Empathy Action : Wiltshire Voices

Wiltshire Voices
Empathy in action

Toward the end of his life, the great American philosopher Richard Rorty reflected on a lifetime of academic enquiry. His conclusion was simple - "It is through sentiment and sympathy, not through rationality and universalistic moral discourse, that democratic advances take place." This statement had a shattering effect on political philosophers. Rorty was turning his back on Academe and the Enlightenment by suggesting (ironically) that philosophy was of little relevance to social progress and politics. Here was the banal pragmatism of the plebiscite - social and political progress decoupled from rationality, born of the momentary expedient and swept along by ever changing tides of public opinion.

I always rather liked the notion that sentiment and sympathy should replace the rational and scientific as the rudder that guides society. But how do we make room for sentiment, empathy and sympathy in an empirical world - a world where what matters is the stuff we can count, measure, codify, meta-analyse, evaluate and interpret in a logical, rational, scientific quest for irrefutable truths? I assert the case for Rorty because I believe that democratic progress depends upon empathy - the identification of the self with the experience of the other. I believe it is this sense of identification that engenders sentiment and that in turn elicits our sympathy and motivates our response - private, social and political. For most of us, this does not entail a deconstruction of a moral dilemma, it simply leads to irrational but highly contextualised emotional responses. I might want to help, I might want to fight - the point is I want do something, change something.

The riots of 2011 would appear to vindicate Rorty's views. When empathy is completely absent the void is quickly filled with antipathy, intolerance and hatred - often expressed through violence. So, perhaps we should be trying to bring people into situations where empathy can be generated - maybe we can start to effect social and democratic progress through some form of 'empathy action.'

How can we generate empathy ? For Rorty, great literature could do it. For me it takes a bit more. I have been developing a methodology - a non empirical mechanism for generating empathy, sympathy and compassion. It starts from the recognition of difference, the identification of the other. Keeping it simple - I am not blind and I do not know what it like to be blind. I don't think about it much, it does not affect me. This is true of many, but not all. Those affected, their families, those who provide services - all have greater empathy, sympathy, knowledge and understanding. My methodology brings these people together to share and capture their insights and experiences. This is not a needs analysis because it views the participants as assets - they have the knowledge, wisdom, insight. We explore the individual narratives, highlighting the good things - the positives as well as the challenges. These conversations are captured, on tape, in words - verbatim. By repeating the conversations with different participants common themes and shared experiences emerge. Not only that - I change too. My empathy and understanding increases as the process unfolds. By the end of the sessions a set of common themes have emerged. The themes are turned into questions that are then used by a film crew to undertake documentary interviews with participants drawn from the focus group.

The films feature histories, experiences, narratives recorded in everyday settings - often powerful, often very moving. The skill of the film maker is to let the people tell their own stories, in their own words, in their own places. The films by themselves have an impact - they stick with you. The experience cannot be unlearned. The films are also used to share the empathy - on tv, in schools, with service providers, with decision makers, with politicians.

The films are powerful, but when used as part of a facilitated empathy action workshop they become an instrument of social change. By using challenging quotes from the film written on prompt cards participants are invited to reflect and discuss how the issue may be turned into a positive outcome - the 'win-sum' game. The workshop leads to positive action and it is also a powerful learning experience for everyone involved.

I am lucky to work with an extraordinary team of people in Wiltshire. The Council, elected members, partner agencies, local people and a fantastic film crew. Together we are delivering 12 films featuring people who either do not or cannot engage in civic life through traditional structures. Often these people are misrepresented and marginalised. We are working with: army wives, gypsy and travelling families, stroke survivors, people with learning difficulties, unemployed youngsters, polish migrants, older people living in residential care, people living with dementia, blind and partially sighted people, rural families on low incomes, boaters and residents living on a social housing estate in Salisbury.

The first film is in the can and it is truly something very special - something that far exceeds even our most optimistic of expectations. Click the link to watch the first film we made with Army wives.

Of course, it will take more than a few films to change the world. But I remain convinced that this is an idea that can make a difference. Maybe, somewhere out there in the afterlife, old Rorty is grinning at my naivety. 

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