Empathy Handbook – Roman Krznaric at the Swindon Festival of Literature

10 May
Roman Krznaric

Roman Krznaric

“A smart professional type was sobbing quietly in the corner of my train carriage. So many of us are carrying an intolerable burden. Be kind.”

So tweeted TV celeb Dan Snow, 6 May, and Swindon Festival of Literature retweeted, apropos of nothing, other than what a lovely sentiment and what an awful dearth of empathy there seemed to be around the election.

On Friday, philosopher Roman Krznaric shared how he lost his empathy at the age of ten, when his mum died. And he wanted it back.

This isn’t just a ‘what I did on my holidays and you might laugh/learn from it’ kind of tale. Roman has begun a rather civilised – (for what else could it be than one filled with hugs?) empathic revolution with the Empathy handbook, Empathy Library, Empathy Museum and Empathy Bus.

The Empathy Bus features a ‘human library’ where, instead of books, actual humans can be ‘read’; a chance to talk to people who have a completely different way of life to one’s own and, as novelist Harper Lee said: ‘step into their skin and walk around for a while’.

He discovered that 98 per cent of people have empathy ‘hard-wired’ into their brain, but thinks our ‘hyperindividualistic society’ is beating it out of us. According to Roman’s research, empathy in the USA has fallen by 50 per cent.

And empathy is vital because when we understand the other’s point of view we stand a much better change of getting along and living in a more content society.

In response, Roman has devised a handbook of empathy ‘habits’, supported by inspirational stories. These are my favourites.

The first was – unlikely as it seems – during the Second World War, where children were evacuated from bomb raid-endangered cities out to the countryside. They were mostly poor working class kids; their new homes comfortably middle-class. Suddenly the reality of poverty was thrust in the faces of the affluent – undernourished children, patched up clothes – and it was something they could no longer ignore. So, as Roman would have it, the Welfare State was born. (I wondered how much more powerful would be one of my favourite childhood books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, if Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy were poor?)

The second was of C.P. Ellis. Once the Exalted Cyclops of US white supremacist group Klu Klux Klan and who celebrated the assassination of Martin Luther King, he was invited – as an influential member of the local community – to a steering committee to solve the turmoil left in the wake of enforced desegregation in his local schools. To his utter dismay, he was voted co-chair with Ann Atwater, a black women. After ten days of talks both white man and black women realised their lives were not that different – they both had cleaning jobs, their communities were no longer talking to them and their children were being bullied after colluding with the ‘other’ side.

C.P. Ellis realised everyone would benefit from improved civil rights – and switched sides. He tore up his KKK membership card and became a key member of the civil rights movement.

I also found myself nodding in agreement at the power of conversation and that many conflicts can be solved by listening. Apparently, half of the problems in conflict resolution are resolved by simply repeating back what the other person has said; there are few things more oppressive than feeling like the other person or institution has not listened.

These are fab stories and laudable ideas but I’m worried that Roman’s revolutionary kick-start, such as the Empathy Library, teeters on a worthy knife edge. I remember novels way back in school that we were required to read because they were ‘good’ for us, because it would help us understand what it was like to live through the second world war, etc. I categorised them with vegetables: to be avoided, and continued with Lord of the Rings and CS Lewis. I read books because they were an escape, not an emersion in reality. But still I learned from them.

I’d argue all types of literature with amazing characterisation, rather than stereotypes, are an exercise in empathy. I guess the counter-argument is that you are at the whim of the author and their outlook. But this is always true, even in a factual book.*

Is there a difference between a role model and learning about another life or culture? Is a role model easily ignored as a one-off or do both have value? And how do we prevent empathy exercises from becoming voyeristic or a cultural holiday – Pulp’s Common People, anyone? And it’s all very intellectual – will it just preach to the converted?

To see for yourself, visit (click on) the Empathy Library and the Empathy Museum. The Empathy Museum plays quite a cool video in lieu of its launch, and the Empathy Bus is on tour next year – Swindon Festival of Literature director, Matt Holland, said an on stage ‘yes please’ to a 2016 tour date.

For Roman’s Empathy Library I’d recommend A Mighty Girl – in particular their Facebook page – a whole bunch of stories well told about women and girls from all walks of life, both amazing role models and demonstrations of empathy in action.

If you’d like a Swindon Festival of Literature empathy emersion before 2016, go see What I Bring, a collaboration between refugees, dancers and a storyteller, Thursday 14 May 2015, 7.30pm at Swindon Central Library.

Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: a handbook for revolution, appeared at the Swindon Festival of Literature at Swindon Arts Centre on 8 May 2015.

Words by Louisa Davison. Photo (c) Calyx Pictures.

*One of my favourite series of book, A Song of Fire and Ice – which most people in the Western World now know as the TV series Game of Thrones – is packed full of violent, nasty people who die, a lot, often horridly. On the surface, not an entry for the Empathy Library. But it has a character called Tyrion with dwarfism. Most people in the real world with this condition (so I’ve heard) are in the entertainment industry, mostly playing fantasy characters. Yes, Tyrion is in a fantasy setting, but he’s the cleverest person in the book/show, he’s compassionate despite the hatred dished out by his sister and father and if you ask fans for their favourite character, they would say him. How much has this affected society’s attitudes to dwarfism, I wonder?

To muse on a little longer, I have a theory that the fantasy and horror genres are a holiday for the over-empathised. We can’t really hate anyone in the real world because: they have their reasons…but for the grace of God…But certainly in horror and often in fantasy we can revel in the certainty that those monsters, without doubt, deserve their comeuppance. The real world, however, is full of human beings who don’t need a sword; they need understanding. *HUG*

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One Response to “Empathy Handbook – Roman Krznaric at the Swindon Festival of Literature”

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  1. Public Intellectual is not a dirty name – Suzannah Lipscomb at Swindon Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 17th May 2015

    […] from their audiences, some were unexpected: Will Hutton, Shami Chakrabarti, Alan Johnson, Roman Krznaric, AC Grayling, Daisy Christodoulou, Danny Dorling, Peter Tachell, Henry Marsh, Robert Hewison, […]

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