In his most recent book ‘This Book Will Make You Kinder’, Henry James Garrett explores how empathy and kindness shape society and the world.
Cara English, Head of Public Engagement, chatted with him about what role empathy can play to overcome barriers to trans liberation and social change.
Cara: You talk about how your anxiety around interacting with strangers can be an obstacle to actually bringing about the positive, empathetic changes we all want to see in the world. What do you think are some easy steps people can take, without necessarily having to leave their comfort zone?
Henry: My comfort zone, due to anxiety both general and social, is a tiny place. I don’t think I could actually do much good without putting at least a toe outside of it. But, I would say that it’s worthwhile for all of us to think about our personal strengths and weaknesses while trying to make the world kinder. What you tend to find is that there are actions that would be scary for someone else that you find easy, and the things that you find scary are well within the wheelhouse of some other people. So, we definitely don’t have to all be doing all the types of work and guilt around that can be unhelpful. I’m sure with the campaigning work that you do at Gendered Intelligence, there would be a lot of people who would find putting all the information together, and learning how policy gets made, far too intimidating; and that while that work is necessary, it’s perhaps just as important to have those long-term, reliable people who respond to every single one of your calls-to-action, who fill out every consultation, email their MP every time, and donate whenever it’s needed. I think in bettering the world everyone thinks they have to be a leader of some sort, and that they’re not doing as much good if they aren’t, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. So, I’m not saying stay in the comfort zone, because there’s definitely a lot of uncomfortable work to do (particularly required of us privileged folk who never do a smidgen of our fair share), but I am saying that we have different comfort zones, and different barriers, and it’s ok to recognise and work with that.
Cara: I loved what you said about the potential evolutionary motives towards empathy. What do you think are the barriers to people being able to work towards a more empathetic approach or understanding of the world?
Henry: So the book (spoiler alert) employs this notion of empathy-limiting mistakes which I posit (ambitiously) as the source of the bulk of human cruelty. I also suggest that we could understand moral facts as facts about what we would be motivated by empathy to do if we were making no mistakes that altered our empathy. That’s basically the whole book premise right there, so I hope you still want to buy it. To get more specific, I suggest that when we believe something false, don’t know enough, don’t imagine things fully, or arrive with a warped or limiting conception of morality, those things can all stop us from empathising as we otherwise would; those things stop us from experiencing that very basic aversion to the suffering of others. Of course, we make those sorts of mistakes all the time with people we know directly, but the largest-scale examples of mistakes like those are the product of incentivised ignorance on the part of a powerful group. The barrier is often that it just suits the more powerful group to not empathise with those whose suffering they cause and benefit from. I think as our societies have become more complex, and the causal routes between our actions and their consequences have become more convoluted, it’s gotten easier to be cruel (though we’re still culpable for that cruelty) because it’s become easier to maintain that ignorance that allows us to justify our actions to ourselves. A lot of our cruelty is mediated through bureaucracies that hides it from view. So it’s about how we make ourselves and others look at things head-on.
Cara: It felt poignant when you recalled that you’d historically been contributing to a sexist culture, and the role—however indirect—you felt you had to play in undoing this. Is it this kind of rallying against wider injustices and cruelties which you imagine underpin a lot of what we call ‘empathy’?
Henry: Yeah, I’ve definitely been guilty of contributing to a lot of oppressive culture, and I’m sure I still am in ways I’m yet to spot. I definitely think that the starting point for many of us in our moral, political, or empathetic work (whatever you choose to call it) will be looking at the ways we are participating in cruelty, or not doing enough to disavow and deconstruct cruelty perpetrated in our name, particularly where we hold privilege. And, of course, we need far more people to rally against those injustices that don’t affect them with that vigour they would exhibit if they did.
Cara: What effect do you think vectors of huge amounts of information, such as social media, can play in the shaping and reshaping of more empathetical understandings of society?
I think social media is one of the ways in which cruelty has become easier as mentioned above. It makes it far easier for people to maintain their ignorance (to exist in little mutually-reinforcing ignorance bubbles) and it also makes it easier to practice cruelty; it’s so much easier to believe that the people we’re talking about, and to, aren’t really people with feelings just like our own when we’re in online spaces (particularly when they’re part of such a small minority that we may not have met anyone who shares their identity in real life).
But social media can also do wonderful things. Online, you can seek out the voices of people you might not have otherwise heard from. And you can listen to people from marginalised communities without demanding that they personally educate you, and because people mix their activism with their more personal life on social media, you also get a more whole picture of people than you would if you just went and heard a talk say; you get a sense of what someone is like outside of their role as an activist or educator. Social media can be very humanising in that way. Personally, a lot of the learning I’ve done has been online, so I have to say I’m really grateful for the existence of that form of social media education.
Cara: How important is it in being a better person that you learn how to really listen to others?
Henry: It’s everything. The line from my book is, “under the view of kindness and morality presented in this book, listening isn’t some nice add-on to being a good person; it’s the essential starting point. Through failing to listen, we cultivate the ignorance that limits our kindness. It is only by putting in the work of good listening that we can prevent empathy-limiting mistakes and reliably do the right thing.” The crucial points though are: Who are you listening to? And, are you listening with a view to believing what they have to say?