Now more from our season on the theme of empathy. The Guardian described Raoul Martinez’s book, Creating Freedom: Power, Control and the Fight for our Future, as ‘this year’s essential text for thinking radicals’. Here we wanted to share an extract where he explores how imagination bridges the gap between the empathy we need to combat dehumanisation, and the shifting morality that suits the institutions which seek to mobilise us. This extract was found on Global Justice Now. It is from the book Creating Freedom: Power, Control and the Fight for our Future by Raoul Martinez – we’ve shared a snippet below, follow this link to read the full extract.
Broadly speaking, our cognitive biases channel our empathy towards speciﬁc, vivid, observable examples of human suffering, and away from stigmatised groups, while our social conditioning channels our empathy in directions that serve the interests of those with the power to do the conditioning, determining which groups are stigmatised and to what degree. Citizens are encouraged to empathise with their compatriots, soldiers with their unit, religious followers with members of their faith, and so on. The general pattern is that the political class, aided by a compliant media, exploit these biases to channel the public’s empathy where it is politically expedient. Reason and imagination can compensate for these biases. They can correct for our insensitivity to scale and distance and enable us to question the hierarchies of moral concern that we internalise from our culture.
Reason is amoral. Our ethical instincts are the raw material from which any moral system is built. They are what galvanise us to act in the face of injustice. Yet selective empathy can be as much a cause of cruelty as a solution to it. That is why acting in accordance with principles is so important. Without principles, our empathetic instincts are as likely to facilitate the process of dehumanisation as to restrain it. There is no formula for balancing instincts against the logic of moral reasoning – a tension between the two exists, as numerous thinkers have identiﬁed – but engaging with this tension rather than denying its existence, and employing all our faculties rather than limiting ourselves to potent emotions or cold logic, is perhaps the only path available to take us beyond the dehumanisation that blights our world.
Imagination has an important part to play. It transports us across time, class, gender and race. A story, painting or poem enables us to step into the shoes of someone we would otherwise ﬁnd difﬁcult to understand. A skilfully constructed narrative can lead us down a different life path, providing glimpses into the experiences of others – vagrant, criminal, oppressed, oppressor – and enable us to see how we might have turned out given a different set of inﬂuences and opportunities. It helps us to see the world through the eyes of others, to understand the rationale for different value systems, cultural norms and behaviour. By thinking about how things could look from another perspective, the ‘self’ doing the imagining is changed. As author Ian McEwan puts it, ‘Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.’
Imagination transports us across time, class, gender and race.