Let’s help each other become empathy experts

When I started to write this piece, I initially thought I’d start to explain why I am so passionate about the subject. I thought about introducing the fact that I live in a small, diverse community that is slowly starting to explode with a growing underbelly that is speaking out against “otherness” or that I am the daughter of an Irish immigrant who (in his words) “had his Irish accent beaten out of him by the Nuns” at the Catholic school in the small town where I grew up. Or, that I am an immigrant myself — firstly making a new life in Australia before recently living and working in New Zealand.

I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for a long time, yet every time I try to put in to words how I feel, I’m worried that my own identity will somehow become the focus of public scrutiny and will ultimately undermine the message that I feel like screaming from the rooftops. Last weekend, something happened on our community Facebook page that scared me and I can’t get it out of my mind.

Put simply, a lady who was working her job servicing the community as a hard working bus driver was spat at by someone who was deemed by the observer as a temporary resident. Spitting at someone is never appropriate. Spitting in someone’s face is another level of disgusting. The ‘spitter’ happened to be in a group of men and this group also happened to identify as citizens of a country that is different to the place where we live. For arguments sake, let’s say this group of men were all from Pluto.

After the obviously intimidating incident (it also happened to be during the evening and presumably dark), the bus driver told her friend how frightened she felt and her friend posted on our community Facebook page that:

  1. the incident had occurred
  2. that ALL ‘Plutonians’ were responsible for this act and
  3. a mass apology, from all Plutonian people to the bus driver, should occur immediately

Here’s the thing, we live in a place where many Plutonian live and work. Some Plutonian stay here for the rest of their lives and others move on at the end of the season. The Plutonian bring a lot of energy to our community and, just like the people who are born here, most Plutonian are good, respect the land and the people around them.

The call to label all Plutonian as ‘spitters’ is a dangerous line of thought and one that needs to be curbed before it gets out of hand. What shocked me most was the response of other community members. One person said that it was the new generation of Plutonian’s that were the problem “the older generation are ok”. Another said that they were so enraged they were going to slash to pieces a gift that was given to them by a kind Plutonian the weekend beforehand. A third agreed that there were many issues with Plutonian that expanded beyond this incident. Thankfully, a number of people called out that the thread was racist and they tried to explain the reasons why. Unfortunately, the more the Plutonian people were defended by community members, the more people jumped in to defend those who were becoming increasingly adamant that all of the Plutonians are a problem. A virtual lynch mob started to form, Plutonian began to apologise (for the ‘spitter’, who they didn’t even know) and the thread degraded in to a complete mess. The admin team of the closed group finally took it down before any more damage could be done.

However, that’s not the end of it is it? The people who want to hunt all Plutonian clearly feel justified in their thoughts of persecuting all Plutonian for the actions of one person. I’m going to suggest something… the next time you feel the need to label, or stereotype, a group of people based on a single commonality please put it through what I am going to call the ‘spectacle filter’. For example “all spectacle wearers are X” (insert stereotype here e.g. rude, lazy, smelly, stupid — you get the idea). Simply replace the word that you are using for the group that you are describing and replace it with spectacle wearers. Gradually, this exercise should help you break the pattern of generalisation and unconscious bias. Unfortunately, unconscious bias is something that everyone possesses (Vernā Myers, Diversity Expert, explains this beautifully in this TED Talk). But, with conscious thought perhaps we can start to recognise our biases, open ourselves up and begin to empathise with others in order to achieve more harmonious communities.

Why does it feel like we have regressed, that more people are fearing ‘spectacle wearers’?

When our politicians use language and actions that pit group against group as a matter of course, what message is this sending to our communities? Examples of this can be seen all over the world — Donald Trump and his proposed wall dividing Mexico and America is one extreme example. The Brexit campaign that exaggerated immigration and promised to take control of the borders is another. The marketing campaign, administered by the Australian Government, warning “boat people” to stay away is the tip of the iceberg — the indefinite detention and treatment of asylum seeking refugees in Nauru is shameful. These are just 3 prominent examples that have received widespread media coverage, but there are countless more examples taking place in communities throughout the world.

When public figures talk about groups in derogatory ways, espouse rhetoric that undermines morality, and incites fear in their communities, it provides an example to those who have entrusted them as leaders and role models that this behaviour is acceptable.

Here’s another empathy hack that anyone can take for a spin — the next time you hear someone talking about mistreating a person or people, just because they belong to a certain group, put yourself in the shoes of that person. Imagine what it would feel like to be persecuted for no other reason than the fact you are a ‘spectacle wearer’. You see, the wonderful thing about empathy is it is a skill that can be taught and developed. That means that anyone can improve their capacity for empathy.

Our schools and our cultural institutions can help with this, but let’s not leave it at the doors of expert institutions — you can be an empathy expert too and we should encourage each other to improve our empathy skills. For example, the next time you hear an acquaintance, colleague, friend or family member position any group of people with any type of stereotype let’s suggest they put the sentence through the ‘spectacle filter’. If that doesn’t work, and the conversation turns south, paint an empathy picture to help them step in to the shoes of that person or group. You might not find success the first time but the more we help each other to practice empathy, the better we’ll all become at it.

Remember, empathy is a skill that can be learned — the more we practice, the better we get.

I’ve been collating related articles and talks on Twitter — @THUSTribe. If you want to join the @THUSTribe movement, or you have an idea that can promote empathy — let’s talk, I’d love to hear from you.

Share your #spectaclefilter stories @THUSTribe on Twitter and Facebook