We also need to learn to harness technology. Technology’s always been important in empathic movements. In the struggle against slavery in the late 18th century, the technology that was used was the printing press to print posters, tens of thousands of them of how many African slaves could be fitted on a British slave ship going to the Caribbean. This poster led to mass public outcry, petitions and it led to, eventually, the abolition of slavery and the slave trade itself.
Today, the technology we need to think about is social networking technologies, digital technologies. Now, we know that they can be powerful. We know that during the Arab Spring and in the Occupy movement, social networking platforms helped spread powerful emotions, like anger and like empathy. Somebody could take a photograph of a young woman called Nedā, shot on the streets of Tehran, and within hours millions of people around the world knew her name, about her family, who she was, and went on to the streets to protest at state brutality.
But you also need to recognize that modern technologies, digital technologies, have a danger to them. Because, most social networking platforms have been designed for the efficient exchange of information, not for the exchange of intimacy and empathy. In fact, they tend to promote, sometimes, superficial relationships. There’s a danger that they promote the quantity of the connections we make rather than the quality. They tend to connect us with people who are very much like us, who share our likes in music or films. So we need to create a new generation of social networking technologies, which focus on expanding deep empathic connection and connecting us with strangers.
But as well as this, we need to learn to become empathic leaders. Because we are all leaders, we all have spheres of influence, whether it’s in schools or in the workplace, in churches or community organizations. We can take a lead, I think, from great empathic leaders such as Nelson Mandela who realized, that in the transition from Apartheid, it was vital to try and create empathy and mutual understanding between black and white South Africans. That’s why, in 1995, during the Rugby World Cup, he asked black South Africans to support an almost all-white rugby team, a team that was a hated symbol of Apartheid. And the moment when he shook hands with the South African rugby President, after they won the World Cup, I think, was one of the great, empathic moments of modern history, and we can all try and follow Mandela’s example.
So those are the ingredients to start an empathy revolution. But there is one more I haven’t mentioned, which is to cultivate Outrospection. Socrates famously said that, to live a wise and good life, we need to ‘know thyself’. And we’ve traditionally thought that this means looking inside yourself, gazing at your own navel. But I believe to know thyself, we need to balance introspection, with what I call, outrospection. Outrospection is the idea of discovering who you are, and how to live by stepping outside yourself, and looking through the eyes of other people and discovering other people’s worlds. Empathy is the ultimate art form for the age of outrospection.
Now empathy, as a concept, is more popular today than at any moment in human history. It’s on the lips of politicians and neuroscientists, business leaders and spiritual gurus. Even in the last 10 years, Internet searches for the word empathy have more than doubled in frequency. That’s extraordinary. But we have to do more than just talk about empathy or search for it online. We have to turn empathy into a form of social action. We need to harness its power for social and political change. That is the way we’re going to create a revolution of human relationships in the 21st century.