SEATTLE — Citizens from richer developed nations are the ones with the most power and civil liberties to demand their governments enact policies to fight global poverty; they are also the ones who have most likely never experienced extreme poverty and economic deprivation.
How do you make people care about global poverty? How do you compel someone to fight for something they have not experienced? Will they start to care if they are shown statistics of the number of individuals living below the poverty line or photos of their lifestyles and their families? Does the answer lie in first hand accounts, newspaper articles, books, documentaries and celebrity endorsements?
Many people do, in fact, care about global poverty. It is rather simple to have sympathy for those living in abject circumstances, but many do not have empathy for them. Sympathy and empathy are two very different responses to the challenges and pain of others.
Sympathy places other people’s problem at a distance and drives disconnection. Empathy is “feeling with others” and mutually experiencing their emotions, thoughts and sensations. It is a choice that comes from recognizing the other person’s emotions and identifying with them without placing judgment. It can come from a personal understanding of their experience. But it can also come with a change in perspective.
For example, people may feel sympathy for an acquaintance whose parent has passed away. Someone who has also lost a parent may feel empathy because they can relate to that person. Empathy brings people together in a shared experience and creates human connections.
But even if you have not lost a parent, there is still a way to have empathy. Empathy is a choice to be vulnerable. Empathy is a choice to look inward and draw out an emotion or experience so you can connect with the other person and show them that they are not alone.
The stigmatization of poverty reflects a lack of empathy. Poverty is often seen as a consequence of immoral character and irresponsible behavior. Prince University psychology professor Susan Fiske found that when individuals looked at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains reacted as if they were seeing objects and not human beings. Has society conditioned us to strip the poor of their humanity?
Most of the world’s poor are born into poverty and do not have the opportunities to pull themselves out, but poverty is not just about income levels. Ending poverty requires an understanding of human dignity. While many of us may have never experienced poverty in terms of economic deprivation, in one way or another we may have experienced discrimination, inequality, pain and suffering, and a lack of opportunity and freedom.
Empathy compels people to confront their own life experiences and emotions to connect with others, even if they have not lived the same lives. Connections create understanding, and understanding creates change. To overcome poverty, the poor’s humanity needs to be recognized as no different from that of the rest of the world.
Sources:KarmaTube, New York Times, Diffen