Building An Empathy Culture

Sharon Booth

By Sharon Booth, Solutions Not Sides' Founder & Executive Director

15-30th April 2024 marks our annual matched fundraising campaign, in partnership with The Big Give. This year, our theme is Peace Builder Voices and why they are such a cornerstone of our work. In the blog post below, our Founder Sharon explores this by focusing on how building an empathy culture is so important. Our speakers are crucial to this aspect of our work, and we need your help to bring 25 Israeli & Palestinian speakers to the UK next academic year - learn more & donate over on our Big Give campaign page:

How social media can divide us:

“We are all living in cages with the doors wide open.” This quote by George Lucas is very applicable to our use of social media. When societies become divided, and racism is made permissible in the corridors of government, the resulting hurt, anger, and fear drives us into our cages, even further isolated and separated from one another.

What does the cage metaphor exactly apply to here? It applies to the tendency to trust secondhand sources on social media because they are emanating from an organisation we believe to be reliable, and dismissing the possibility that they might be incorrect - refusing to even investigate firsthand.

The rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia:

When it comes to the issue of Israel-Palestine, Jewish and Muslim people, particularly, suffer from antisemitism and Islamophobia as those with zero-sum ideologies project their simplistic and binary beliefs onto the Palestine-Israel situation. It is completely understandable that Muslim and Jewish people may feel angry, hurt and frightened. Muslim people are being accused of supporting terrorism or pogroms just because they show solidarity with the Palestinians. Jewish people are being accused of supporting apartheid and genocide just because they show solidarity with the Israelis.

Furthermore, some politicians with their own view of the world as a dichotomy and/or their personal power ambitions stoke the anger and hate with sweeping stereotypes and fear mongering that inflame the situation. The populist press completes the ugly picture with their attention-grabbing headlines that falsely paint Muslim and/or Jewish communities as a threat to our country, or to the world as a whole.

A resulting loss of critical thinking and a shame culture:

Unfortunately, some on both sides assume that the other is wilfully supporting an evil regime that wants to destroy their own side, and adopt an attitude of: “if you’re not for us, you must be against us” towards anyone who tries to promote dialogue and education involving diverse perspectives around this topic. Some begin to believe that this issue is purely about colonialism and oppression, or that it is purely an extension of centuries-old antisemitism, and these become the only two possibilities, between which one has to choose one’s truth. This sometimes reaches to the extent that secondhand sources of information on social media are preferred to firsthand research and experience just because they promote one truth or the other, and we become willing to let others make up our minds for us, rather than thinking for ourselves. It can also result in attacks against education and dialogue organisations, and attempts to shut down freedom of expression or action around this issue. 

Here at SNS, we believe in critical thinking, the acceptance that life and human society is complex, and that seeking a way forward towards breaking down racism and hate must always involve humanisation and empathy. We also believe that young people should have spaces for learning and discussion about this in our schools, and that they deserve the chance to think for themselves, rather than being told what to think. If we want to live in a fair, compassionate society where we celebrate diversity and protect one another from harm, we must begin to replace a culture of shame and bullying with a culture of empathy.

What do we mean by this? Shame is a social mechanism to induce compliance with the rules in members of a group. It can work in reducing racism, but how does it operate? In a shame culture, members of the group often comply with the rules out of fear of punishment, delivering short-term results in protecting minorities, but ultimately allowing the belief systems that gave rise to the prejudice to fester under the surface over the long term. The festering even becomes magnified when loss of reputation and career for one mistake leads to a sense of victimhood and further entrenchment in conspiracy theories against the feared and hated minority group.

Building an empathy culture:

An empathy culture however, can also be very effective for reducing racism, but compliance becomes authentic and driven by a sense that we care about one another, as well as about important issues such as Israel-Palestine. Ultimately, we need to explore the road ahead together to determine a way that we can fully express our concern, fear and horror at what is happening in the Middle East, but in a way that does not hurt one another. At SNS we have firsthand experience that this is possible, and it involves a willingness to listen, learn and debate respectfully (without needing to agree) and most importantly avoiding hate speech because we understand how certain terms and tropes have been used in the past and are perceived in the present. No one should have their freedom of speech and right to democratic and peaceful protest shut down, and no one should have to feel that they are unsafe in their home country. It is of paramount importance that we find that balance.

What does an empathy culture look like? It involves calling out and being tough on the racist ideologies, but in the first instance, not on the people who voice them. Everyone deserves a chance to understand and experience an empathy lesson and detach themselves from hateful ideologies. For example, process language rather than static language should be used. ‘The person is not a racist, they said something racist’. Racism is not an inherent and inseparable part of who they are, but something that they can examine and reject. Building a relationship with members of the group that they had previously stereotyped or seen as a threat is a vital part of the process.

Three skills are needed across our society for an empathy culture to be built. 1) Communication skills; 2) active listening skills; 3) conflict resolution skills.  Our workshops in schools deliver these important skills. We are not the only organisation providing solutions, but we are the corner piece of a wider puzzle of education specialists in this area. Communication skills involve being able to express how you feel and what you need without triggering a negative emotional response in others so that dialogue can happen. Active listening involves looking beneath the surface to understand what needs and fears are behind someone else’s position, and focusing on understanding what the other person is saying, rather than on what you want to say next. Conflict resolution skills involve being able to assess those needs and fears, and find solutions that meet enough of the needs of all involved, with an acknowledgement from all parties that it’s worth compromising on some things to ensure that the core needs of both sides are met, and the long-term situation improves.

Ultimately, our country should be a place where people of many different backgrounds and viewpoints feel at home, and where there is freedom to be yourself and voice your views about Palestine-Israel, without expecting that everyone around you should be and think like you. Whether or not we step out of our cages and engage with one another with empathy and respect, is up to us. 

For the next two weeks, all donations via our Big Give campaign page will be DOUBLED! Thank you for your support.