Just imagine if that empathic message was on the desk of every banking titan or media baron, or even on your own. But Gandhi also pointed out that we need to push ourselves even further, that we need to empathize not just with the poor and the powerless, but also step into the shoes of our enemies. Gandhi was a Hindu who said, “I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew”. I think we all need to learn to empathize with our enemies, to increase our levels of tolerance, to make us wiser people and also to develop smarter strategies of social change.
But how does a Muslim get to meet a Hindu, or vice versa, how do you people here today get to meet people who are different from you, and step into their shoes? Well that’s why we need to do something else in the empathy revolution, which is to spark our curiosity. Now the problem is, that most of have lost the curiosity that we once had as children. We walk past strangers every day, without knowing what’s going on in their minds. We hardly know our neighbors. I believe that we need to cultivate curiosity about strangers in order to challenge our prejudices and stereotypes, because we so often make snap-judgments about people. I believe that the thoughts in other people’s heads, is the great darkness that surrounds us. And we need to use cultivating conversations with strangers to penetrate that darkness.
My advice is that as individuals, at least once a week you can have a conversation with a stranger. Whether it’s the person who vacuums the floor in the office, or someone who, you know, you buy a newspaper off every day. The important thing is to get beyond superficial talk and, just talking about the weather, and talk about the stuff that really matters in life: love and death, politics and religion.
But we also need to cultivate curiosity about strangers on a social level and promote projects like the Human Library Movement which you can see up here on the screen. It began about 10 years ago in Denmark and the Human Library Movement is now spread to over 20 countries. If you go to a Human Library Event, like this one in London, what you do, you go along and, instead of borrowing a book, as you would do from a normal library, you borrow a person, for conversation. It might be a Nigerian soul singer, or it could be a single mother living off welfare. The point is to have conversations with people who are different from you, challenge your stereotypes. Just imagine, if you organized a Human Library Event in your own community, who would you invite along for members of the public to talk to, to spark their curiosity?
Now, how do we know that these conversations and encounters between strangers, can really make a difference? History tells us so. We need to learn from history. We normally think of empathy as something that happens between individuals. But empathy can also exist on a mass scale, on a collective level.
Now, of course if you look through history there have been moments of mass empathic collapse. Think of the Holocaust, or the Rwandan Genocide. But there have equally been moments of mass empathic flowering. One that I think is vital to know about happened in the Second World War during the period of evacuation in Britain. When the Germans were going to bomb British cities, the government evacuated, sent away over one million children to escape the bombs, to go and live with foster families, with complete strangers. It was the greatest meeting of strangers in British history, maybe in world history.
And what happened? Well the result was that relatively well-off rural people living in provincial towns, were suddenly faced in front of them, with the realities of urban poverty in Britain’s cities because the children they saw now in their homes, were malnourished, had diseases, had torn and ripped clothes. There was a mass empathic response and public outcry, at the destitution that people now were suddenly discovered in their homes. And there was public pressure from women’s organizations, political groups, to pressure the government to introduce new child welfare legislation. And the government responded immediately, which is extraordinary because this was a moment in the middle of the war when there was great resource scarcity. The government introduced free food for children, new vitamins, new health packages, education packages. The government started, due to this empathic encounter, the origins of the British welfare state. It shows, I think, that empathy is not just a soft and fluffy concept about being kind to people. It can actually shift the social and political landscape.
We need to create encounters like this, today. Luckily, they are already happening. In the Middle East, for example, there is an organization called the Parents’ Circle. And it does extraordinary grass-roots peace-building projects. My favorite one, that they did was called the ‘Hello Peace’ telephone line. Now, if you are an Israeli, you could phone this telephone free phone-number, and you are put through to a random Palestinian stranger. You could talk to them for up to half an hour. Palestinians could phone the number and they were put through to Israelis. In the first five years of operation, over one million calls were made on this line.
Just imagine if you could set up one of those phone lines today between rich and poor or climate change skeptics and climate change activists. One thing I haven’t spoken about though, is creating experiential adventures. Just imagine if we didn’t just have conversations with people but we could actually experience something of their lives. I think a model of this is an organization called ‘Dialogue in the Dark’, which is a unique form of museum experience where you go into a room for an hour in complete darkness, and a blind guide takes you through to discover what it’s like to be deprived of your sight for an hour. You do activities like trying to buy fruit and vegetables and you fumble with your money. You go into a cafe, try and sit down and drink a coffee and, you know, find out how difficult it is. This museum experience is extraordinarily powerful for people, and this organization has spread around the world. ‘Dialogue in the Dark’ has appeared in over 130 cities, in 30 countries. In fact, it’s recently just opened in Athens, and over 6 million people have gone through its doors. So we need to create experiential adventures to expand our circles of moral concern.