Full Transcript of sociologist Sam Richards’ TEDx Talk: A Radical Experiment in Empathy at TEDxPSU Conference.
My students often ask me, “What is sociology?” and I tell them it’s the study of the way in which human beings are shaped by things that they don’t see.
And they say “So, how can I be a sociologist? How can I understand those invisible forces?”
And I say, “Empathy.” Start with empathy. It all begins with empathy. Take yourself out of your shoes and put yourself into the shoes of another person.
Here, I’ll give you an example. So I imagine my life if a hundred years ago, China had been the most powerful nation in the world, and they came to the United States in search of coal. And they found it, and in fact they found lots of it right here. And pretty soon they began shipping that coal ton by ton, rail car by rail car, boat load by boat load back to China and elsewhere around the world. And they got fabulously wealthy in doing so. And they built beautiful cities all powered on that coal.
And back here in the United States – back here we saw economic despair, depravation. This is what I saw. I saw people struggling to get by, not knowing what was what and what was next.
And I asked myself a question. I say, “How is it possible that we can be so poor here in the United States, because the coal is such a wealthy resource. It’s so much money?” And I realize because the Chinese ingratiated themselves with a small ruling class here in the United States who stole all of that money and all of that wealth for themselves. And the rest of us, the vast majority of us struggle to get by. And the Chinese gave this small ruling elite loads of military weapons and sophisticated technology in order to ensure that people like me would not speak out against this relationship.
Does this sound familiar? And they did things like train Americans to help protect the coal. And everywhere were symbols of the Chinese. Everywhere a constant reminder.
And back in China? What do they say in China? Nothing. They don’t talk about us. They don’t talk about the coal. If you ask them they’ll say, “Well, you know, the coal? We need the coal. I mean, come on.”
“I’m not going to turn down my thermostat. You can’t expect that.”
And so I get angry and I get pissed, as do lots of average people, and we fight back. And it gets really ugly and the Chinese respond in a very ugly way. And before we know it they’ve sent in the tanks and they’ve sent in the troops and lots of people are dying. And it’s a very, very difficult situation.
So, can you feel me? Can you imagine what you would feel if you were in my shoes? Can you imagine walking out of this building and seeing a tank sitting out there or a truck full of soldiers? Just imagine what you would feel because you know why they’re here and you know what they’re doing here, and you just feel the anger and you feel the fear. Okay? If you can, that’s empathy. That’s empathy. You’ve left your shoes and stood in mine. And you got to feel that.
Okay, so that’s the warmup. That’s the warmup. Now we’re going to have the real radical experiment. And so for the remainder of my talk what I want you to do is put yourselves in the shoes of an ordinary Arab Muslim living in the Middle East, in particular in Iraq. And so to help you — perhaps you’re a member of this middle class family in Baghdad. And what you want is the best for your kids. You want your kids to have a better life. And you watch the news. You pay attention. You read the newspaper. You go down to the coffee shop with your friends. And you read the newspapers from around the world, and sometimes you even watch satellite CNN from the United States so you have a sense of what the Americans are thinking. But really you just want a better life for yourself. That’s what you want.
You’re Arab Muslim living in Iraq. You want a better life for yourself. So here, let me help you. Let me help you with some things that you might be thinking.
Number one, this incursion into your land these past twenty years and before? The reason anyone’s interested in your land in particular the United States? It’s oil. But it’s all about oil. You know that. Everybody knows that. People here back in the United States know it’s about oil. It’s because somebody else has a design for your resource. It’s your resource. It’s not somebody else’s, right? It’s your land. It’s your resource. Somebody else has a design for it.
And you know why they have a design? You know why they have their eyes set on it? Because they have an entire economic system that’s dependent on that oil. Foreign oil. Oil from other parts of the world that they don’t own.
And what else do you think about these people? Well, the Americans, they’re rich! Come on, they live in big houses, they have big cars, they have blonde hair, blue eyes. They’re happy. You think that. It’s not true, of course, but that’s the media impression. That’s like what you get? And they have big cities and the cities are all dependent on oil.
And back home what do you see? Poverty, despair, struggle. Look, you don’t live in a wealthy country. I mean this is Iraq. This is what you see — you see people struggling to get by. I mean it’s not easy. You see a lot of poverty and you feel something about this. These people have designs for your resource, and this is what you see? It doesn’t feel good.
But here, a couple other things? Something else you see that you talk about. Americans don’t talk about this, but you do. There’s this thing this militarization of the world, and it’s centered right in the United States. And the United States is responsible for almost one half of the world’s military spending. Four percent of the world’s population and you feel it, you see it every day. It’s part of your life and you talk about it with your friends. You read about it.
And back when Saddam Hussein was in power? The Americans didn’t care about his crimes. When he was gassing the Kurds and gassing Iran they didn’t care about it. When oil was at stake, somehow suddenly things mattered.
And what you see? Something else? The United States, the hub of democracy around the world? They don’t seem to really be supporting democratic countries all around the world. There are a lot of countries, oil-producing countries, that aren’t very democratic but supported by the United States. That’s odd.
Oh, these incursions. Here, let me help you. These incursions? These two wars? The ten years of sanctions? The eight years of occupation? The insurgency that’s been unleashed on your people? The tens of thousand, the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, all because of oil. You can’t help but think that. You talk about it. It’s in the forefront of your mind always. You say, “How is that possible? Come on.”