The premise of ‘Empathy’ is interesting and has been the subject of much debate: the notion that empathy has a more muscular role in social justice, social change, collective action than perhaps it has been properly credited with. I should just say that I’d read a few of the ‘anti-empathy’ criticisms before picking up the book, and so approached it somewhat sceptically. Empathy has to be a good thing, of course, but does it really lead to action? Apparently it does. It quickly became apparent to me, just a few pages in, that the case being made for empathy education had been painfully misrepresented in some quarters. There’s nothing anti-rational or fluffy or navel gazing about encouraging empathy for those outside your in-group, if you actually care about some of earth’s most intractable problems and have studied the history of social change with any kind of seriousness.
Under Krznaric’s easy engaging writing style, there is a coolly argued case being made for empathy as a social force which can be harnessed in various ways for the good.
For myself, though, the book’s real interest value was in the case studies of those whom Krznaric calls ‘Empathic adventurers’: individuals throughout history who have been able to step outside of the social norms of a particularly rigid group, look at it from the less dominant group’s point of view and then come back to tell the tale. Another person might call these adventurers ‘Radicals’, and I’m sure many did. But it seemed obvious to these groundbreaking individuals that their society would only take collective action over others suffering when they could actually feel for these ‘Others’. When they no longer seemed like ‘Others’ at all. And that without empathy in the equation, nothing would change.
This is a pacey, engaging read. Well argued, well written.