Empathy in a polarised world

By Simon Barrow
October 27, 2008

When I was younger I used to rejoice in argument. Now I’m tired of it, even though I’m in a line of work where (in terms of the media and politics interface) polarisation is the way you are expected to play the game.

For me, the important thing now is trying to find common ground rather than just antagonistic difference, to be looking at people’s humanity and frailty (including my own) rather than to cast others in a bad light because I – perhaps deeply – disagree with them. If this is “insufferably smug” (as Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society appears to think), then I guess I have to plead guilty. But what kind of world are we going to end up with if we can’t do this – and laugh at ourselves, too, of course?

Karen Armstrong has put it very well, I think, in her book The Great Transformation (Atlantic Books, 2006), which looks at how belief systems, both religious and non-religious, have been changing over the centuries, and how we can find health rather than harm without always having to create an ‘other’ to blame and ridicule:

“[If] people’s beliefs – secular or religious – make them belligerent, intolerant and unkind about other people’s [beliefs], they are not ‘skilful’. If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honour the stranger, then they are good, helpful and sound.”

I know I'm still far from skilful. But it is surely something worth working at.

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