I Feel You
Empathy is one of the “hot topics” many of us peacebuilders are focusing on today. It’s not just us. Although it is not a new concept, it has taken on new life since the discovery of mirror neurons (and the disputes surrounding them) led psychologists and neuroscientists to speculate about the importance of our ability to “put ourselves in other people’s shoes,” especially those we disagree with.
Unfortunately, there have not been many good books that both bring the scientific research to a lay audience and show how and why empathy should matter for peacebuilders. Oddly enough, Beam is neither a peacebuilder nor an empathy researcher. Rather, she is a non-fiction writing professor whose own work has largely been around criminal justice and gender issues. As a result, I was blown away by the depth of this book—even after having read some glowing early reviews.
Beam deals with three overlapping issues.
The first of them covers the scientific evidence in what struck me as a new and novel way, although it has little directly relevance to the kind of work we peacebuilders do. In particular, she makes the case that empathy is not something that can be easily taught or whose reality has much to do with the way the term is casually tossed around in the social media worlds.
For a peacebuilder, the key lies in the second and third parts in which she deals with justice and forgiveness which are at the heart of our work. These are the parts of the book that make it required reading for peacebuilders.
Both from her own experience and from her reporting, she has discovered the importance of what she and we call restorative justice. Given her previous work on the criminal justice system, it is not surprising that she explores legal tools that stress rebuilding relationships rather than simply punishing wrongdoers. What she does add is the role that empathy has to play in (re)building those relationships. Here, too, her point that empathy is not something you can gain by using social media or visiting a few internet sites. It is hard work.
Even more important is her concluding section on forgiveness. This, of course, is central to our work when we talk about reconciliation. Beam, however, adds an important caveat since you could not and should not forgive unless your basic needs are met at the same time, which she sees largely through her experience with the transgender community. She makes that clear by considering two critical examples, at least the first of which is not likely to be familiar to many readers of my reviews. First, she explores the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by the State of Maine and the Wabanaki tribe that explores along and sad story of the way authorities removed Wabanaki children from their parental homes. Second is the better known story of the way South African authorities have dealt with Eugene de Kock who was one of the leading torturers under the apartheid regime.
In each case, she traces how people on both sides could only come to terms with what had happened and even consider forgiving their former adversary if they developed some sense of empathy which is a fancy term for understanding why their one-time opponents thought and acted as they did.