Jordan: If you watch, or read, or listen to the news, you are probably afraid at least some of the time, and you’re probably angry the rest of it.
News Clip: It’s been a week since a fire killed a father and his two year old daughter in a small Alberta hamlet of Plamondon. An alleged killer in court charged with murder in the deadliest mass shooting in New Zealand history. A realtor allegedly sexually assaulted while showing the home at an open house. The Ford government wants to go from 35 public health agencies to just 10. Two Canadian women working on an exchange program in Ghana have been kidnapped that, according to authorities…..
Jordan: And so how do we react? A lot of us shutdown, we harden, and that’s understandable, but it won’t fix anything. What might fix things, though, is all of us caring more and letting that empathy lead us towards action, towards compassion for one another, towards policies driven by love and not fear. And that is not some hippie pipe dream that is ridiculous in the real world. I know this because I can be as cynical as anyone, and I realized that’s what it sounds like, but what if I told you there was a ton of scientific research to back that statement up? That there was a growing global movement to put compassion back into our politics, and that there was bottom line evidence that practicing compassion in the corporate world can lead to more profits, and higher evaluations, and all the other things that look good in quarterly reports? What if I told you that a lot of that awful stuff that can make the world feel so hopeless, we actually could kill it with kindness?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Anen Kingston the senior writer for Maclean’s, hi Anne.
Anne: Hi Jordan.
Jordan: Can you start by telling me why you decided to explore the issue of empathy right now?
Anne: Well, I guess it was two pronged. I was watching the decline in empathy, I was, you know, the institutionalization of cruelty in the United States, quite literally with the arrest of good samaritans at the southern border who were trying to help migrants and we had the Amber alert which was a bit of a trigger in Ontario. The response to that….
Jordan: Ya, tell me about that.
Anne: Well what happened; This happened in February where an amber alert for a missing 11 year old girl went off on people’s phones late at night, and the immediate response was not concerned for a missing child, but rather being woken up or interrupted, and people were just really angry, and then there was a blow back that was equally sort of self righteous and this girl, it has to be said was tragically found dead, and it didn’t seem to, you know, it was just this maelstrom of lack of compassion, and on the other side, I was noticing a bit of a compassion industry rise certainly within health care and particularly ended in politics. So I thought, time to take a look at it.
Jordan: So particularly, I guess, because you mentioned the institutionalization of cruelty. When did we begin? And how did we begin to sort of remove compassion from political decisions?
Anne: That’s a very good and complicated question. I think one thing that;One strain in this story certainly is the erosion of the social contract within the political system, and that is coincident with the rise of neo-liberal politics since the 1970’s, where we don’t see the type of concern for social justice that was once sort of implicit in governance, and it has only gotten worse as time has past.
Jordan: And we’ve been weakening the kind of social contract institutions, right, like Medicare and things like that, that were designed to provide that kind of compassionate care.
Anne: Exactly. I mean, there’s a huge irony and paradox in the fact that you know where we’re looking most closely at the need for compassion is in health care, which is literally set up to provide healing for individuals. And also, I think we have to look at the rise of what we know was austerity programming, and we’re seeing that in Ontario right now very large where you see cuts across the board to, you know, children with autism, to libraries, which are sort of fundamental to a civil society.
Jordan: So what kind of research is being done on the impact of compassion on politics, or even just on the loss of empathy in general?
Anne: A lot, and far too much to even cover in the piece, but certainly I highlight the institution. Stanford is one place where they’re doing a lot of work, and what’s interesting is the fact that this is now quantifiable, it’s scientific. Oxford University, which has an empathy center itself, had published the first sort of scientific Journal of Empathy research in 2017.
Jordan: So give me an example of how you quantify that?
Anne: Okay, I’ll give you one study that was shown to me by James Dodie, who runs the center at Stanford, and that had to do with people attending, and this is in the U. S where the healthcare system is different, but at hospitals, emergency rooms, I found that there were repeat visitors who came again and again, and what they found is if they positioned one person within the E. R who simply was kind to individuals, the repeat visits declined. I suppose that people felt heard, they responded. Now’d you think, well, maybe they’d want to go back for the kindness treatment, but in fact, they found it shaped millions of dollars. So there’s an example. There’s a book that came out in May, I believe called compassion-nomics, which is a look again at the U. S. healthcare system, and it is filled with examples of how being kind can save time and money.
Jordan: What does the research say about the impact practicing empathy and compassion can have on us?
Anne: First of all, of the research all points to a very selfish argument being mounted, to be compassionate, sincerely compassionate, we’re not talking about pretending to be kind to get what we want. It can literally lengthen one’s life, we know that social bonds help, you know, health, you know, across the board there are benefits to treating others with compassion and creating a social network.
Jordan: What does that look like in the face of the kind of cruelty and austerity measures that you describe? How do you do that?
Anne: Well, I mean, I think what we have to also understand is how certain conditions of modern life are literally structured against compassion, and compassion and empathy research shows us two things that cut back on compassion are distraction, hence the focus on mindfulness as being sort of part of this larger package, and also, you know, being pressed for time. There’s a famous study that with theology students that showed it was a good Samaritan study that showed that it had nothing to do with one’s background, or inclination, or degree of kindness in sort of one’s person, but rather how time strapped you are in terms of whether you’ll take the time to help someone else.
Jordan: What most surprised you based on where you started from when you decided to dig into this, and where you ended up?
Anne: I think what surprised me was just how percolating, and widespread, I didn’t really realize how interconnected this was, and how we’re watching this rising movement. I didn’t see it in sort of as a movement when I started, but by the end I did see it as sort of interconnected, and certainly on the political front we see the appetite for it.
Jordan: Where do we see it politically?
Anne: The prime minister of New Zealand, very famously after those you know, the murderous rampage in mosques reached out to her people, to the Muslim community quite eloquently, and what was remarkable about the way she handled it I mean, she has always espoused a politics of kindness, which also is gaining traction. But more pointedly, she didn’t do the thoughts and prayers thing. She took action, and this is what I think underlines the whole idea of compassion. It’s not simply about bromides or thoughts and prayers, it’s literally taking action. In her case, she banned the use of most semi automatic rifles in the country. So I think she became;There’s debate over her sort of stepping forward, and the kind of adulation she got. But I do think that it speaks to an appetite, and certainly I’ve noticed it’s simply in the response to this story. I’ve had a lot of response wanting, you know, sort of more coverage of this topic, there’s just not enough being focused on. We focus on negative news, and that was one of the lessons I got from people in the compassion industry, sort of blasts on how the media focuses on on the negative, which is, you know, I mean, not always compassionate to say, given that there is so much negative to cover. But at the same time there’s this desire for balance, and just trying to understand human connection a bit more deeply.
Jordan: So when I read your piece, and as we’ve been talking about it, the idea of practicing compassion and empathy in the face of all the cruelty in the world right now struck me as kind of like when they go low, we go high, the famous Michelle Obama and I guess Hillary Clinton and everybody else’s quote. How do we counter the narrative that makes us think that maybe that’s not enough and that we have to fight that kind of fire with fire, and that compassion and empathy isn’t going to work against this kind of nastiness?
Anne: Well I would ask you what’s the alternative? You know? I mean, what arsenal do we have? I mean, we do understand that cruelty begets cruelty, and that compassion begets compassion, and I don’t think that; I think we’re looking at sort of huge social issues, but I think it begins at a granular level in the sense of simply day to day interactions. You can begin there, and I think that there are, you know, groups that one can…. compassion in politics, for instance, a group in the U. K. not in Canada, but I think we’re going to see a larger sort of movement in that direction, and sure, we can be cynical about it. But I seriously believe that this is the answer. It has to be!
Jordan: Ya! I’m not trying to be cynical, it’s more that, like it almost doesn’t feel enough like you feel kind of helpless in the face of this stuff.
Anne: Well I think what we tend to think of systems as being somehow independent of the individuals who run them, and I think we live in a society that this is another problem that I identify in the peace and kind of I grapple with this because we live in a system that rewards those who are not behaving in the most compassionate way, right? So this is fundamentally we’re talking about….
Jordan: It feels so unfair.
Anne: Well, yeah, it also requires a complete restructuring of institutions as we know them, and that is overwhelming. But we’re starting to see propositions being put forth. The Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz talking about compassionate, you know, capitalism or progressive capitalism, sorry. So there are people putting their brains to this, and trying within the healthcare system, trying to figure out how small changes can begin to make a difference.
Jordan: If we’re learning so much about how good compassion and empathy can be for us personally, but also for governments and people around the world why have we seen it trend in the opposite direction so recently? What do the people who research this stuff think about that?
Anne: Well I think, yeah, you’ve hit something really interesting. I think one of the things where, you know, I mentioned the things that are counterintuitive to compassion and empathy, one of them is fear, and I think that what we’re seeing on the political spectrum right now globally is the rise of fear, racism, white supremacy, all of those things. Nationalism in quotes, sort of this fortress mentality where people feel that they’re under siege, and this is where again going back, the media is getting a bit of a, you know, sort of fingered for this. So the idea of when you talk about the groundwork, we live in this climate of fear, right? So that is counter intuitive, it makes us, you know, sort of vote for autocratic people who we feel are going to take care of us, as you know, has happened in the United States where they’ve been, you know, sort of co opted by that kind of sensibility. So that is a huge impediment I will agree with you there.
Jordan: Is there any research, and I mean, this kind of sounds like a loaded question, but I don’t mean it that way, that indicates which people in which walks of life are more likely to embrace compassion and empathy and who breaks the other way?
Anne: The study that specific doesn’t quite come to mind, I think what’s interesting…. I talked to Brian Goldman, who’s a very prominent doctor broadcaster, and he is, you know, he’s sort of interested in this field, and he talked about, you know, sort of medicine, and I think medicine can attract those who want to help and who get cordoned and he talks about his own experience and trying to reclaim what you know, he believed was his innate kindness. But losing it within the system because of the way it’s structured. But also, I mean, it obviously attracts those who excel with him, the kinds of systems that we’re trying to counteract. So in terms of I think you find compassionate people in all walks of life. Perhaps, you know, obviously they would tend to gravitate to occupations where they literally can help people but what’s interesting is you do see how those systems….. the corrosiveness of those systems can even break those people down.
Jordan: Are there any ways that researchers recommend…. people can make this stuff a habit in their everyday life or build more empathy and compassion?
Anne: Yeah. I mean, one of the ways I mean James Dodi at the neuroscientists, a stem bird who’s doing such interesting work just simply talked about how he tells classrooms that if, you know, if I could give you a pill that could change your life, could make you happier, would you take it? And he said, but here’s the thing you would have to just meditate for 15 minutes, and if you did that you wouldn’t have to take the pill. So the idea is meditation, mindfulness, just slowing one’s self down, I think, is considered one of the remedies to counteract 3rd Baltic forces that conspire against behaving in a compassionate way.
Jordan: What about in the big picture? Because you mentioned a couple times now that we’d have to rethink how our political systems work. What would it look like if we tried to legislate compassion or police cruelty?
Anne: Well this is, yeah, this is really an interesting question, and it’s one that’s totally fraught. In the UK right now, they’ve done that. In both Scotland and Wales they’re working to eradicate child poverty, which I mean to my mind is always kind of problematic because you have to eradicate the parent’s poverty as well. But certainly those are goalposts that are put forward, for instance, the compassion and politics group has mobilized a huge number of people, and they may put in sort of a provisioned where there would be some sort of legislative aspect to compassion in bills that are put forth. Now there’s a problem here, you know? Who makes those calls? How do we decide them? But the point is that they’re trying; Striving for some sort of benchmarks that kind of recognize that legislation should be for the people, not necessarily for those who govern.
Jordan: What does this movement look like in Canada? Does it exist yet? Is there anyone doing the work, putting it forward here?
Anne: Yeah, I think what we’re seeing is I mean, I talk about a few isolated cases in the peace. There’s a really famous example of a…. he’s now retired, former Tim Hortons franchise owner, his names Mark Wafer. He is deaf himself, he owned six Tim Hortons outlets, and his first hire was a young man with down syndrome, and he, you know, he found out that this young man took a little bit longer to train but was incredibly productive, became his best employee, and he made a practice of hiring those with disabilities, which is a population being left out of the employment picture unfairly. And his own experience, I think, you know, obviously made him more sensitive to this population, and he has become an advocate. You know, again going back to quantification, you know, he found that people came to the store in support of what he was doing. Tim Hortons more broadly started hiring those with disabilities. So I think that those examples are kind of inspiring although they are isolated. We’re seeing you know, kids in kindergarten being taught you know, I cover the ninja movement that’s going on at a young age.
Jordan: What is the ninja movement?
Anne: The ninja movement is…. kids in kindergarten. So we’re talking four year old, five year old kids who are doing sort of these random acts of kindness, which have been around for a long time, and they’re recognizing the gratification that simply comes from helping someone else. It’s the old, you know, sort of platonic thing, right, that it’s as good to give as to receive because there’s pleasure in giving. So they’re being taught that at a very young age and, you know, sort of that seat is being sewn, which is an important aspect I think.
Jordan: Getting back to quantifying this stuff and and maybe the Tim Hortons franchise owner is a good example of it. How can we convince people for whom more empathetic legislation may cost them money that this is in fact in their best interests and bring them on board?
Anne: Well, I think what we’re seeing, and I think this is sort of underlining the piece is recognizing compassion as a value, sort of proposition that there’s return on investment with compassionate behavior, and this is what, you know, the science, the various literature on the movement, the compassion all mix. For instance a piece of it is recognizing that you are going to…. this is going to be a quantifiable win for you. I think that’s the language that business understands, that health care sadly, it listens to. So, you know, that’s where the argument is coming from right now.
Jordan: What about the other side of that? What kind of picture are we painting if we can’t make these changes?
Anne: Well, I think we’re looking at a continuation of where we are right now, and, you know, is anybody who was paying attention to the state of health care in, let’s say we’re in Ontario, but across the country there are big problems. I think we need to rethink whether we’re talking about compassion or not, just the system that we have that we’re so proud of fundamentally, but which is not working in practice.
Jordan: Did reporting this large complex piece change your behavior in any way?
Anne: Yes, it did, actually. I think it just made me….. I find myself holding back. You know, in the past I tend to speak my mind. I’m a good listener to begin with, but I find I’m just a little bit more empathetic to the situation then maybe I was before.
Jordan: Do you recognize that when that’s happening now?
Anne: Yeah, I do. I do, and I think I just;I spoke to a lot of people who have been living this life for a long time, and are just sensitive to it. And the funny thing is I told my editor, I didn’t put this in the piece, but it was one of the most pleasurable pieces to run, right? Because people were so helpful, and kind, and empathetic, and compassionate, and I think, you know, and I think that focus; One thing I did learn is compassion is sort of the way to go. We tend to be empathetic to people we identify with. There’s a bias in there, It’s been written about, but I think compassion is about taking action, to affect change, it’s not simply feeling somebody’s pain it’s recognizing that no matter who is in some form of need one should try to help if one can.
Jordan: Thanks Anne.
Anne: You’re welcome.
Jordan: Anne Kingston is a senior writer for Maclean’s. That was The Big Story. For more from us head over to thebigstorypodcast.ca, you might notice our new logo…. very fresh. You can talk to us @thebigstoryfpn on Twitter. You could find us wherever you get podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify. Of course you can subscribe for free. You can rate us and please leave us a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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