Radio review: I Feel for You, and Words of Wisdom

18 January 2019

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WHAT does it mean to empathise with a pig — or any other farmyard animal, for that matter? For some vegans who are campaigning for animal rights, it means slipping on a virtual-reality headset and immersing oneself in the filth and the pain. You wouldn’t want to touch another sausage in your life once you had seen in 360° detail what the pig goes through. The VR headset, it has been said, is the ultimate empathy machine.

Quite apart from some obvious philosophical questions about how a human being with a video screen strapped to his or her face can enter into the experience of another species, the claim provokes interrogation of what constitutes truly empathetic engagement. As Jolyon Jenkins argued in I Feel for You (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), there is a difference between the process of gaining knowledge (e.g. of how pigs are slaughtered), which one might then overlay with an ethical inter­pretation (killing pigs is cruel), and understanding and experiencing the pain of the animal.

These distinctions are important, because empathy has become a political and commercial buzzword. There are consultants who will happily relieve businesses of large sums of money for an empathy audit, by which exercise a board of directors can satisfy itself that it is being as nice as possible to its people.

The level of passive aggression in this process is quite staggering; and Jenkins’s scepticism was justified as he quizzed the CEO of the Empathy Business about its Global Empathy Index. Empathy was about widening one’s own perspective, he argued: not a metric with which to shame the unco-operative. And what is the worth of a Global Empathy Index that places Facebook and Google — notorious for their evasion of political and social responsibilities — at the top? Allowing your employees to play table tennis or lie around on bean­bags doesn’t make you empathetic.

Where this gets really serious is in the assessment of campaigns by the United Nations to cultivate empathy for refugees through interactive apps and videos. The evidence for engagement with these materials is weak; still weaker is the evidence for that engagement’s being transformed into action. The irony of putting ourselves into another’s shoes is that we end up empathising only with our transfigured selves, not with the other whom we have temporarily displaced.

I have no doubt that Wilson Dixon would have something meaningful to say on this paradox, since paradoxes and subversions of common knowledge are the bread and butter of his comedy. Words of Wisdom (Radio 4 Extra, Tuesday) was first broadcast in 2009, but the comic persona of the wise cowboy, a ballad ever on his lips, is still fresh.

There is nothing especially profound in Dixon’s words, but it’s the way that he tells them — and sings them — that gives the act its charm. And our willingness to be charmed offers as convincing a model as any of what true empathy entails.

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