Many of us who’ve committed our lives to a social or humanitarian cause will often be adamant that we see all human beings as equal. The uncomfortable truth is none of us really do. We have biology and culture against us. If our in-built drive to constantly create a different ‘other’ is the problem behind so much of the inequality, inertia and conflict we see in our work and organisations, then what can we do to overcome it?
In professions routinely confronted with suffering, it is common belief that we have a choice between emotional shutdown and emotional breakdown. But neither is a viable strategy. Neuroscience sheds light on a tried and tested alternative that can be practiced by anyone and transforms how we respond.
Empathy can plunge us into emotional distress. So much so that we get fatigued by it or, according to moral philosopher and founder of the Effective Altruism movement Peter Singer, get so trapped in it that our own relief becomes the focus of our ‘altruistic’ efforts. Some would go as far as arguing that empathy is of zero use to us when it comes to engaging in social change.
How come so many who set out to tackle poverty and injustice through international aid end up feeling trapped in a system that doesn’t? And how do we undo its shackles? Researcher Olivia Rutazibwa suggests we begin by decolonising our minds.
People keep asking me what I’m doing now that I have, by and large, let go of what’s been my bread and butter to date — working as a so-called “expert” on gender equality, and climate change and environment in the international aid world.
From the 2017 Meaning Conference in Brighton
However well founded and presented, the most excruciating stories about suffering in the world keep failing to mobilise the scale of action required. Perhaps appealing to solidarity rather than pity could help charities drive identification with their cause more effectively. If anything, it would help right that messed up power relationship between the ‘generous’ and the ‘needy’ they tend to feed off.
“Doing good” is all the rage. But in our pursuit of that warm glow feeling, we often overlook all the clever confusions masquerading as system change. They are “near enemies” of change, propping up a system rigged to do anything but. Welcome toThe Good Jungle.
Doing good is becoming the new currency of success for my generation of Western, middle class millennials who’re learning that putting purpose before pay check brings more happiness.
Scores of us are leaving profit-driven careers or, like me, avoid getting one in the first place, in order to pursue more meaning as social entrepreneurs, charity workers, in philanthropy or international aid, corporate social responsibility or voluntourism. Social media is sprawling with offers of coaching, self help books, and retreats in the great outdoors to plot our journeys into more purposeful careers.
In so many ways, this feels like an awakening. But in other ways, it is dangerous too.