Roman Krznaric And The Besieged Idea Of Empathy


On a recent day in the kitchen of his Oxford home, former Cambridge sociology and politics lecturer turned School of Life faculty member Roman Krznaric was discussing American literature with a young Syrian refugee.

The 20-year-old Syrian had paid a smuggler to take him across the channel to England, and as he told Krznaric of life and study in his previous homeland the pair found a surprising point of commonality: both held a deep interest in the 19th century writers Henry Thoreau and Ralph Emerson.

Krznaric is in Australia this week, the country where he spent a portion of his youth, to make the case for an idea under attack on multiple fronts. Krznaric is here to talk about empathy.

Empathy might not seem like it needs much defending, but in recent years a concerted and compelling argument has been made against placing it at the heart of our politics and moral reasoning. In public talks and the pages of the US press, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science Paul Bloom has been building that case, which he says inspires others to react as though they’ve just been told the Yale professor hates kittens.

For Krznaric, empathy is the imaginative capacity which enables people to see the world through someone else’s eyes and transcend their immediate experiences and prejudices – their ideology, their geography, the norms of the society they live in. It is the process that allows you to climb the over the walls that keep people apart. It melds the profound and the mundane, the personal and the universal. He tells the story of the young Syrian man in his kitchen by way of illustrating how small and improbable a spark can enable two people to overcome contrasting circumstances and change their mode of interaction. Importantly, Krznaric sees this as separate from sympathy. Empathy is about understanding rather than moral judgement.

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The Mile In My Shoes exhibition in Perth. (IMAGE: Perth International Arts Festival).

Putting this idea into practice, Krznaric has set up a pop-up ‘empathy museum’ as part of the Perth International Arts Festival. It takes the most famous empathy metaphor and makes it literal: the public are invited into a giant shoebox where they slip a pair of somebody else’s boots and walk around in them while listening to a recorded narration about the owner’s life. At the Perth exhibition, patrons hear details of the life of a Tamil man who has spent time in Australian immigration detention centres.

“What the research shows it that, all other things remaining equal, when you try to imagine the perspective of another person we tend to act more in favour of that person. Lots and lots of studies of this – even if you control for gender differences, age differences, racial background and so on – show that to try to imagine what it’s like to be them is a stimulus to moral action,” Krznaric says.

It sounds lovely, but those like Bloom chase this claim with a dire warning. Not only can empathy lead us astray, if followed uncritically it can quickly cause us to commit acts of evil as well. Bloom says further research reveals the more empathy you feel for a victim, the more severe you desire the punishment for perpetrators of the harm against them to be. An intense focus on the family of a murdered child could make you more likely to want the killer hanged, despite the broader moral and technical problems with capital punishment. You might feel no empathy at all for the murdered but that surely doesn’t make their own execution just.

The consistent insinuation of Bloom’s work is that empathy ultimately leads us to defy reason.

“The government’s failure to enact prudent long-term policies is often attributed to the incentive system of democratic politics (which favours short-term fixes), and to the powerful influence of money. But the politics of empathy is also to blame,” Bloom wrote in the New Yorker in 2013. “Too often, our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future.”

The suffering of those who will lose out as a result of the economic restructures needed to transition to renewable energy sources – steel workers, those in the logging sector, the employees of coal-fired power stations – is visceral and compelling to us now, while the vast majority of climate change victims don’t yet exist. Reason tells us we should do away with fossil fuels now, empathy moves us in favour of those suffering today. It’s hard to feel as emotionally connected to even a million potential people as a single living one.

Sticking with climate change reveals another problem with empathy taken up by Bloom. If empathy is such a refined force of moral impetus, why don’t we feel more towards those living on Pacific Islands who are already going under? Will our empathy ever be as strong for people not like us as it is for those who are, and does that in part explain why, as a white Australian living in the suburbs, my heartstrings might be pulled harder by the case of the unemployed Victorian power-station worker?

For Krznaric, the right input can help us overcome this. There is enough common in the human experience for me to find shared ground with the Tuvaluan losing their home to rising seas, even if it is simpler and more immediate to do so with the power-station worker. Empathy becomes a practice from which moral reason follows rather than the end-point in itself. When you consider that, it starts to make sense that Krznaric’s ideas overlap with Bloom, to some degree. Bloom for one certainly doesn’t want a world without empathy, and in the New Yorker piece he observes that:

“A race of psychopaths might well be smart enough to invent the principles of solidarity and fairness. (Research suggests that criminal psychopaths are adept at making moral judgments.) The problem with those who are devoid of empathy is that, although they may recognise what’s right, they have no motivation to act upon it. Some spark of fellow-feeling is needed to convert intelligence into action.”

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Krznaric lecturing on empathy. (IMAGE: Christos Loufopoulos, Flickr)

Perhaps that’s what Krznaric’s revolution of empathy is all about, and it explains the presence of praxis throughout his work (in one case he organised CEOs to share a meal with homeless people, providing a menu with talking points full of conversation starters, for instance ‘what I’ve learnt in life about love’).

It’s worth noting that in an age of ascendant neoliberalism empathy may also look like a risky formula for progressive politics. Firstly, it appears to preference the individual over the collective good – as a person hoping to change the world I will end up with a preference for helping those I have connected with on an individual level but potentially fail to see the social structures that lock-in inequality. Secondly, and in conjunction, it ignores the fact such social structures are reproduced and protected by deliberate campaigns which block access to and render invisible the members of particular groups. You might be able to talk literature with the Syrian refugee when they happen to make their way into your kitchen, but what about the one in a prison camp on a pacific island that journalists and members of the public are barred from visiting? It’s similar to the future generations dilemma: how do we empathise with those we can’t see, or even conceive of?

Krznaric’s response is that structures still need to be challenged and that social movements must still manifest in collective action, but that empathy plays a role in both. He draws on his time working in Guatemala during the country’s civil war to explain how. While there, Krznaric sat down oligarchs responsible for dishing out violence against trade unionists and journalists.

“When I was interviewing them I realised I was completely wrong about how they saw the world. And in the process of interviewing them and trying to understand how they saw things I became much wiser about what would change the country,” he says.

To put it another way, empathy doesn’t just help you know your ally, it allows you to understand your enemy. To beat the Scott Morrisons or Donald Trumps of the world becomes an easier task once you’ve seen it as they do. Again, it’s empathy not sympathy you’re shooting for.

On the question of invisibility Krznaric is frank in his response. “The answer is it’s damn difficult,” he says. But with creativity and hard work, whether it be investigate journalism or a giant shoebox in the streets of Perth, he believes empathy can get us inside the gates of Manus Island and tear down the thinking that would otherwise keep them in place.

Krznaric sees empathy as central to major historical struggles for justice, from the French Revolution to the ongoing fight for LGBTI rights in the United States.

“The framework of rights helped those social struggles but it was empathy that helped fill them, as it were, to help make those universal theories into political practices,” he says.


Sunday 28 February Sydney – Secular Sermon: On Empathy
Monday 29 February Sydney – Empathy and the Art of Living

Tickets available here.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.