Recently, I was posed an interesting question: if you knew, for a fact, that a company was unproductive and a drain on resources, would you choose to shut it down, and cause the loss of hundreds of jobs? Or, would you bolster it, till it runs its course and dies a natural death, while wasting however many millions of dollars in the process? For me, this kind of question brings up a range of ethical and value-driven points of consideration. It is, of course, impossible to look at this uni-dimensionally, however tempting it might be. If we take an economic perspective, then perhaps it is better to cut our losses and look towards more productive uses for capital. At the same time, economic, social and political realities never function in isolation from each other. Looking at it from the perspective of an employee, or a family member, or a shareholder, or a board member, gives us different ideas and senses of how we can approach such a problem. Solutions ought to have maximum benefits for all stakeholders, and somewhere I believe that we need to move away from the idea of capital being zero-sum for the world to become more sustainable. Indeed, collaboration towards solving problems, and equality in stake will serve towards building such a sustainable world. And key to this is that element of empathy, one that could be defined as an openness to the world, an ability to understand and experience different perspectives and standpoints. For me, empathy underlies some of the best (and potentially the worst) decisions that we make, and design supported by empathy has the potential to solve some of the most pressing problems we face in the world.
For a long time, the question of how we can activate empathy has been building in my head. I’ve used the word activate very consciously here – we are all empathetic human beings, some of us highly so, even as it lies dormant in others. We choose who we care about, and how we care for them. This is why we are able to shut ourselves away from different aspects of the world, as we believe it doesn’t affect us How then can we open ourselves up towards the whole world? Is that even possible, or am I envisaging a utopian, and ultimately unviable universe?
I don’t really have answers to these questions, but some things might lead us in the direction of these answers. I think the first thing to think about is improving our own critical consciousness. Moving away from just pedagogy, I see critical consciousness as the development of a framework of questioning: situations, responses, ideas. Taking it one step forward, it is also developing an ability to link things up, see the bigger picture as it were. Such an ability would suddenly put everyday instances in a new perspective for us. It would create a whole new awareness of the world. Developing this framework and knowledge would then inform our daily opinions, and choices, creating a whole new set of actions for us to draw from. Actions we wouldn’t ever have considered or discarded as useless before. In the case of the unproductive company, if we actually question what we mean by ‘unproductive’ and redefine it for ourselves, we suddenly see a whole bunch of new actions we can take towards not just salvaging a situation, but turning it around and making it healthy.
Would critical consciousness alone actively lead to empathy? I don’t know. However, I believe it is the basis for developing this skill. And I also believe it can happen at multiple times. For Buddha, it took three shocking events for him to develop it and actively seek enlightenment. For Ashoka, a terrible war suddenly made him see the consequences of the path he was in. But ‘shocks’ like this are few and far inbetween in a world as desensitised as our own. It might be far more powerful to start developing our empathetic abilities from when we are young.
And how do we go about it. I’ve experimented a bit in the past, with few results. With new opportunities beckoning, I’m hoping to spend the rest of this year finding out! So watch this space, yes?