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.