Why I picked it up: As I wrap up a project on American attitudes towards inclusive history, I've been giving a lot of thought to the deep divides in this country, and how they are rooted in history. Understanding the perspectives of those who don't value inclusive history, and who I personally disagree with, is crucial if we are going to find common ground that can move us forward into a future that is full of uncertainty. (Senator Cory Booker calls this "courageous empathy," and I agree).
Thus, I want to practice radical curiosity and courageous empathy, as it is only by understanding those perspectives that are different than mine that I can understand how we can work towards making our society more just and inclusive. When I saw a review of this book (it was released only two weeks ago), I jumped on it because I wanted to better put my research findings in better context.
What you need to know: This book is an excellent primer on empathy and how it works in humans in today's society. It also explores how our society is shifting in ways that don't support empathy, with empathy levels generally decreasing. But it also shares that, like most traits, empathy isn't fixed. With practice, we can all become more empathetic, which benefits our collective fate.
Museums as empathy gymnasium.
OK, Zaki didn't write about museums at all. But if empathy is a skill that can be practiced, what is the role of museums in helping people practice it? Zaki discusses that empathy helps people recognize their "common humanity with others." That phrase jumped out because I see comments from museum-goers all the time that say museums help them do just that. (I tweet these types of comments daily at #imaginenomuseums; take a scroll through and you'll find examples.)
While museum-going may not be doing extremely focused training like psychologists do when they run their studies, it does appear that museums are a viable empathy gymnasium for flexing empathy muscles over a lifetime … especially for cognitive empathy.
There's a hitch, though. When it comes to opening people's minds to other perspectives (especially if they are resistant), reason and evidence are not great tools. Yet my research indicates that, at least when it comes to attitudes around inclusive history (and likely contentious science or social issues today), those who resist it the most are also most likely to say that museums should only present facts so they can make up their own minds. They tend to look for certainty, and this type of rigidity, according to Zaki, inhibits compassion. This doesn't mean we abandon facts (we can't), but instead consider how we present those facts in ways that reassure that we are presenting the truth while also opening the door, even if only slightly, to different perspectives that can engender empathy.
Empathy for "the other"
While I've studied this quite a bit in my work, this book helped me crystallize my thinking while also producing some new research and evidence that pushed me to stretch and grow to consider new insights.
In psychology, contact theory is basically the idea that the more we rub up against one another, the easier it becomes to accept one another and feel empathy. In some cases it isn't true (think alt-right responses to demographic change happening around us), but when contact is meaningful, it can help.
To some extent, I see this in my research as well. Over and over, museum-goers share that museums are important for exposing them to other opinions, ideas, perspectives, and experiences. That museums broaden minds, and that these experiences lead to prosocial outcomes (including empathy).
But I think we need to be honest about how museums do that because the exposure is typically indirect, through stories and interpretation and not through person-to-person experiences. That means it is likely more superficial than person-to-person experiences, and that's OK. Instead, museums appear to provide a fundamental first step towards exposure and acceptance, laying groundwork for deeper empathy in real life. In fact, if museums play a role in doing that for a lot of people (and my research indicates they do, as do some other informal learning activities), then that is a significant contribution to a kinder society. Helping move people from ambivalence to starting to care should never be undervalued.
Another way that museums help with this opening of the mind is by how we position our content. Zaki notes that sometimes for change to occur people's impression of their community's beliefs have to shift, and then their own beliefs catch up. If, for example, we think everyone believes blue is a horrible color, then it is easier to believe that too. But if we learn that all we are hearing is a very vocal minority of blue-haters, it is easier to shift our opinions to say blue is perfectly fine color.
This suggests that when museums mainstream content, such as a more complete and inclusive history, visitors better contextualize detractors as outliers. That shift of perspective can help create those initial exposures and contact shifts that are so crucial for eventual acceptance, tolerance, and understanding.
Zaki cites a study where white Americans were asked to read about the massacre of Native Americans at the hands of Europeans. Afterwards, "they doubted that Native Americans could feel complex emotions such as hope and shame." Why that result? Apparently, when people cause suffering, empathy begins to erode. It isn't so much that people choose to harm others, but instead adapt to the choices they have made. That is, they rationalize the harm in ways that suppress emotional empathy. In this example, whites today were rationalizing what whites did long ago.
Let's contextualize these results with my own findings around historical empathy. Numerous studies (some reviewed on The Curated Bookshelf) have shown that whites tend to downplay racial discrimination or rationalize it differently in ways that support who and what they are today. To support the status quo, that is. When it comes to inclusive history I suspect the same thing is happening. Those who are more resistant to that more complete and inclusive history are doing so as a defensive mechanism to protect their identity. So as a white-dominated society did, objectively, a considerable amount of harm to people of color in the past, whites adapted in ways to rationalize the harm, which suppresses empathy towards people of color today. This would, of course, extend to harms happening today (which are often products of the past).
But I would go further than that because in my work I find that many history museum-goers claim they have high levels of historical empathy … but, most crucially, who they have empathy for varies. Those that are more historically conservative tend to believe they exhibit more empathy for people of the past because they don't judge them by today's mores and values. Of course, that can also be interpreted as a way of letting whites off the hook for grievous harms to people of color (as well as women, LGBTQ, those with different religious beliefs, etc.). Based on what Zaki shares, this tendency of historical conservatives is likely a defense mechanism they use to rationalize the past and who they are today. (My research findings on historical empathy will be coming out in fall 2019.)
This doesn't necessarily mean that historical conservatives don't feel any empathy for those harmed in the past, however. But their empathy scale is likely out of whack, heavily weighted towards empathy for that white perspective. Zaki writes that when this type of imbalance occurs, sometimes the goal is to reduce empathy towards the in-group so that a better balance can evolve, thus improving empathetic concern towards the out-group. In my example, that would mean that whites with the most imbalanced empathy scale would need to pull back on empathy for whites in the past in order to have a greater relative empathy for people of color. Realistically, I'm sad to say, that is a very tall order.
Final thoughts: When it comes to something like inclusive history, or climate change, or vaccinations, I believe what I believe to be rational and right, and the most kind to the most people. But those beliefs are wrapped up in my identity and emotions (also making it harder for me to admit I might be wrong), and we see how that is playing out for everyone in our modern, and polarized society.
So I'm thinking carefully about how we effect change in ways that we can come together for a kinder world. And that means using radical curiosity and courageous empathy to better understand how those who I disagree with come to their conclusions. Especially when they think their beliefs are rational, right, and kindest.
This means listening and understanding beliefs and fears. It means considering how we can drive the biggest impact … and that small shifts in perspective can make a much bigger difference than we think. It means giving far more thought to the appropriate pacing than we may have anticipated so that we bring people along with us for the long-term good. Because not deploying that courageous empathy likely means alienating those we most need to reach … and losing them as an audience altogether. We can't risk that.
Read or skip? This book is an excellent introduction to empathy in today's world. For that, yes, it is a great read. If you are really deep into empathy work already, it is likely mostly review, but there is enough new content that you may want to at least skim it to find those spots for closer reading. I've read a lot on empathy, and I picked up new thinking to help me in my work.
Note: if you have ever had an infant in the NICU, I strongly encourage you to skip chapter 5. I powered through it (and then took my dog for a long walk). You don't need to do the same as it is the least relevant to museums.
Full citation: Zaki, Jamil. The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. New York: Crown Publishing, 2019.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.