If you’re familiar with the YouTube community, you probably already know Craig (aka WheezyWaiter). If not, I strongly urge you to check out his channel and subscribe. Craig recently made a video talking about the difference between empathy and sympathy.
I’m mentioning this video on this blog because the difference between sympathy and empathy is something I’ve talked about a lot – albeit mostly offline with friends – when I talk about changing the conversation on global poverty.
You see, one of the things that inspired me to start this project is that I hated how charities were (and sometimes still are) talking about global poverty. You’ve probably all seen the ads: it usually features black and white images of emaciated crying children with an ominous voice saying how you can save their lives for just $2 a day.
The problem with this kind of messaging is that it reduces the poor to a “them” or to objects which we pity. More importantly, as we become a more connected and globalized society, many of the poor are becoming aware of how their images are being used abroad and do not want to be portrayed in such a manner.
And bottom line, if we get inundated with guilt-based messaging, it only becomes a matter of time until we tune out the whole issue of global poverty. Guilt-based messaging does a disservice both to the individuals whose images they use and the overall goal of ending extreme global poverty.
Moving to empathy-based messaging is the first step to trying to understand the complexity of ending extreme global poverty. But, to paraphrase John Green, we are limited by our own experiences and the lives we were born into. This limits how fully and how complexly we can imagine those who are different from us.
But just because we have limits to empathizing what it’s like to be from a different culture, ethnicity, or religion doesn’t mean we shouldn’t constantly be striving to imagine people complexly. And this is where I think the next step (beyond empathy-based messaging) comes in. There can be bridge-makers (or “free agents”) who can help foster greater mutual understanding and empathy.
But that’s a blog post for another day.