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What Happened to Empathy in Politics in 2016?

Since 2015's UK general election, internal divisions have cut lines through the electorate – and we have to consider what that means for our future.
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Compassion acts like society's glue. Empathy with the experiences, desires and demands of the mosaic of people that make up any polity plays a key role in creating the conditions for cohesion in society. Today, what are often complex, multinational and multi-level polities are facing serious global challenges in financial, environmental and human terms. Addressing these challenges then makes empathy with the lived experience and with mental framing of other people vital.


Social cohesion is a major concern for governments and policy-makers. At an individual level, a sense of connectedness has been strongly linked to creating a feeling of personal well-being. For wider society, the question of what creates a sense of belonging or a willingness to invest in a community carries an important weight.

This year has been an interesting one for both empathy and compassion in politics. The UK's EU referendum campaign and the recent US Presidential campaign highlighted the growing distrust of "others"; immigration, fear of terrorism, even a wider fear of foreigners took central stage. The campaigns also highlighted the depth of internal divisions – between ethnic and religious groups, rich and poor, young and old, educated and less educated – within the US, within the UK and across parts of the EU.

A growing sense emerged that groups with different perspectives rarely interact. Shouting over one another and repetitive sloganising rather than discussion and debate became the norm. As losers refused to accept the positions of the winners – marching and petitioning to overturn results, questioning the intelligence and personal qualities of opponents – the extent of these divisions and the lack of mutual comprehension was put into sharp relief.

Future policymakers will have to contend with what constitutes "us" and "them" in existing societies and how we collectively create a sense of group belonging. For the UK and its devolved institutions in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, for example, this question applies as much at home as abroad. When we imagine these transitions, we have to try to get inside the minds of others and understand what a sense of belonging means to them. We've got to consider what belonging means for different individuals, groups and nationalities.


WATCH: Why Did England's North Vote to Leave the European Union?

Now that we've decided to leave the EU we'll need to understand what shapes a sense of societal belonging to come to terms with the future of the wider EU and to the UK's relations with it. This relates not only to managing the status quo, but also to understanding how to prevent wider contagion effects and further departures from the EU, if the European project is to continue.

Even though the UK has voted Leave, we're left with a core question for policymakers at home: whether and how the wider UK public can be encouraged to understand what others (including a majority in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland) value in the EU, and why? You might think this is an impossible task, believing the wider UK's island mentality is too profoundly entrenched, but there's evidence that such feelings can change.

Empathy for someone else's happiness or suffering requires recognition that the other person is equally human – effectively, that they have a mind with the same capacity for thought, emotion, desire, intention and self-awareness as ourselves.

Though reminiscent of a bad 1970s pop song, the ability to make complex recursive judgments about the knowledge of others and about their knowledge of our knowledge – the ability to get inside someone else's head, basically – is fundamental to how we function socially. These empathic processes oil the wheels of social relations, whether between individuals, or at an aggregate level between groups or states. Dehumanising another person allows us to downgrade their demands and to build a false perception of the virtue of our own position. Demonising or stigmatising others makes dialogue impossible.

But learning more about empathic behaviours and about how to encourage and inculcate them in policy practice would have profound implications for future international and internal national relations. In the meantime, a little empathy goes a long way to making us all feel heard and valued – a fundamental step in shaping a society in which we can all feel we have a place and a voice that counts. Laura Cram is Professor of European Politics and Director of NRLabs Neuropolitics Research at Edinburgh University. More on VICE:

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