The Vital Importance of ‘Radical Empathy’

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Illustrative picture. (Photo: Kathy Drasky)
Illustrative picture. (Photo: Kathy Drasky)

“It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding’” – Bob Dylan

Radical empathy is the idea that transformative change can come through listening compassionately, openly and genuinely to what others are saying and therefore coming to understand who they really are and what they really want.

When it comes to radical Islam, the dialogue on the subject has become tense. Partisan loyalties, lack of deep knowledge and mutual suspicion make it difficult to have honest and open conversations about these topics. Frequently, valid complaints about extremism are dismissed as mere bigotry and fear-mongering. On the other side, complaints about anti-Muslim bigotry can be dismissed as either understandable backlash against radical Islam or worse — as apologetic covering for Islam.

Neither of these approaches helps solve the problem or promotes integration.

Radical empathy can bridge these divides. The value of genuine listening is that it validates the other person’s humanity and the pain they may be facing. When that is demonstrated, truly and honestly, it can lead to transformative social change.This is because once humans feel understood and cared about as people, they are that much more able to have an honest conversation about diverse issues in a rational way.

Without first acknowledging our shared humanity and taking active steps to understand where the person we are talking to is coming from, we are basically left in tribalistic groupings screaming at each other.

Examples of this include:

Many Muslims fail to comprehend the deep-seated emotional attachment Jews have to the land of Israel, or the fears of living without a well-defended Israel only one generation after the Holocaust.

Many left wing people don’t understand the frustrations and exclusion that led people to vote for Trump, instead electing to brand all his supporters as bigots.

Many non-Muslims don’t understand the fear Muslims feel facing anti-Muslim bigotry at this time.

Having empathy doesn’t mean you have to be a pushover. Rather, empathy means understanding and humanizing the people you are speaking to. It does not mean blindly agreeing, or giving in on key issues that matter deeply to you. It just means taking the time to understand the other person’s point of view. When doing this is it’s important to express yourself authentically and honestly as well. Doing so is a form of respect.

All it means is listening honestly to the other person and truly hearing what they have to say. If we try it, we may be able to change the entire tenor of the debate on how best to tackle radical Islam without demonizing all Muslims.

Watch this groundbreaking Ted Talk on the importance of radical empathy.




How to Integrate (And How Not To)

Why A Small Minority Can Ruin It For the Rest of Us

Should the US Criminalize Radical Islam?


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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.