a need for empathy

October 8, 2016

There was a wonderful, if depressing, tweet from J.K.Rowling yesterday: If we all hit ctrl-alt-del simultaneously and pray, perhaps we can force 2016 to reboot. Brexit, the rise of Trump, the failure to support the peace initiative in Colombia, support of elderly white socialists, Universities are closed in South Africa by riots arguing for education and so on. Racism and misogyny are legitimised by popularism. The Chinese curse to live in interesting times might have been made for this year and its not over yet. It’s been called a post-fact society, a world in which reason has little or no place, people vote against their own interests and the establishment is rejected as an act of rejection, not an act of reasoned protest. Syndicalism and being part of a movement is more important that to actually change things. We live in echo chambers, augmented and enabled by social media, to prevent encounter with any uncomfortable truth. We live in a world where despair legitimises any protest and in a world of pre-victorian levels of income inequality and opportunity who can dispute the morality of those who are the victims of a system which is maintained for the elites?

The mistake many make is to assume that all of this is intentional. I have friends who are using the language of Zionist Conspiracies seemingly unaware of the historical antecedents. Equally ignorant of history is the recent demand in the UK to list all foreign nationals working for companies. Blaming one class, or race, or sex or ideology for all evil has far too many precedents for ignorance to be forgiven. Most aspects of human society are emergent properties, more cock up than conspiracy which is not to say that people do not make decisions in their own interests, or that they don’t seize the opportunities provided. We are dealing with a flow of narrative, a series of aligned tropes from which it may not be possible to escape.

But escape we must and that escape will not come by condemnation, indulgent sarcasm or condescending humour (and that was as much confession as condemnation). If I pickup the very basic lessons of what I have taught over the years then we have to start from where things are, not from where we would have liked them to be, or think they should have remained. About three years ago I sat in a house in Colombia taking with friends about the dangers to the peace process of the referendum being rejected. I argued then that the context of negotiation is one of hope, and it is too easy to be swept up in that hope. In Brexit the complacency of the those who supported remain fell fowl of a need to protest, to reject the advise of those too distanced from day to day reality. In South Wales a few weeks ago a group of us discussed how, in the past, MPs came from their constituencies they were not parachuted into safe seats by those in power. The ability to understand, the empathise and as importantly to be seen as authentic in the attempt has been lost.

For the last eight plus years I have been trying to persuade people to allow us to create a citizen sensor network, to gather the street narratives of communities of all natures to understand the patterns of attitudes that lead to decisions. Critically, and in the design of SenseMaker® I and colleagues argued that people should be empowered to interpret their own narrative, not to subject it to computer algorithms and experts. Over that period we have had a lot of success with individual projects on four continents. We have show the way in which patterns of meaning can emerge from that material and the persuasive power of narrative matched with numbers. But now is the time to extend this and at scale, to create a manner of understanding and interaction which does not tell people what they should do, but allows interventions based on an understanding of those street stories, that both respects them and the need for change. The event described earlier have created a new awareness of what is possible and a willingness to engage. So for the next couple of weeks I am completing the work to define what it would mean to scale and then in subsequent weeks to lobby those with the means to make it happen. Empathy, the ability to see things from different perspectives is creating something sustainable. That means exploring not only the ways in which we engage citizens, but also how we create meaning. Two major programmes will address those, linked to work we are planning on physical activity.

As part of that I am creating a peer review group of those interested, so this post is to solicit those with similar motivation and some knowledge of complexity and distributed ethnography, especially those with experience of explaining these things to those in power: leave a comment or email .

One response to “a need for empathy”

  1. Irene G says:

    Sounds related to this, older initiative by the RSA “The Citizens Economic Council is the RSA’s attempt to address this democratic deficit through an independent public engagement process bringing together a randomly selected and demographically diverse group of citizens to embark on a journey of deliberation and dialogue on the economy and economic policy.”

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