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A blanket argument for empathy

A blanket argument for empathy

Written by
Matthew Anderson
on
May 21st, 2019

Stories told in public broadcasting can create empathy in listeners and lead to positive change and healthier communities. Policy-makers must remember the value of empathy, and the choice between the knitting together or the unravelling of social fabrics.

A blanket argument for empathy

Photo: Annie Spratt

When my mother died, one of the few heirlooms she left was a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) blanket. It came from our family farm, long disappeared, and may well go back to homesteading days. Its ancient cream-coloured wool is yellowed by generations of cigarette and wood smoke. But the black, yellow, red and turquoise stripes are still clear.

I love that blanket. I imagine my mother as a child under it, keeping warm by the cast-iron stove on bitterly cold prairie nights. But ever since hearing First Nations Elder Dr. Duke Redbird talking on the CBC podcast The Secret Life of Canada about the memories of colonization and oppression that HBC blankets evoke for many Indigenous peoples, I look at my family heirloom differently. I still see my mother under the rough wool—I’m sure she was comforted by it. But now I also feel in its heft the sale of Rupert’s Land, the engineered mass starvation of the late 1800s, and First Nations bitterness at the smallpox that sometimes travelled with these iconic Canadian symbols. The treasure I hold in my hand is for many a symbol of death.

Empathy isn’t just a personal virtue. Nor is it “soft” or “weak”—labels that typically male power-holders use to discount a trait that by becoming civic could threaten their privilege. The presence—or, increasingly, the absence—of empathy in public discourse has real-world consequences, including budget lines for drinking water on reservations, waiting times for refugees at our borders, and the possibility of civil political disagreement. Over 50 years ago Northrop Frye wrote in The Educated Imagination that the value of literature and, by extension, of other narratives, is that they allow us to vicariously experience situations that are foreign to us. Settler-descended Canadians my age never worried about an HBC blanket carrying a fatal disease. Now, in part because of a proactive public broadcaster, I understand something of the experience of those who did.

Empathy is a warm woollen thread spun through societies which can stitch together and reinforce the fabric of community—but which can, equally, be frayed or torn out. German philosopher Max Scheler, child of a Lutheran father and a Jewish mother, wrote in 1912 in The Nature of Sympathy that encouraging “companionate feeling” leads to a constructive engagement with the world. Such attitudes are marked by respect and even love for the other, he said. Yet only a few decades later, the same university from which he published his ideas became a centre of Nazism. A healthy media, and in particular a healthy public broadcaster, defends informed, critical and engaged societal empathy by sympathetically telling the stories of others. Well-crafted stories are the opposite of hate-speech. They move us beyond cheap sensationalism or voyeurism to support those who are going through trauma. They help us not only to know, but also to feel, and perhaps even to act upon, the damage done by unjust policies, such as those which resulted in the jailing of Everett Klippert, subject of a CBC profile and the last Canadian charged with the “crime” of homosexuality.

Well-crafted stories are the opposite of hate speech. They help us not only to know, but also to feel, and perhaps even to act upon, the damage done by unjust policies.

To allow public media to play such a role in social cohesion, governments must understand that empathy isn’t just a characteristic of individuals. It’s a social good. Empathy is a learned behaviour. It can and should be a policy goal. To that end, governments must ensure that public media is not-for-profit and not beholden to advertisers, and that it is given sufficient resources to provide a platform for underheard voices those same advertisers may ignore, whether from rural Canada, northern territories, victimized groups or marginalized populations. Fighting for public broad/pod/webcasting is fighting for the real social and political value—the protective warmth against hostile elements—that a blanket of empathy affords a society.

Programs such as As It Happens reinforce the connection we make with someone on the other end of a telephone connection in Beirut, Bangladesh or Burnaby. Even the inexpensive local radio phone-in show, when undertaken in places where CBC may be the only common media, allows us to hear the opinions of others we don’t necessarily agree with but ignore at a peril to our common democracy. Identification with others may not always lead to practical solidarity. But it can. Are phone-in shows sometimes annoying? Sure. Putting up with that scratchiness is a minor test of our citizenship.

Frye wrote that empathy ends in judgment and eventually action. It begins, however, with listening. As anyone who has heard a residential school survivor knows, there is power in stories of oppression, suffering and violence. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 45 includes the renewal or establishment of treaty relationships based on “mutual recognition, mutual respect, and shared responsibility for maintaining those relationships into the future.” In Call to Action 63, the Commission demands that Ministers of Education build “capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.” The TRC knows that the stories told in its hearings are not over. They must continue to be told: among its Calls to Action it included increased funding to CBC/Radio Canada.

To stitch together a society, a story must not just be told, but also heard. One danger to empathy comes from the increasing importance of algorithms, which have been used in two ways to untie and separate the threads of empathy.

Firstly, if they increasingly choose for our screens the kinds of news items and opinions we have already expressed support for, algorithms reinforce existing opinions rather than challenging us with new ones. Without our being aware of it, we lose the tensile strength of being braided together with others in a heterogenous community. Our social media and news feeds become ghettoized, with people of similar mind clicking “like” on each other’s posts in an increasingly inward-looking knot that never confronts us with dissenting voices, or alternative stories from which we might learn.

Secondly, in a world of shock news and click-bait, algorithms are designed to upset us in order to keep us involved with an article or a post, the fraying and cheapening of social fabric a regrettable but unavoidable side-effect of a single-minded drive to keep consumers addicted. By contrast, publicly owned media are mandated to offer a richer, thicker weave.

A disastrous alternative to empathetic storytelling is name-calling. U.S. President Donald Trump has called the children detained at the southern American border “aliens,” Mexicans “drug dealers, criminals and rapists,” and those Americans opposed to him “left-wing mobs.” As the Washington Post has pointed out, whatever Trump’s other inconsistencies, his use of demeaning, “othering,” and dehumanizing language is remarkably constant.

Such disease-blanket tactics are distressing and dangerous, but hardly new. David Livingstone, in Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others, points out that dehumanizing language is as old and as widespread as humanity. The ancient Athenians did it, and for the Germans in the 1930s the public portrayal of Jews as sub-human helped set the scene for the Holocaust. In 1550 two Spaniards held a debate over whether the Indigenous peoples of the recently “discovered” Americas were human or not. Rwandan Léon Mugesera spent almost 20 years in Canada, some of them teaching at university, before being deported and sentenced in Rwanda in 2016 to life in prison. He was convicted for being one of those Hutu politicians and leaders who prepared for genocide, unravelling Rwandan society by publicly calling Tutsi citizens “scum,” “vermin” and “cockroaches” on local radio.

Media can weave threads for reconciliation and community solidarity. But such stories require the patience, research and even-handedness for which public broadcasters in democracies are known, and which the fragmentation of media has put at risk.

History shows us that media can be used as a loom or as a machete. Repeating hateful caricatures debases empathy and prepares the way for acts of violence and murder. Fortunately, media can also weave threads for reconciliation and community solidarity. But like spinning, such stories require the patience, research and even-handedness for which public broadcasters in democracies are particularly known, and which the fragmentation of media has put at risk. In his 1979 book Points of Departure, Dalton Camp describes a quiet moment sitting on a campaign bus, looking out through the tinted glass at the world. I wonder whether he included this little scene because the glass represented for him a disconnect between the official political concerns of the campaign and those “out there,” beyond the bus. In his political commentaries and panel discussions on CBC, Camp tried to bridge that gap. He was unwilling to caricature even those against whose positions he was firmly opposed. As with the HBC’s blanket, Camp’s Canada held many differently coloured stripes.

Like many Canadians, I’ve gone through a consciousness-raising exercise called “the blanket exercise.” Under the guidance of a First Nations leader, participants representing many First Nations and a few Settlers gather on a very large cloth. Bit by bit, as particularly draconian applications of the Indian Act and other historical details of Canada’s oppression of First Peoples are read out, various participants are gradually pushed off the material. Eventually, almost no one is left except those representing Settlers.

In 2015, in a kind of reversal of the blanket exercise, I walked together with First Nations, Métis, and other Settler descendants from Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, to Fort Walsh, weaving a trail of about 350 kilometres across Treaty Four land. Walking slowly west across prairie and alongside roads, instead of driving by car, was an exercise in intentional empathy, knitting our group together through a slow, companionable journey. It was a tough but rewarding trek. In 2017 we walked again, this time north from Swift Current, following a 19th-century freighter trail that ended some 350 kilometres later in Fort Battleford. The First Nations and Métis pilgrims among us would lay down tobacco when we crossed into new areas. It was, they said, a way of recognizing the presence of the land as an active partner in our pilgrimage. As a Cree friend remarked: “If nothing else, maybe the land will teach us reconciliation.”

Whether we recognize it or not, we are woven together with all of creation—a fact on which the stories and ceremonies of many different Indigenous peoples agree. Our inability or unwillingness to listen to what land, air, water, and other species are telling us—our lack of understanding that we are ourselves part of the fabric of creation rather than outside it—lies behind many short-sighted and destructive policies. The social value of empathy is that it extends community beyond those who think like us, even to the natural world outside our doors.

I still have my mother’s Hudson’s Bay blanket. I still love it. But as a Settler, when I take the yellowing wool in my hands, I feel so much more than I did before. Now I feel also the complex threads of colonialism, mercantilism, appropriation, resource extraction and genocide that travelled with that blanket onto the northern plains. If anything, although a little less fuzzily iconic, the blanket feels more valuable. It’s still warm. But now, like Canada’s true history, it’s no longer simple.

When considering the fate of public broadcasting, policy-makers must remember the value of empathy, and the choice between the knitting together or unravelling of social fabrics. We who call this land home deserve the many different, richly nuanced, and sometimes troubling stories that, as in those blankets, public broadcasting can knit into the warp and weave of our lives as Canadians.

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