Editorial: Empathy can be a superpower

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There was a discussion in mid-August on Twitter among people in the agriculture sector about empathy.

It was fascinating and instructive and shows that agriculture, as I’ve often argued, is as diverse in its views as is the rest of society.

Empathy is the ability to understand what someone else is experiencing both in concrete and emotional terms.

Many consider empathy a weakness — and the agriculture discussion degenerated into the label-driven name calling that proves so destructive on social media and in society in general. The inability to understand the other side of an argument and potentially borrow from good ideas of others with whom you disagree is the root rot of western civilization and is the greatest threat to future stability of democracy.

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The Americans are in the worst throws of this and it is hard to watch. Their system is set up to balance sides, limit power and force compromise — which are the best outcomes of democracy. However, when leaders of both sides are fundamentally entrenched and subjected to howls of derision from commentators and the loud edges of their bases of support, it doesn’t work, as we now see in the hyper-partisan world of American politics.

“Weakness!” They scream. “Flip flopper!” And those are the polite pejoratives. Leadership is doing what’s right for your citizens and sometimes that goes beyond partisan boundaries.

The agriculture empathy discussion was a microcosm of the greater challenges with political partisanship.

There were those who argue that empathy is weakness, a threat to the purest tenets of capitalism. Compete and compete hard and who cares what anyone else thinks.

I’m pretty strongly in the capitalist camp. Free markets have been the best way humans have created to distribute wealth and raise the greatest numbers of people to a life of comfort. There are, of course, needs to moderate the effects of capitalism, with some social programs, essential services and the environment (which does not make one anti-capitalist).

I’m also a wee bit competitive as people who know me understand.

However, I view the ability to empathize with others as a core skill for living a healthy life, both on the personal and market side. Empathy is one of the most important skills to teach children in order for them to thrive living with other humans and in a market economy.

I remember reading the lengthy Twitter debate on empathy with incredulity. How could empathy not be a competitive advantage in a market? The best sales people empathize with their customers and that gives them an advantage in solving their problems. Sales people are taught that one of the easiest routes to a sale is to solve what someone sees as a problem they are experiencing.

I spent some time in the marketing world and learned that I needed to empathize with clients and the people in their markets to create content with the best effect.

Plus, on the human side, understanding an employee, neighbour, teacher or fellow hockey coach means you can figure out solutions quicker. That’s not weakness, it’s success and efficiency.

As I looked through the Twitter feed on empathy again recently, I realized that the debate really wasn’t about empathy. The term had become linked, labelled and loaded. The discussion started over how much people understand about recent movements like Black Lives Matter. People who have problems with these social movements or their tactics felt like there was no way they could be empathetic to them and therefore empathy was bad.

These are the kinds of social media arguments that are challenging. So many babies are getting thrown out with bathwater that it’s amazing there are any children at all.

I don’t want to sound like I’ve lost all hope of creating a society where we can understand each other. The pandemic has been a nasty smack to most of us, but there haven’t been stories of community building, greater understanding and indeed empathy.

There’s understanding of some of the issues we’re dealing with in society, like racial equality and opportunity, from areas where it hasn’t been seen before, including from the agriculture sector.

About the author

Editor

John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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