This week’s ADMIN CAT! 27/03/2014
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If there is one thing I have learned in the past two years of studying philosophy, it is that the meanings we take words to have are often contestable with even the slightest of scrutiny. I was recently invited to take part in a discourse about ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’ and this learning held true once again.
When I say ‘contestable’, I mean in a specific sense. Broadly, we can look at definitions of these words and come to a mutual, universal consensus, and that is what we basically do in everyday language and communication (otherwise we wouldn’t get through a sentence!). But when asked to consider these terms, we soon realise how nuanced, and sometimes divergent individual interpretations can be. Empathy, for example, can be defined in the following terms:
“The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.” (“empathy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 26 March 2014.)
This seems a good place to start, however, what the OED description lacks is any subjective account of what the word means. It tells us nothing of ‘how’ we empathise (nor is it intended to), but by striving to objectively define the term, it does offer us some initial insight.
There is a more commonly used, metaphorical description that I’m sure you’ve all heard before: ‘Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’.
We often find the use of metaphors in language to describe abstract concepts, perhaps because they tend to offer us a richer, novel, yet accessible way to explore an idea in terms we are more familiar with. Just the simple idea of ‘walking’ the life of another conjures up sights, sounds, interactions and experiences – the imagination, consideration and appreciation of what it might be like to be somebody else.
But notice that in both the dictionary and folk definition of this term, no ‘normative’ description if offered, i.e. it makes no qualitative assessment of the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the act of empathising: its positive or negative virtues.
In considering this, I am led to thinking that empathy is in its nature a passive, innate ability within us. In my recent discussion I found myself saying something along the lines of: “empathy just happens to me – I don’t choose it – but it does moderate how I then act”.
As a writer I often try (and actively seek out) the opportunity to empathise with characters and real world ‘like’ examples who I don’t agree with, or have little in common with. This is to help me try and understand their motivations, intentions and world view. Notice how the word ‘understand’ begins to creep in at this point. Of course, we can never fully understand anyone else’s states of mind, but empathy is the best tool we’ve got, and it is also necessarily intertwined with the imagination.
From this, I would propose, that judgement follows, and as a result, emotional states such as ‘compassion’ can be evoked. So although this blog, and my recent discussion, is titled ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’, maybe the order needs to be jigged around a little, (and a few words added):
There may be a case to be made that ‘understanding’ and ‘judgement’ are one and the same thing, however, that needn’t affect the above, given their central positions in this chain of reasoning. The inclusion of ‘experience and imagination’ at the start of this chain is just an acknowledgement that without the sensibilities to experience and the ability of the imagination to ‘re-represent’ ideas in our minds, we could get no further anyway.
* I used ‘anger’ as another example in the ‘emotional state’ parenthesis to try and demonstrate that ‘empathy’ alone is no guarantee of positive outcomes, but I don’t think that this conclusion is in itself a negative one, or in any way lessens the importance of empathy.
Perhaps the more we try and understand others, on an emotional and factual basis, the better judgement’s we will make, and the more apt our emotional responses may be. It seems obvious that empathy stands at the forefront of this process, but it needn’t be one way. If we imagine the above chain as a snake eating its own tail, rather than a straight line with finite ends, then we can ‘feedback’ our own resultant emotional states into our empathy, and come to new and more complex conclusions. (Think of a psychiatrist asking ‘how does that make you feel?’ and then that answer informing a new round of thinking which may shed light on deeper, more subtle emotional states once this is considered; a kind of ‘self-empathy’, if you like).
Similarly, it seems this process works in degree’s of fidelity: it’s quality is dependent on how much information we actively seek out about the subject (the preconditions). It seems obvious that the less know I about someone, the less I am able to empathise, but that will not prevent me from empathising to some degree. So, if we want to empathise better, we need to seek out and experience as much as possible about the subject, or our resultant emotional states may be misjudged, underdeveloped or erroneous. (I would argue that this is the cause of much hatred and misunderstanding in the world – not a lack of empathy, but an underdeveloped and ill-informed empathy – a twisted or broken empathy, if you like).
Maybe, therefore, a project to understand, measure, and even look (in some cases) to repair empathy, would need to consider the range of experiences and information available (and readily accessible) needed for people to build a greater knowledge, and as a result, experience a better quality of empathy and a more apt emotional connection with others in the world.
Please feel free to dispute, elaborate and comment on this initial exploration of empathy as I have set it out here. I enjoy the use of philosophical methods to explore concepts, but I also get frustrated with some approaches that purport to ‘know’ the answer. The value of an exercise such as this (I believe) is to throw up new considerations, tease out assumptions, and lead to continued discourse about the topic in the hope of shaping ‘real world’ activities and inform considered thinking and outcomes. For example, maybe ‘empathy’ is the process I’ve set out above, not just part of it – or maybe it’s nothing like this at all! There is still a lot to be discussed and explored here – this is barely a scratch on the tip of a massive iceberg (there goes those metaphors again!).
Thank you for reading.
Here’s another routine that if I was a stand-up, I would do. But I’m not, so I’ve written it down instead:
This year, all being well, I will finally get my degree. Only a few more essays and an exam to go.
I came back to higher education as a mature student, being in my thirties, which can be strange and socially awkward for some people, but not for me! I still tore up the town on Freshers’ week and drank my fair share of discounted drinks, oh yes – I mean, I study at the Open University so when I say town, I mean my living room, and the discounts were two for one on Cabernet Sauvignon from the local Bargain Booze, and when I say ‘tore up’ I mean I watched the hell out of the ‘Game of Thrones’ on box-set, and it wasn’t really Freshers’ week, just every week really – but it’s more or less the same thing isn’t it?
Anyway, I’ve been studying philosophy, which is a fascinating subject, it really is, but I do find it spends a lot of time asking the really big questions, like ‘is there a God?’, ‘what is the true nature of the self?’, ‘can we trust our senses to interpret reality when they can be deceived by nature and dreams? And therefore do we have any reason to believe anything exists at all other than our own consciousness, ergo cogito sum, do I think, and therefore, am I?’. But I sometimes wonder if the smaller questions in life might not be more illuminating, such as ‘why do we all go “wahey!” every time someone drops a glass in a public place?’
It might not sound like the cutting edge of philosophical study, but sometimes, looking in small and seemingly insignificant places can shed great light on otherwise dark places, a bit like finding a torch in a sock draw. And also, despite a lot of people thinking that philosophy is an inherently un-testable, highly theoretical subject, there are actually a lot of avenues for empirical research we can look at here. For example, it seems to me that the actual shattering of a glass is in some way tacitly connected to the utterance of the sound ‘wahey!’ in any instance. I can’t recall the last time I was sitting in a pub or restaurant and I heard the sound of a small plastic beaker bouncing off the floor and a group of total strangers all collectively cheered. Can you? No. Because it doesn’t happen.
So what is it specifically about the dropping of glass that causes this phenomenon and moreover, do the circumstances in which the glass is dropped impact on the resultant behaviour? Here’s a thought experiment for you, a popular tool in philosophy where we hypothesise a scenario and then think about how it might play out, and what implications this could have:
Say we’re in a chemical biological testing facility, and a man walks past holding a highly contagious and deadly strain of flu in a glass beaker. The man drops the beaker. It smashes. Does everybody in the laboratory go ‘wahey!’ before they break out into screams of ‘oh my God! We’re all going to die!’ and start sleeping with each other? Granted, we can’t test that theory literally, but we could mock it up, film it, and pass it off as a new cutting edge comedy series for the likes of BBC3’s new ‘online’ digital output.
Also, do factors like scale, volume, distance and number of participants make any difference? If we change one of these parameters, does it have a significant causal impact on the result? For instance, if I drop a small shot glass, 50 metres away from a solitary unaware subject (so as not to skew the results) will she just let out a little ‘wahey!’ to herself? Will she just think it, but be inhibited by the lack of social context in which to express herself? Or will she run away from the man who is slowly advancing towards her repeatedly dropping larger and larger glass objects and filming her? From this we can find if it is a matter of degree, a sliding scale as such, of ‘wahey!’ behaviour (that from here on I shall call W-behaviour, cos it sounds more academic), or if there is a critical mass and combination of factors required to elicit said W-behaviour.
And what can we learn from all this? Interestingly, we can learn that after studying philosophy for the last few years, I am prone to over-thinking. Which just goes to show, if you put a torch in a sock drawer, you may just find those pants you thought you’d lost.
It’s all connected.
ADMIN CAT! has a new home, here on my blog, which seems only appropriate. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been drawing these cartoon strips weekly since 2013 and posting them on my various social network sites. But now: he is here! This blog will be updated each week with the latest cartoon, so you will be able to view all of them through the ‘Admin Cat’ category, that should, hopefully, be linked on this page. But for now, here are all of his adventures so far! Enjoy! And feel free to post links to this anywhere you like, but please don’t just grab the image if you do – post the URL! Thanks!
Today I want to ask some questions about e-petitions. I’m sure I don’t need to explain in detail, but e-petitions are calls for action or protest, circulated via the internet, that are able to be digitally signed by supporters.
The questions I want to ask are as follows:
The reasons I am asking these questions is that I’ve noticed a change in my behaviour recently when it comes to internet petitions. I think it has been triggered by an increase in email I have started to receive, asking me to support various causes. Presumably this is because I have in the past, signed some petitions. However, my main concern is that I am getting to the point where I am deleting these emails before even reading the information, and as such, I am trying to examine why that is. Upon reflection, I think the above questions broadly represent my concerns. Hopefully in this blog, we can work through these together, and please feel free to post your views or further information to the comments if you think it will be informative.
The UK has had an official e-petition system in place since around 2010-11. As I recall, it was heralded as being a step to more accountability and transparency (what isn’t?). The point was that any petition over 100,000 signatures can trigger a reading by a back-bench committee, and, if passed, then move onto a debate in the house of commons.
Of course, like most ‘accountable and transparent’ democratic powers, the caveats have a big impact. There is no requirement for the petition to be debated, a simple reason stated on the website can, and does, suffice in many cases (such as, ‘this issue is being looked at under another guise’, or simply ‘here are our reasons why we won’t look at this further’).
So, a once exciting sounding proposition, the power to set debate, very quickly diminished to the realms of ‘gimmick’ for a lot of people, I suspect. For a start it was flooded with badly written, misspelled calls for the death penalty to be reintroduced, and other quite extreme causes. Also, it seems from a quick inspection that many causes struggle to hit the threshold for debate anyway, and those that did/do, are often backed by newspaper campaigns, which to my mind, is much the same as what was happening before anyway (the media sets the agenda, the government responds).
NGO petition sites
More recently there has been a surge in none-government organisations offering the tools and services needed to start your own petition. Notable groups include 38 Degrees and the US based Change.org. A quick scan of funding methods for each reveal a big difference. 38 Degrees is a none profit organisation, funded by donations from members and charities. Change.org however, is a profit led business, paid by large NGOs like Amnesty International to run campaigns and also funded by advertising revenue. However, as a result of this funding model, it still offers a free service that anyone can use to run a campaign.
There are also other, less well known e-petition sites out there offering much the same. From a quick glance, I see the names ‘go petition’, ‘petition online’, ‘the petition site’, ‘i-petition’ etc..
So why so many?
It would seem to me that this is one sector where too much choice is potentially a very bad thing. Already I’ve listed seven sites, from a mere few minutes of research. So, take a message, have it represented seven times, in seven different ways, and distributed to seven different mailing lists and groups of users, and instead of one big resounding statement to deal with, you’ve got seven smaller none-unified voices to ignore.
Putting myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t really want to listen to the united voices of the electorate, this division seems most helpful. Added to that the fact that the government have already given us a site for logging petitions, and yet we are choosing not to use it, I would have further reason to ignore the pressure from the none official groups.
Another way to look at it would be that having an open-sector will encourage the best to rise up to the top and keep innovating in order to more efficiently influence and win supporters to their platforms. Regardless of whatever funding model they are using, presumably some of the money has to be supporting jobs and salaries (which is fair enough), and therefore, competition is a healthy stimulant.
But then, it is us who are setting the campaigns, isn’t it? It is us who are after a democratic influence of our own, isn’t it? After all, we don’t want to open up yet another level of mediation between us and our representatives, influenced by supporting organisations and individuals, either privately or publicly, do we?
So what are we achieving with this relatively new democratic tool. Today (12/03/2014) – These are the top successes featured on change and 38 degrees:
Now, the government e-petition site doesn’t list ‘successes’ as it is just a gateway, so let’s look at the two most popular (now closed) petitions and the outcome:
The above, for me, shows something clearly. Yeah, have your petitions, but we’ll only take them seriously if we were going to do something like that anyway. So, no guarantee of action or changing views, just a tool to reinforce their own mandate when it comes along.
Due to that, I can see why a none-government alternative is a healthy option, but looking at the achievements of the top two NGO petition sites, there seems to be a leaning towards local victories, and less-clear government back-downs or u-turns that may, or may not, have been influenced. (after all, we are quite used to seeing policies challenged and dropped in early stages anyway).
Ultimately though, the petition, in whatever form, either lands on the lap or in the inbox of someone who is in no real way obliged to do anything about it, or at least, do anything of any substance about it. That is just the way it is, but I don’t mean that as a discouragement.
A quick thought on numbers
Very briefly, let’s look at those two ‘top’ closed petitions on the Gov site. 300,000 people wanted to save the badgers. At the last count, that’s about 0.5% of the population (if I’ve got my maths right). Change.Org can boast slightly higher, with just shy of 500,000 people urging Iain Duncan Smith to live off £53 a week (which funnily enough, he never did). But this doesn’t tangibly shift the percentage. 38 degrees is harder to quantify, with their emphasis on ‘campaigns’, I can’t seem to find actual petition info, as they offer various routes (such as mass emailing of MPs), so I don’t think it would be fair to compare.
Still, why are less than 1% of us being engaged by these routes? It seems very small. I would be interested to hear more about the average demographics if anyone knows of this information, and thoughts from the leaders of these organisations about this.
So, although it may not feel it(!), this is a very brief blog to examine this phenomenon and its impacts, but I have some initial thoughts from spending the afternoon looking into it.
The government e-petition site is only as good as the will of the government monitoring it. It offers us little chance of affecting change if they can simply choose not to debate the issue, or only respond if it’s on their political ‘radar’ anyway. Given the numbers using it, why would they? Even at an all time low, ‘The Sun’ readership is currently around 6 million people. No wonder the government are more likely to listen to anything they print, representing (indirectly) a good 10% of the population.
As for the NGO petition sites, they seem more encouraging, though my quick research already shows that MPs have taken to debunking them as being ‘left’ affiliated instead of independent organisations. And for the profit based, anywhere where major advertising revenue is required for funding leaves open the possibility of corporate demands and intervention (and a quick search on the Change.Org advertising model does seem to throw up some controversies over this).
Personally, when I see an issue I am passionate about represented by one of these groups, or even a government e-petition, I shall continue to support them (though I may change my email settings to stop getting told about every campaign going!) – but more broadly, I think the debate about the effectiveness and future of this approach needs to continue (or start?), with more fundamental changes being sought to bring more power back to people and away from private interests. I would hate to see these organisations become protective over their new found powers, and hope to see more cooperation and focus on progressive, core issues. (Such as giving us the no suitable candidate box, for example? Or right to recall MPs?).
Anyway, while I have been writing this, I have received two emails from two different petition sites, one about secret courts, and one about food-banks. I would like to think that the few seconds it will take me to sign these (if I agree with them), will help change the world, but maybe we’ve got a little more work to do just yet. No harm in trying though, eh?
Some sources for you! (not exhaustive):
(supplemented by google and wikipedia searches/results for ‘change.org’, ’38 degrees’, ‘e-petitions’ and ‘British population’)
Here’s a little insight into how I plan and write my blogs. Throughout the week, if I’m lucky, I have an errant thought, a loose little notion that is triggered by something I’ve read, talked about, heard or seen – usually one that engenders an emotional response of some kind – and I think, yes, I’ll blog about that.
This week, these words have been sitting on a virtual post-it note on my desktop:
“This week’s blog – Lib Dems. Seriously? What are they going to do? I mean like, really…”
It is in no way an original thought, it’s not even a novel idea. If you are the kind of person who ever talks politics with friends or family (or strangers), then I would guess that this topic has come up at some point in the last four years. If, like me, you are one of the betrayed many who felt you were voting for something new and interesting in the last general election and actually got the Conservatives, I can guarantee you’ve had this discussion.
Just to be clear, I am not a Liberal Democrat supporter, not anymore at least, and that’s the point. I was, for five minutes four years ago when I made a rudimentary mark against a name I have already forgotten on a piece of paper in a polling station in Leek. But not now, for reasons I’m sure you don’t really need me to explain.
So who do I support? If you’ve ever read my blog before then you are likely to have seen me be pretty clear about my general lack of support for any of the established political parties, furthermore, for established politics in the way we have it in general. But let’s say, for the sake of discourse, that I don’t have democratic reformist tendencies, that I do feel I should vote for someone at the next election, and that I believe in the whole process (I don’t, but let’s pretend).
Let’s also say that I still have my general sensibilities and beliefs about how I think the world should operate and be organised – roughly meaning I am all for trying to achieve an equal society in which people are truly involved and responsible for decisions that concern themselves and each other, with guiding principles of sustainability and human development (both individual and at population level), and I am against market driven capitalism where we all try to step on each other’s heads to get a run up the ladder, are labelled and treated as consumers and tax payers, have little concern for other people’s wellbeing or aspirations, and are the mass losers in a rigged competition based economy.
It would seem from my requirements above that one could simply say, ‘ah – you’re a socialist, you should vote Labour’. Hmm, yeah. The problem with that is that Labour spend more time telling us what they’re not going to reverse or change from the coalition’s policies than telling us what they are going to do. That leads me to believe that Labour do not represent my views. Also, they seem pretty keen to distance themselves from being the ‘state that spends’, because as we all know, from the GLOBAL ECONOMIC CRASH of 2008, it was actually the state spending our taxes on public services that caused the banks to gamble away all our money, award themselves massive bonuses and get bailed out by the governments of the world; and therefore to suggest actually spending taxes on things that help society as a whole, is now political suicide (according to the circus). This fallacy, to which Labour subscribe and more depressingly, have apologised for, is unforgivable.
So not Labour then! Obviously not the Conservatives (given my list of what I don’t want to see is their ‘to do’ list), and seeing as the Liberal Democrats have propped up the Tories for the last four years and seem to have adopted Godzilla sized blinkers to their pending political demise, I have no love for them either.
Do I even need to mention UKIP? Not really. I’m not a frightened little nationalist with dubious views on immigrants (or as I prefer to call them ‘other humans’). So no. That also rules out other nationalist far-right parties whose names I don’t want to even mention here.
The Green’s? Well, I like their stand on many aspects, and I admire Caroline Lucas’s hands-on approach to protesting, but where are they? I’m not sure I even have a Green candidate in my area, and given the rapid rise of UKIP over such a short space of time, and the Green’s longer history – I just can’t help but feel they are happy to be a small voice, not a real contender. If the candidates aren’t there, the campaigning not visible, it doesn’t seem to be a real choice.
Independents? That could mean anything. They have neither the financial backing or (inherently) the joined up approach to not be sucked into mainstream agenda’s in the cut throat world of Westminster, or even local politics (which I believe they are often cold-shouldered out of by the established parties anyway).
So here’s me, wanting to vote, not feeling I have any options. What am I to do? Can somebody tell me?
Is it any wonder that as a result of this circular thought process, I conclude that the system is not serving my interests or ambitions as an individual or as someone who is concerned for the trajectory of human civilisation as a whole? Am I wrong for giving a shit about what happens to other people as well as myself? Sometimes it’s hard to conclude otherwise. After all, we live in a world where we increasingly demonise those less well off than ourselves, throw blame down the ladder, and are led in our views by a government and media who seek to divide and sow fear and suspicion amongst the masses. Just read any tabloid. Just listen to the myriad TV and Radio debates in which power responds to them, allowing them to set the terms and boundaries of the argument. Ignorance is rife, glorified and encouraged.
This post started as a thought about the Liberal Democrats and how I can’t understand why they are going to let themselves be wiped out at the next election, and it led to the rest, because it is all connected. We are all connected. We are no different than Clegg, Cameron, Milliband and the rest. There’s more of us than them. I mean like, loads more. Why are we scrabbling about and wasting our time on these people and their powerful friends? Who invests the notion ‘power’ into them anyway? That would be us, allegedly, so it makes sense to limit our choices – in case we actually make them.
So well done, ‘politics’, you’ve succeeded in this case. You’ve removed or sidelined any feasible chance of representation I had, and if I don’t vote you will chastise me for not taking part. Hardly feels fair does it?