Nurturing the courage and conviction to transform these systems is just as important as developing more empathy in ourselves and others. The idea of radical connection captures this combination perfectly. It’s a visceral recognition that we are part of something larger that urges us to act for the whole community’s benefit, and not just for those few individuals with whom we empathize directly.
Cultivating more empathy among people with different interests and perspectives is certainly one part of this story: as social animals, human beings can mirror the feelings of others without much conscious effort, even if they have radically-different life experiences, values and beliefs. From a social justice perspective this is great news. As Caring across Generations and other campaigns have shown, it means that connections can be built and barriers transcended that might otherwise seem impossible.
But this form of empathy also has its limits. In a recent New Yorker Article, Paul Bloom shows how empathy can become a reflexive, reactive emotion that short-changes the actions and understanding required in the pursuit of social justice
On its own, empathy focuses attention on the story of an individual at the expense of the larger landscape of inequality. Embedding empathy in the individualistic cultures that dominate modern life makes it less likely that people will interrogate the systems, structures and institutions that affect the lives of individuals in different ways.