The Importance of Being Empathetic

I have been reading a bit of Maslow and also Colin Wilson's "A Criminal History of Mankind", which references Maslow's work.

One of Wilson's theories postulates that there is no such thing as Evil but rather a (perhaps total) lack of empathy in these so-called Evil individuals.

I took a little time out to peruse some of the comments posted for the Trade Me auction for the "MAORI" number plate. There have been some quite appallingly racist comments posted and other responses that show that some readers find those comments to be sad and despicable.

I used to feel incredible anger at what I perceived as 'redneck' racism and ignorance.

To be honest, I possibly leaned too much the other way at times - tending to see everything from the indigenous or non-white point of view.

What should be obvious - but clearly often isn't - is that people are people and skin-colour is not a defining characteristic. There are what most would refer to as 'good and bad' in every race and no one race or people has the market cornered on rightness, goodness, badness or the proclivity for laziness or criminality.

To be successful on society's terms requires that we have options, opportunities, hope and a positive self-image. A lack of most of these is what leads to crime, laziness, violence or substance abuse.

As things stand, we have a considerable section of our society who do not have options, opportunities, hope and a positive self-image. A large proportion of this section of our society have not been successful at school - or to put it another way, school did not work for them. They are what is called our "Education Tail”. 

National have introduced National Standards to address this Education Tail. Many would argue this is because it is easier to blame so-called "slack" teachers for society's problems than it is to address the much deeper and more difficult reasons that give rise to an underclass in our society and a poverty line that has 16% to 25% (depending who you listen to), of our population living below it.

National Standards are not the panacea for our Education Tail. The 16% to 25% below the poverty line is our Education Tail right there. In fact, bearing poverty line levels in mind, we are arguably the most successful education system in the world. Ranked at three or four in most areas of education performance, we are only beaten by countries with a poverty level of 3 or 4%.


To return to the racism issue and the issue of apparent evil, I believe empathy is the key ingredient that is missing. If we take one of our own reasonably recent cases, that of Clayton Weatherston, he is fought to have his case reheard in the Supreme Court as he felt the sentence he received for stabbing his girlfriend 216 times was unfair. He argued provocation - she did not respect him - and that this was not given due consideration. Any reasonable person considering this would find such thinking appallingly egotistical and utterly self-centered and remorseless. I think it shows a complete lack of empathy. Clayton sees everything from his - and only his - perspective. During the original trial, his time on the stand was spent providing a totally egotistical review of his superior intelligence, his personal needs and feelings and the apparent slight on his intelligence and feelings by the victim, whose punishment was therefore somehow at least partly justifiable in his eyes.

Clayton is an extreme example of such self-self-centredness and lack of empathy, however the continuum that leads to Clayton is peopled with those who steal, hurt, racially abuse, bully and see things only from their own point of view.

We are all of us designed to look out for number one - failure to do so could well mean we don't survive very long. Most of us also learn that it is right and good (and often rewarding and mutually beneficial) to have a shared commitment to our fellow humans.

As educators, one of the most important things we can teach our children is Empathy. Most of the negative behaviours and responses that general society finds unacceptable are an indication of a lack of empathy. So how?

Empathy arises out of Education and Experience. This is why it concerns me that we are being forced into a very narrow Education focus - teach the basics of reading and writing and maths to the exclusion of almost all else in order to be perceived as a successful school. In doing so we will be producing a batch of graduates with an empathy deficit. The repercussions for society will be huge. We will end up spending even more to protect the haves and their possessions from the have-nots, to incarcerate the angry and resentful who have no hope, no opportunity and no self-belief because they were differently smart.

We know beyond all dispute that there are many differently-smart people for whom school was torture, frustration and irrelevant, who nevertheless found a way to succeed in spite of school. Richard Branson and Barry Crump for example. But what of this list - Rabindranath Tagore, George Bernard Shaw, Sigrid Undset, Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Richard Feynman, Andrei Sakharov, Arno Penzias, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar - these people all hated school and yet also all won Nobel Prizes for everything from Literature to Physics.

We need a system that provides for the differently-smart child as well as those with a proclivity for traditional subjects delivered in a traditional manner. We need a system that teaches children - and expects children - to be citizens, to grow and to demonstrate empathy. Imagine if instead of National Standards, we had National Expectations for Empathy and all of the other crucial life-tools we need to be providing our children with.

All of society would win and our incarceration tax-dollars could instead be used to support an education system that is potentially a world-beater and a world-changer.

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