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Where has all of our empathy gone?

The Globe and Mail by Amira Elghawaby 19 August 2017

Earlier this year, National Geographic put a call out to photographers from around the world to capture images that would close “a widening empathy gap between us and those who have life experiences that differ dramatically from our own.”

The end result was a breathtaking amalgam of images, juxtaposed against one another to highlight the similarities of our diverse humanity. We could feel and imagine each other’s varied experiences.

The assignment speaks to the reality that those struggling for a more just and equitable society encounter when trying to make others understand why a particular cause matters. All too often, we discover that many fellow Canadians are either ambivalent, or oppose efforts outright, because they likely have never experienced the inequity being addressed or could simply not ever imagine enduring it – despite living at a moment in history where so many more people have the opportunity to access stories of injustice and first-person experiences. The events in Charlottesville, Va., are only the most recent to explode on our screens – and while this is happening more apparently in the South, many agree that Canadians have nothing to be smug about.

For instance, why is it that until now our federal government has refused to provide adequate support to Indigenous children at the same level as other Canadian children and to cease what the Canadian Human Rights Commission ruled is discriminatory treatment? Why aren’t Canadians writing en masse to the federal government, demanding positive action? Is it because many of us cannot imagine what it’s like to live on reserves, with poor and inadequate housing and limited access to subpar education?

The tragic case of Soleiman Faqiri of Ontario is another example. Last December, the 30-year-old Canadian Muslim man was being held in solitary confinement at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont., waiting for a bed in a mental-health facility. He never made it. A coroner’s report released to his family last month did not determine a cause of death, yet provides a horrific snapshot of his final hours: After an initial confrontation, he was beaten by a large number of prison guards, suffering more than 50 injuries – to his forehead, face, torso and limbs, the result of blunt impact trauma. Why is there little public outcry about this case, or others like it? Is it because most Canadians have never experienced what the Faqiri family is now going through, still waiting for accountability, seven months after losing their loved one?

A few years ago, psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley ran several studies that provide crucial insight into understanding this phenomenon. Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner wanted to investigate the role of social class. By measuring how those with more wealth, occupational prestige and education behaved while driving, they were able to conclude that those from more well-off backgrounds showed less empathy than others.

Luxury-car drivers were more likely than others to cut off other motorists, or speed past pedestrians, rather than give them the right of way. The researchers concluded that such attitudes were likely attributable to feelings of freedom and independence that negated the need to rely on others, or care about how others feel.

When governments and political parties are mostly concerned with wooing middle- and upper-class voters, it is small wonder that there is less focus on more niche social-justice issues, and more on issues perceived as directly affecting those broader segments of our society. When governments do buck the trend, segments of these privileged populations will often push back aggressively, attempting to drown out those less equipped to engage.

Take this line from a 2016 Environics study where the authors note that “acknowledgment of Aboriginal peoples as having unique rights is somewhat more evident among women, people born outside of Canada, and those with lower household incomes.”

Along with encouraging wider participation in the political process, there is urgency, too, in telling more stories to compel feelings of empathy throughout all communities. The federal government initially dragged its feet on making changes to its policy on segregation in correctional facilities after a coroner’s inquest into the death of Ashley Smith. However, attitudes are now shifting as more cases of personal trauma are emerging in the public discourse. This has led to some government action, as well as to more substantive dialogue among those historically at odds – prison administrators and inmate advocates.

We all have a responsibility to imagine the pain and suffering of others. A more empathic and engaged society depends on it.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims.