Overcoming the Empathy problem in Activism (Part II)

Written by Celeste Welch

Echo chambers of thought and opinion (closed ‘spaces’ that produce reverberations) are highly encouraged in a number of communities to which I belong. If you want to go for days without interacting with a particular demographic or with those who oppose your views, you can, through a form of isolationism that is practiced extensively in our society, especially online. The desire by many for these echo chambers is understandable – people want community, similarity, and common ground for acceptance. These places or communities can feel like ‘safe spaces’. Despite the comforting feeling of being in a room or an online forum of people who are all in support of you, this does not help environmental or other causes beyond strengthening resolve through validation and internally focused community building. The fact remains, though, that communicating your message and growing your movement requires an outward focus. Simply put: you are going to have to talk to people who dislike, disagree with, or may challenge what you are saying.

Instead of feeling aggressed or attacked by the viewpoints of others, environmental activists must pry ourselves out from our echo chambers to cultivate learning and, potentially, challenge our own belief systems. We must put our differences aside to have earnest conversations, instead of throwing emotionally charged statements, or media sound bites, around. We must connect to other people we disagree with and genuinely hear them out; listen attentively and deeply. Finally, we must center our approaches, words, and actions on empathy (discussed in Part I of this series).

At this point, it is important to clearly state what I am advocating for. I am not, by any means, petitioning for the removal of safe spaces. These spaces are inexpressibly important for many people. While I advocate for time spent outside of the aforementioned ‘safe’ echo chambers, it is also incredibly important to note that, while some people may have the energy and headspace to take on this type of activism, others will not be able to for a variety of reasons ranging from the colour of their skin to their health or mental and physical abilities. Putting oneself in a vulnerable position when already belonging to a marginalized group is always a risk, and it would be foolish of me—a privileged white graduate student—to think that this is something that everyone in every community can engage in without reservation.

That being said, I encourage the activist or movement-invested reader to follow me as I detail a few simple exercises to help us radicalize our empathy. The first, middle, and last step always: reflection. What kinds of friends do you have? What types of people do you interact with on a regular basis? I would venture to guess that, like me, many of your friends share certain commonalities with you, from pastimes to economic status. To move away from the details of socioeconomic standing, race, ethnicity, gender, and all of those intersections we live through (to be brought up later), I want to narrow in on how the communities of thought or opinion that we choose to be a part of – divestment or climate change denial groups for example – tend to reinforce our own views. What I propose is that forging friendships with people who think differently is crucial to social movements, and can help you develop or strengthen your capacity for empathy.

Citizens Protest Against Kinder Morgan’s Oil Pipeline on Burnaby Mountain. Image by Mark Klotz via Flickr.

Now, think about what causes or issues you are passionate about, and who you spend time talking to and engaging with on that subject. Think about the number of times a week, a month, or a year, that you spend talking to people who disagree with you. Recall how those interactions made you feel, and how your feelings influenced your communication style. Give yourself credit for interactions you have had where you were able to successfully communicate your viewpoint respectfully. Hone in on these situations and ask yourself how you can re-create this experience in the future. What did you do differently in these successful outreach attempts when compared to the failed attempts?

An example might help. I am an environmentalist to the core, and have been engaging in environmental activism since early childhood. As a ‘know-it-all’ teenager, my way of interacting with climate change deniers was to curtly rattle off facts and hurl insults if they were deflected. I felt so enraged by one’s seeming inability to accept scientific data that I had an emotionally charged response. This results in a negative and unproductive interaction for both parties; no common ground is reached, no barriers are broken down, no learning has taken place.

Recently, I have had empathetic and difficult conversations with climate change deniers, anti-conservationists, and others whose views I utterly disagree with. I start by asking them why they think what they think. I check my tone; I am not condescending. Fully attentive, I listen to what they have to say. I think about why it makes sense that they feel the way they feel about a given issue due to the background that they have and what they have been exposed to. When they are finished speaking, I suggest that we exchange reading material. Even as someone who has only been practicing it for a few months, this approach has helped me to get through to people who are terrified by my ideas, and has taught me a great deal about what makes people subscribe to different ideologies.

Another exercise that is important for radicalizing your empathy is to think about other people as the products of a combination of random or non-random factors that they have been exposed to. As a mathematically minded individual, breaking situations down into mathematical terms helps me to get to the crux of the matter, but you can feel free to think of people as an amalgamation of other sorts—experiences perhaps— especially because numbers seem dehumanizing to many. For this exercise, I would ask that for a moment you think of humanity as fundamentally good, or, at least potentially good.

Allow me to elaborate: each human is influenced by nature and nurture. Studies have shown that children are likely to politically classify themselves the same as their parents. Political, social, and environmental awareness and understanding is influenced primarily by environmental factors. You are not born a racist xenophobe or a bleeding heart reformer. Your social upbringing teaches you; as a person you are effectively the sum of every interaction you have had, everything you have been taught or otherwise exposed to during your life. My point is that thinking that all anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers or whoever it may be are simply ‘uneducated’ is the first big mistake which will sink your activism dreams and shackle you to your echo chamber forever. Learning and growth must start somewhere, and it can only happen when radical empathy is practiced toward those with different views.

Lastly, an important exercise to engage in is to understand a person as a sum of not only their experiences, but their intersecting identities, tied to gender, race, sexuality, ability, socioeconomic status, first language, cultural background, family history, and so much more. Acknowledging that identity and experience are linked is inexplicably important in trying to understand another person and what makes their experiences of the world different from your own. Upbringing or socialization has everything to do with ideology, so, try to understand the circumstances of others if effective communication is your goal.

The idea and practice of radical empathy does not have to be for everyone. It is a taxing, frustrating, and occasionally fruitless process. It does, without a doubt, take work. However, I strongly believe that those who choose to engage in the reflective exercises outlined above will find themselves increasingly engaged in meaningful interactions with people they might not have previously reached out to. It is important that the environmental activist community understands that this cannot be done without attempting to understand the people on the other side as a small step toward dismantling chambers or communities of isolation.  My hypothesis is that once more people are able to practice genuine communication on the subject of environmental concerns, environmentalism will seem less like an inaccessible practice reserved for extremists and hippies. Radicalizing empathy is one way to hopefully reach a productive middle ground, to reflect collectively on a shared state of being in this world rather than an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality that too often overshadows forward momentum.


Celeste Welch, photo via WWF McGill Student Club Facebook page, with permission.Celeste Welch is a Biomedical Engineering graduate student at Brown University and a developer of accessible green devices. While at McGill as an undergraduate, they engaged in environmental activism in the McGill and Montreal communities, notably founding campus groups and working as a WWF ambassador. Celeste’s efforts as an activist have been recognized via the “Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25” award, in addition to others. Their interests lie in the intersection of STEM and environmentalism and making these disciplines accessible to the general public. They are interested in developing technologies for environmental improvement and are fascinated by how communication and social factors shape activism.

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