Sunday, 14 April 2013

A lesson in empathy from Justin Bieber

Bieber trying to work out what all the fuss is about.
Justin Bieber went to visit the Ann Frank Museum (you know this sentence can only end one way right?) and managed to offend the thinking world. Is anyone surprised? The terrible thing is not the inference that Ann Frank would have been a fan of a particularly annoying pop star, it is the flippancy with which the man stamps upon the feelings of so many. He does it without realizing (one hopes) through a serious lack of empathy not for Ann Frank, but for what she has come to symbolize for many people in the world. A young person whose writings survive long after her death, conveying her fears in an extraordinary situation along with her terribly mundane human concerns, is a figure we can all empathize with. But it is that matter, of our communal empathy and how it causes her to be precious, that Bieber ignored.

This leads me to the value of the study of history in our schools. These thoughts are concentrated by a recent hour long discussion on the subject with my employer, there are few things that focus the mind as much as justifying your employment. We have, thankfully, moved beyond the idea that history is the memorization of dates and names*, in the 21st century our relationship to knowledge has evolved sufficiently that this is a pointless waste of our children's time. Far more valuable to our young people are the skills for which history is an effective medium**

The key skill in this instance is empathy, not to be confused with interpretation. Interpretation, as a historical skill, governs a historian's ability to see any given event in history as existing simultaneously in multiple forms. A single event can, and will have, happened in multiple ways, all of which are accurate to a good historian. Like Schrodinger's cat the death of Harold Godwinson in 1066 can be both by an arrow in his eye, a sword blow from a norman Knight, and any number of other causes all at the same time. Because we only see history through the eyes of those who reported on it and passed their telling down to us, so, unlike the cat, we can never know the truth of how it happened. We are locked in a situatuion where all versions are true.

Empathy, on the other hand, is a historian's ability to place themselves in the position of someone from the past. To use all the available evidence to theorize on the feelings and motivations of that person. From this position they can attempt to understand why historical events came to pass. Why did Guy Fawkes attempt to assasinate the King? We can only use our skill of empathy to attempt to explain this action for a man whose existed as a persecuted and distrusted class. A foriegner, of a hated faith, who hears daily that his religious duty is to kill this Protestant anti-christ. Perhaps we can imagine what drove him to this desperate end, and in doing so gain an insight into the chaos that was the religious struggle of the period.

It would be nice to think that all humans develop empathy in equal measure as we grow, but I don't think that's true. I think it is more like a muscle; it grows as you use it. A colleague of mine said he thinks "liberals are just conservatives who haven't been mugged or raped yet." Rather I feel that conservatives are people who have not worked out their empathy muscle. Until they feel something for themselves, they are unable to imagine what it would be like for others. Rob Portman's recent change of heart on gay marriage shows a man suddenly confronted by a personal experience of injustice, suddenly he can understand why people have been so angry.*** Without the ability to understand the feelings of other, it is no surprise that conservatives do not grasp the need for a social safety net. They are doing ok, therefore the world is doing ok. In fact there have been two excellent examples of just this form of lack of empathy from Paul Broun and Saxby Chamblis.

To avoid this narrow worldview, it is essential our young people learn to exercise their empathy muscle. We must set them challenges that involves depth and understanding of the influences on people. There is no place for cold facts in the history curriculum, only endless questions. Paramount of these questions may well be "why did they do that?" And since interpretation tells us we will never know the answer, we can only attempt to understand all the forces acting upon a person, and place ourselves in their shoes. So I come to the crux of the Bieber-blunder, had Justin Bieber been able to place himself in the shoes of someone reading his post, who was not a devoted fan, he might just have realized that both societal forces of decency, and the powerful effect of Ann Frank's writing, were influencing much of the world to look on what he was about to write with abject horror.

*  Although Michael Gove is giving it his best shot at taking the UK curriculum back to it.****

** Also, as discussed on Melissa Harris-Perry recently, of value to our society as a whole. Don't we want the people around us to be able to empathize with us?

*** The fantastic "Tom the Dancing Bug" comic satirizes this point beautifully.

**** PS Gove, if even Niall Ferguson doesn't like your ideas, they must be shit.

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