“Outrospection” and Empathetic Thinking as a Vital Rebellion
Instead of looking into ourselves, Krznaric invites us to take a look at the testimonies of others and to think from their perspective.
Philosopher Roman Krznaric affirms that the 20th century was the century of “introspection”. This was a period when the sciences and the arts told us it was necessary to “look into ourselves” to find the answers to the greatest question in life, or simply to try doing so and be happy.
Psychoanalysis, the study of dreams, and even the genetic odyssey, were driven by this need to look into ourselves. However, the alchemical principle states that whatever is up is down, and whatever is inside is outside; which is why Krznaric proposes the term “Outrospection” to characterize the ethics needed in the 21st century.
The notion of outrospection implies that we should discover who we are and what it is that we want to do with our lives by looking outside of ourselves, not just at the world but also the lives of others, and thus define our place according to empathy and not egoism.
Krznaric has a very unique understanding of empathy. We often say that empathetic people “feel others’ pain” as if it were their own. But empathy can lead us to the concept’s trap: to confuse a feeling with an action. The point is not that empathy is not important, but that we have greatly misunderstood it.
According to Krznaric, empathy is a dangerous concept, since empathy has made revolutions possible: every rebel feels the emotions of others profoundly, but they fight to change the living conditions of others. As if we were literally putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, the empathy that is generated through outrospection will not work if it is not set in motion through action.
Krznaric refers to the life of George Orwell (author of 1984) as an example of a “hero of empathy”: born to a wealthy family (which is why he knew the 11 rules to prepare the perfect cup of tea), he worked in the United Kingdom’s Oriental colonies in India, which enabled him to face a culture that was completely foreign to his own; he made friends, had many adventures and acquired a great deal of material to tell in his stories.
One of the best examples of empathy in Orwell’s work is found in his essay Shooting an elephant. Orwell tells us about his days as an officer in rural Burma, where he comes across an elephant who has escaped his owners and is creating havoc; our empathy is tested when the officer’s dilemma is presented: the locals do not respect him, but nonetheless need him, since the elephant has already killed someone; in turn, our empathy also sides with the elephant, who we see grazing calmly, as if he were a giant wise cow, after his destructive trance.
According to Krznaric, the museums of the future will be places where we will be able to learn through empathy: instead of reading about and lamenting the harsh working conditions in the factories of Northern Mexico, and in Chinese sweatshops, the experience of the museum will consist of learning about making a pair of Nike shoes or an iPhone during a long workday (which in the museum could be reduced to a mere 15 minutes), and afterwards the visitor could receive a symbolic payment of 2 dollars.
Being empathetic is in no way an achievement: “liking” a photograph depicting a disaster on Facebook does not make us an activist. If outrage is not channelled it becomes a social cancer, the guilt of a class paid for with forced charity work. True empathy has the power of transforming the world, because it begins with an individual that dares to rebel against his own prejudices and his own notion of compassion, and when he is able to give that leap and really put himself in someone else’s shoes, that leap has made the world change slightly, but perceptively.
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