The role of empathy in peacebuilding

By Diana Paz Garcia

Last Friday, we were introduced to the Mantras of Peace; it is a list of different values that peacebuilder should have. The first one was “empathize with other persons”. In order to exemplify it, we realized an activity where we had to look at a picture and try to put ourselves in the shoes of the person depicted; we had to emphasize with them. The images depicted refugees, kids in wars and suffering people.

Although interesting, this activity made me question the idea of empathy. The world is often used to make reference to the “imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it” (Oxford Dictionary). In other words, to be empathetic is to put oneself in the other’s shoes, to feel their emotions and particularly their pain.

Nevertheless, I believe that empathy is a concept in our field that is overused and often is unproductive. I will like to note that I am not against compassion, kindness or morality, but more that I do not believe that empathy is the most pertinent guide for peacebuilding. On the one hand, empathy implies feeling the other’s pain, however, as exposed by Pascal in the Pensées (1670), we are alone with our feelings. One of the beauties of humans is the loneliness and uniqueness of our emotions. They are non-transmissible, as well as our language is limited and lacks the words to describe them in their totality. Thus, we are left alone in this word with our feelings and sessions because we cannot completely communicate them. Consequently, it becomes impossible to empathize because our emotions are intangible, we can imagine and try to grasp what the other is feeling, however, we will never be able to completely feel what they are experimenting. And by empathizing we are minimizing and trivializing the experiences of our counterpart because we will never be able to completely capture the reality of what they are expressing. Moreover, emotional empathy, in our field can be detrimental because it can lead to what psychologists call empathetic distress (Paul Bloom). By trying to feel the terrible sorrow of the people we are helping, we are hindering our own psychological status. It is destructive of the individual in the long term. Experiencing other’s suffering is exhausting and can cause burnout. The empathetic distress is not constructive to the situation; it is not helping either party.

However, by this argument, I am not denying the existence of empathy. To some degree, it is natural for humans. For instance, babies often try to help – in their capacity – by patting and soothing when they hear the suffering of others (Paul Bloom). As well as other animals, such as chimps, pat and groom the victim of an attack (Frans de Waal).   

On the other hand, I think that empathy is a concept in the peacebuilding field that is often misguiding in the construction of social policies. I consider that “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” as explained by C. Daniel Batson is flawed. The idea is that empathy is a mean to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another and that when one empathizes with others, they are more likely to provide help. Nevertheless, what this hypothesis ignores is the fact that empathy is biased. We are more likely to feel empathy towards people that look similar to us or share some particular trait such as race or ethnicity. Additionally, research laboratories have found that empathy is more likely to happen towards an individual from whom we have personal information than towards a big number or statistical data. Thus, our social policies will improve once we put empathy aside; they will become more grounded in reality and least subjective.  

Sites DOT MIISThe Middlebury Institute site network.