Finlay, K. A., & Stephan, W. G. (2000). Improving intergroup relations: The effects of empathy on racial attitudes, cited in Pedersen
4)    Prinz, J, Is Empathy Necessary For Morality, http://subcortex.com/IsEmpathyNecessaryForMoralityPrinz.pdf accessed 14.04.2015
5)    This theme is further developed in my post http://torahforsociallyawarehasid.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/flawed-idealists-hasidim-prejudice.html

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