Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Empathy, empathy! They've all got it empathy

I'd champion an ability to empathise over most human traits but in some circumstances can it actually hinder the progress of humanity?

Previously, I've waxed lyrical on the readiness of celebrities to associate with charity but on reading this article last week, I've finally been able to put my finger on a different aspect of prime-time fundraising television that has always disconcerted me...
"The concept of empathy—putting yourself into another's shoes—has fuelled political and moral thinking of late, inspiring presidents and academics to hail the feeling of another's pain as necessary to curing the world's ills. Crucial to empathy is "victim identification", by which we come to know the human face of tragedy. As a result, we are far more likely to give donations to a person whose picture we see on the news than seek solutions for systemic problems, such as underfunded hospitals, that affect the lives of far more individuals. In other words, empathy can result in the sacrificing of the many for the one." - The Case Against Empathy - bigthink.com
Children In Need and Comic Relief clearly fall into this trap because of their desire to show the "human face of tragedy" so forcefully. In doing so they miss a key facet of what should be the overarching question i.e. 'why have the political powers responsible not addressed the issues that led to this suffering?'

I always suspect the organisers (and the public for that matter) are far more concerned with which BBC newsreaders will be wheeled out for the annual dance routine. At least Bob Geldof physically and metaphorically loomed over Thatcher in the run up to Live Aid. He wasn't just looking on dutifully as an African child showed him round their woefully inadequate home. He wasn't just yelling "Give us yer money!"

It's this lack of focus on the 'systemic problems' that I can't abide. After all, isn't prevention always better than cure?

Children in Need alone raised over £26million in 2012. A fantastic sum. However, put into context (and this is where I wave the red flag), UK bankers bonuses alone totalled £13billion in 2012. That's more than the total GDP of Equitorial Guinea; a country, lest we forget, crippled by the cost of its debts to us in the developed world.
"Even though Africa has only 5 percent of the developing world's income, it carries about two thirds of the debt - over $300 billion. Because of this, the average African country spends three times more of its scarce resources on repaying debt than it does on providing basic services" - allAfrica.com
The funds and awareness that charities raise for their cause are extremely important; the good will and kindness of those that work for a charity is to be commended, yet, however good the intention, when we ourselves donate, I wonder whether we aren't just letting our politicians off the hook? Whether we aren't just perpetuating the status quo (and I don't just mean prolonging the careers of Francis Rossi and Rick Parfit. I've moved on from Live Aid now)?

Contrary to the article I quote here, I don't really think that empathy is the problem - you can't have enough of that in society to my mind - rather it's the action this "victim identification" catalyses.

It's an objective and politically engaged response we need rather than a guilt relieving, emotive knee-jerk reaction. After all, however much we raise financially, we won't cure the problem. 12 months later we'll see the same upsetting images on our TV screens again.

Next year I suggest that, instead of Bill Turnbull and Charlie Stayt performing Abba for our amusement, we should demand David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the rest of the House of Commons take their place. We might suddenly find there's a permanent change for the better. A change that money can't buy.

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