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Lack of empathy as a threat to peace
January 26, 2018
Key words: empathy, violence, international relations, cosmopolitanism, peace
We should all ask ourselves the question of what is the biggest threat to peace and then work towards eliminating that threat. After asking myself this question, my personal conclusion is the lack of empathy. People have very different values and interest that have the possibility to contradict and hence cause conflicts. Conflicts are not exclusively negative and can lead to great development and growth. On the other hand, conflicts paired with the concept of survival of the fittest and egocentric mind-sets can lead to inequalities, frustration and violence. Violence can be expressed in not only a direct form, but also through cultural and structural forms. All three sorts of violence and unsolved conflicts are great threats to peace. What is needed is conflict solution, violence prevention and conciliation based on empathy. Going a step further towards positive peace, I propose to build peace in social structures through equal and mutually beneficial projects based on empathy.
After getting to know different perspectives and theoretical frameworks of how to describe the worlds’ political and interrelated system, I am still convinced that with more empathy the world would be more peaceful. Moreover, the framework of cosmopolitanism supported me very much in my personal statement. In fact, I think empathy is the underlying condition of this theory. In the following I will examine the relation between empathy and the international relations theory of cosmopolitanism.
Cosmopolitanism puts the human being in the centre of focus instead of the state. National interests and capitalist benefits are not priority number one as compared to Neo-realism and Neo-liberalism. The human-centred framework is a normative theory which consists of moral and ethical values and insists that the welfare of the whole species is most important (Held, 2003). It introduces the “world citizen” and a global identity, which overcomes geographical space and time. This doesn’t mean giving up on diversity and rather homogenize citizens of the world, moreover it implies the simultaneous existence of diversity and universality. Feeling connected to each other apart from cultural, religious and geographical restrains, means building up this global community focusing on equality and impartially (Sanders, 2010).
This implies a great need for empathy. I see empathy in the context of cosmopolitanism as the social glue holding individuals together. Empathy defined as the ability to put oneself into the other persons’ shoes, understanding their circumstances and feeling the pain or the joy of that person. Moreover, empathy is not only about the emotional connection “how would I feel in their shoes”, but includes the ability to understand “how do they feel in their shoes” (Galtung, 2003).
Therefore, it is not about compassion only but cognitive deconstruction to decrypt the epistemic stances and worldviews of the other party up to the point of recognizing their affective biases and interests. This concept of empathy acknowledges the importance of diversity and universality and provides the ability of identifying as a global citizen - being connected through empathy.
Especially in conflict mediation, there is a great importance in the skillset of the mediator to be empathic. The understanding of the worldview of the conflicting parties and on top of that the ability to transfer that understanding to the respective involved actors is crucial. The mediator therefore needs to appeal to and foster empathy in the people.
Implementing this form of empathy in our societies, all forms of discrimination or racism would fall apart. There is no need for hatred or distancing ourselves from other human beings because of differences in appearance, nationalities or gender. With empathy, one understands why others are doing things and know, that others understand why oneself is doing things. It is then more useful to find similarities instead of differences. As cosmopolitanism says, the common identity is the “global citizenship”. Common identities and similarities are the drive for social movements or associations. Inequalities and human rights violations can be fought against through those collective movements of solidarity. The cosmopolitan framework calls on civil society to form actors in the international context (Held, 2003).
Currently, civil society institutions or organizations in the international context have only little influence and hardly any impact. The United Nations cannot be seen as a civil society network but more a state association supporting national sovereignty over human security. Where is the empathy in this context? Empathy needs to be applied not only on the micro-level, as explained in the above, but also on the meso-level between societies and on the macro-level between states or nations. Applied empathy on an interstate level would mean to get an understanding of what another state is going through, where it would need assistance and asking ourselves how would we as the government of a state want to be supported. Intervention after an empathic reflection would probably not mean military forces and overthrowing regimes but offering mediation and humanitarian assistance for meeting basic human needs.
Cosmopolitanism doesn’t reject the existence of states, but it emphasizes the importance of more actors in the international community. The framework names civic society movements, networks, NGOs or individuals (Held, 2003). Just because the civil society hasn’t gained enough influence yet, doesn’t mean there aren’t many movements. In fact, there are a lot of different forms of uniting individuals and again, empathy is the strong connecting force. Kaldor (2003) elaborates “two-way street” transnational civic networks between the so called south and north, where social movements in the north campaign on behalf of southern challenges. Southern civil society becomes the agenda setter and northern civil society uses their access to funds, media or attention to address inequality and human rights violations (Kaldor, 2003). Without empathy, this kind of cooperation is hardly possible, because one has to understand the problematic nature of what to advocate for. I believe that the intrinsic motivation also comes with emotional traceability, which can be achieved through building up relationships between human beings.
In the past years the number of people coming into Germany seeking for asylum, those relationships between host country citizens and refuges became crucial. After sharing personal stories of what war affected people have been through, the level of empathy towards them would rise and hence increasing assistance. Making each other understand where we are coming from, what norms and morals we are following and how we want to see peace in the world, makes it much easier to find similarities and see each other as equal world citizens. If the person in front of me becomes a human, with a story and a moral opinion, instead of a refugee with social constructed negative characteristics, violence and hatred becomes less likely. This is a personal experience which I witnessed during humanitarian work and refugee assistance in different European countries. Fostering empathy in our societies starting from a young age is therefore my proposal to bring about a more peaceful world. Bringing people together and create bonding experiences might be a practical tool and instrument to start with.
The author Jeremy Rifkin expresses one specific question in his book “The Empathic Civilization” (2009), with which I will conclude my essay: “Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth?”
Galtung, J. (2003). Cultural Peace: some characteristics. Retrieved 06.10.2017, from transcend.org: https://www.transcend.org/files/article121.html
Held, D. (2003). Cosmopolitanism: globalisation tamed. British International Studies Association.
Kaldor, M. (2003). Social Movements, NGOs and Networks. In K. Mary, Global Civil Society - an Answer to War. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Rifkin, J. (2009). The Empathic Civilization. New York: Penguin Group.
Sanders, J. (2010). Cosmopolitanism as a Peace Theory. Oxford University Press.
Victoria Scheyer is currently a student of the University for Peace mandated by the United Nations in the field of Peace Studies. She also works at the Galtung-Institute as a research assistant and considers herself as an activist for peace and human rights. Her specific fields of interests are migration, gender equality and conflict prevention.