Empathy with Julian Burnside

Julian Burnside gave another excellent address at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas last weekend. His topic was “Do we Care?”.

He has been thinking a lot about empathy lately. So have I.

A quick look at Wikipedia –empathy – the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another.

I like Berger’s definition – “The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person, the capacity to sample the feelings of another or to put one’s self in another’s shoes.”

Clearly, our capacity to care is closely related to our capacity for empathy. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion and act out of that compassion – to care.

I recall reading an article recently reflecting on the emphasis on self-esteem we teachers adopted in the 70’s, which I expressed (in my former life as a teacher) through my commitment to use Health Education as a vehicle for promoting it within the context of the well-being of students. But did our emphasis on self-esteem play into a kind of individualised narcissism at the expense of empathy? The research revealed in this article indicates that capacity for empathy among students in the US is in sharp decline. It suggests that, among other things, a myopic emphasis on self-esteem at the expense of empathy may be part of the blame. http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Should-We-Care-What/128420/

If this is so, then the answer to Julian Burnside’s topic “Do We Care” is likely to be –
…well, ‘yes’, at the moment, but in the future, perhaps not!

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