I was once in a discussion about one of those topics that might, if we were over-dramatising it, be considered part of so-called “culture wars”. That is, on the one side were some people who were advocating a policy that was deliberately inclusive of a wider variety of people, and on the other side were some people who were questioning it. This kind of conversation is very relevant to the workplace—it can relate to the language we use, recruitment, marketing, and more.
Afterwards I got speaking to a couple of people on the “inclusive” side of the debate, and we discussed the role that empathy has when trying to understand inclusivity. Empathy is not held equally and universally, though, and this prompted one of them to say, “You’ve got to have empathy for people who don’t have empathy.”
That’s a great phrase, and it reminded me of a more well-known and similarly self-damaging liberal aphorism: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” To be clear, I do agree with it.
If you have empathy you might have gained that through your own direct experiences, but you’ve probably developed most of it through other people’s. This might be through reading books, watching documentaries, and so on. But not everyone has read the books you’ve read, or seen the documentaries you’ve seen. Not everyone chooses to read those kinds of books and other media. Certainly they won’t have lived the life you’ve lived to develop the same sense of empathy you have. If someone else hasn’t seen those things—for whatever reason—you can expect them to have a very different point of view.
But how can we give those people the relevant experiences, even if they are second hand? I’m afraid I don’t have an easy answer for that, and research suggests it’s not easy in general. In my experience telling people to change their outlook doesn’t work well; they have to want to change. So offering a reading list is unlikely to be successful. Finding ways to encourage curiosity is likely to work better.
I believe policies of inclusion, and encouraging diversity, makes workplaces and society better. If we get some pushback then, in the first instance, it’s worth exploring why that individual is saying those things.