At this global tipping point, empathy can help us build a better world

Mikki Kendall is a guest of this year's Melbourne Writers Festival.

Mikki Kendall is a guest of this year's Melbourne Writers Festival.Credit:MWF

COVID-19 is changing the world. There is no question that this is one of those pivotal moments in human history when the world as we knew it is gone, but what the new world looks like is not clear yet. Whether we are headed for positive or negative change is ultimately up to all of us. This is the first pandemic in human history to strike at a time when immediate communication is possible with almost anyone, almost anywhere in the world. We have a choice to make in every society. Will the pandemic and its aftershocks change us for the better? Or for the worse?

While films such as Snowpiercer, Hunger Games and Children of Men posit an apocalyptic future where our worst excesses play out in horrible ways, there is no reason for those kinds of stories to come true. We can decide what future we want to create by learning not only from the past, but also from current events. Not only can we see (and learn from) the mistakes made after the 1918 flu pandemic, we can also look at our neighbours and constantly see what choices are being made by citizens and their governments.

We can avoid the kind of world where the Republic of Gilead is a possibility, rather than a terrifying fiction, by working together against any biases that might lend themselves to relying on oppressive structures to maintain a semblance of normalcy. We have a choice here: to become the society that scares us or to become one where a utopian ideal does not require death. As Toni Morrison wrote in her novel Jazz: ‘‘What’s the world for you if you can’t make it up the way you want it?’’

In countries such as the United States, a bias against science, a sense of hyper-individualism, and an almost pathological refusal by some to accept even the most mundane changes to their habits has led to an infection rate higher than much of the rest of the world. American exceptionalism can be blamed, but it is not as though the US is the only place where social safety nets and social compacts around caring for your community are lapsing.

Whether the conversation is around the impact of Brexit on healthcare workers in Britain or the decision to lock down residents of high-density towers in Melbourne, the pandemic is bringing out the worst in some people. Explanations range from existing bigotry and xenophobia being exacerbated by the pandemic, to a peculiarly aggressive form of fight or flight instincts. Institutional biases that have always negatively impacted marginalised communities are adding to the increase in infection rates and death tolls. Having to grieve for what has been lost is hard enough without the addition of random acts of disrespect and cruelty.

Othering, the view that your fellow humans are somehow less than you, is rooted in bias, but it is also rooted in a peculiar sort of collective narcissism, one that insists that basic human decency is a commodity to be doled out on a case-by-case basis. We can understand the need for self-care, for being patient enough with our needs to find ways to meet them, even if those methods are inconvenient. And as a whole, we have no problem extending that same courtesy to our socio-economic neighbours. Where we falter is in extending it to the people who are not like us, in remembering that different does not mean dangerous.

When we talk about self-care, about the ways that families can cope during COVID-19, we are really talking about empathy on a personal level. But we cannot afford to only apply empathy to ourselves or those we know. We need to have empathy for strangers, for the annoying neighbour or co-worker, as well as our loved ones. Empathy is key to our collective survival, so we must be willing to find our way to making decisions from an empathetic place even when it is difficult or uncomfortable because of our history with them or people like them. We must be able to listen and to learn, to grasp the importance of the experiences of others, to look into their eyes and see their humanity, if nothing else.

As Maxine Beneba Clarke wrote in Foreign Soil: “In this country, you look at a person, and you know them. It is the inside-out way the people of this country wear their soul. In their eyes you can find civilisations of honesty or sweeping fields of lies.”

We will find it hard to empathise with some people, because of their attitude, behaviours, or our own internal biases. But that does not mean empathy is something we cannot work at, even if it only manifests as not making things harder in the moment. Being kinder to people who are not exactly like us is not just an easy platitude, it is a key moral and social imperative in a crisis like this. Diseases do not care what you own, where you went to school or even where you worship. These things can change your risk factors, but they do not make you immune. And frankly, even if you do not get sick, or you are one of the millions of people who are asymptomatic carriers, there is a high likelihood that you will still be impacted in some way. The care and concern that you may need is no more important than what you have to offer.

We fail others and ourselves when we mistake poverty for a moral failing, because that impacts everything from public policy to workplace culture. When we lack empathy for others, we are more susceptible to being manipulated into thinking that we can never be the Other and so we sabotage our own social safety nets. Yet we fail to learn our lesson over and over in fact or even in fiction. In A Time To Kill, by John Grisham, it’s only an appeal to empathy that brings any measure of justice to the Hailey family.

Unfortunately, we have created a society that in many places mirrors the errors of the past. Even before COVID-19, we had seen that with Ebola and other epidemics, those who lack resources are the first to get sick, precisely because lower-wage workers are on the frontlines of any dangerous situation. When a society fails to support those who earn less, or who do not work outside the home at all, in many ways that is where a society chooses to sow the seeds of its own downfall.

For Christians who may baulk at the idea of caring for those who are not believers, these tenets are already covered in the New Testament. In Matthew’s recollection of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it clear that the narrowest road is the one that leads to life. He wasn’t speaking explicitly of modern poverty or racism, but you can easily extrapolate those verses to fit the obstacles facing marginalised people in the midst of this pandemic.

For those who follow other faiths, or no faith at all, there is still the universal concept of treating others as you would wish to be treated. After all, if escaping poverty was so easy, far more people from marginalised communities would be climbing the ladder to success. Bootstrap rhetoric in every country tends to hinge on the myth that everyone could get ahead if they only tried, but realistically the same communities that are reviled for not being more successful contain some of the hardest-working people in society.

They are the people who clean everything from roads to schools, they care for the sick, handle the bodies of the dead, and rarely receive fair compensation, much less appreciation. But without them our societies could not function, and as we look towards life after COVID-19 we have a chance to change for the better.

How do we collectively learn empathy?

We can start by defaulting to treating everyone with respect, not making judgments about who people are based on what they have, and actively learn about cultures and communities. Whether we try to directly teach empathy through the media, workplace simulations or other techniques, we need to be countering bigoted narratives at every level of our societies.

As James Baldwin wrote: ‘‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. People can cry much easier than they can change. Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind. Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does.’’

When we fail to show kindness and empathy to those who have different needs than our own, we are really failing to think about how much better things could be for everyone. It would be great if our own futures were motivation enough for a global change, but if that isn’t enough for you then take a moment to think about what you need right now that you can’t access for whatever reason. And about what it would take for you to have everything you need in life. Is the barrier money? Time?

Or is it the result of obstacles created by your own political and social choices? If you are fortunate enough not to need additional assistance right now, to be employed and have a safe, warm place to lay your head every night, do you know what resources exist if you lose access to those things? Are those resources sufficient? Would you feel comfortable seeking help; or would you be ashamed of needing it? The answers to these questions will vary, but except for a scant few people, most of us have something we need that we cannot get easily. And we want compassion, we want care and community support to be available to us. Much like solidarity, empathy cannot be a one-way street of expectations.

There is no perfect way to manoeuvre through life, to create a place for yourself that is stable and that cannot become precarious so we must build a society that provides for the basic needs to be met. Inequality in housing, healthcare, education and food access guarantee that the worst events happen over and over until we learn from our mistakes. We can keep undermining ourselves and our children’s futures, or we can work together to build a world where even if things are not perfect, no one has to choose between obeying public health restrictions and day-to-day survival. This is not the apocalypse unless we choose to make it one.

Mikki Kendall is the author of Hood Feminism. She takes part in this year’s online Melbourne Writers Festival, with Santilla Chingaipe, on August 15, noon-1pm.

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