Exchange to Change May 2017 20170524 EtC mei 2017-web - Page 3
Remember that moment in a conversation that you said “Yes, I understand”. Not that time you just said
something to get the other to keep talking while your mind was drifting away to a totally different place,
but the moment you really meant what you said: the moment you were able to imagine the experience the
other had just shared with you. That is the moment of empathy.
Empathy is different from sympathy, the eliding of one’s soul into that of the other, the feeling of
togetherness, the disappearance of all differences and otherness. Sympathy has way too much pathos. It
is Bill Clinton exclaiming “I feel your pain” in response to an AIDS activist. Did he really?
Empathy, by contrast, is less immersive, but it is deeply reflexive: you keep standing in your own
shoes and yet you can imagine yourself in another’s position. Whereas, in the moment of sympathy,
your self disappears into the nowhere of everything, it is part and parcel of the imaginary exercise of
“understanding” that you keep seeing the difference between your own and the other’s position. In
so doing, you define your relationship to this other person and you validate their existence. Empathy
creates a network of relationships between different autonomous beings, sympathy suggests a nirvana of
Empathy is all over the place in Adam Smith’s “Theory of moral sentiments” and the sociologist Richard
Sennett promotes it as the basic building block to construct a liveable global society. The reference to
Smith might be confusing as the gap of two hundred years between his writings and our time has led us
to associate his thinking more readily with that other principle of conduct, our own interest. That is the
principle Sennett ascribes to the other shapers of globalization, the promoters of a neoliberal world order.
While most of us would agree that pure self-interest cannot be enough when thinking of a future-positive
global society, the big question is how to think the next step. And the big answer is, according to Sennett,
not sympathy but empathy. A deeper understanding of each other’s life experiences may provide a basis
for cooperation as a complement to competition. The exchange of ideas, stories and experiences to build
towards change: Exchange to Change!
Everyday diplomacy is empathy’s close cousin. Sennett defines it as the art (as in “artisan”) of working
with people with whom you fundamentally disagree or who you even dislike. It is through everyday
diplomacy that we can overcome indifference in the midst of difference. We can carve out a modus vivendi
of cooperation, somewhere in-between the imaginaries of a strong but ultimately elusive solidarity, on the
one hand, and the seemingly inescapable shadowland of the neoliberal world order on the other.
I hope you understand.
Tom De Herdt
E xchange to change M ay 2017