Home > NewslettersEmpathy Cafe Newsletter: Building a Culture of Empathy - March 10, 2010

For the web version of this newsletter or to subscribe/unsubscribe visit:


Empathy Cafe Newsletter
Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion
I want us to organize, to tell the personal stories that create empathy,  which is the most revolutionary emotion.   Gloria Steinem

March 10, 2010    Vol 1, Issue 3

Audacity of Hope

I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does - it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.  Barack Obama, Audacity of Hope


2009-10-14 - President Obama Observes Diwali & Calls for Empathy

Full 'New Spirit" 
(2 hr)

Speech to Congress

That large-heartedness - that concern and regard for the plight of others - is not a partisan feeling. It's not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character - our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.   Barack Obama, Health Care Speech to Congress 


Greetings, Friends,

Are you ready to organize and tell the personal stories that build a culture of empathy, as Gloria calls on us to do?  Perhaps it is the mutual creative story telling and listening to those personal stories that can help overcome the partisanship that we continuously see in the national media?


This edition of the newsletter has a political bend, but I promise the next one will be all about the arts. At the political level, Barack calls on us to listen to all sides. I was gratified to see him bring Republicans and Democrats together in the national Health Care Forum.  The face-to-face dialog seemed like a positive step, even if it doesn't bring immediate results, it helps by slowly changing the typical us versus them dynamics.

The part that was missing for me was more of a discussion about the underlying values that are at stake.  Do we want a health system based on caring or one based on selfishness and greed? The forum discussions tended toward the technical policy areas. They could have taken some lessons from our last Empathy Healthcare Cafe and shared more personal experiences and stories - which helps in developing a common connection.

By the way, most images in this newsletter link back to the original video clips. For example, click on the Gloria Steinem photo above and it will lead you to the original video clip of her quote.  I hope you'll enjoy this newsletter and forward it to friends and send me feedback.



Empathy Cafe

Join the Empathy Cafe Planning Meeting

We are now planning the next Empathy Cafe meetings, the goal being to contribute to Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion by producing a series of monthly Empathy Cafes, consisting of a presentation by an 'empathy expert' speaker, followed by a World Cafe style discussion forum. This is a way to develop support for empathy in our community by creating a space for personal growth, education, networking, community organizing and responsible social action. Our last Empathy Healthcare Cafe generated a lot of positive energy. We need to keep it growing. 

Visit the meeting page for more details and join the Online Planning Discussion list. Here's what we need to get started:  First a committed planning team and second a meeting space for at least 100 people. Anyone know of a good space in or around the Berkeley area? This is the first hurdle.

I hope you'll join the organizing team for producing the next Empathy Cafés Series.


Empathy Documentary: Loni Hancock - Empathy, Caring



Engaging the Other: Progressives and Conservatives

A while back I attended
the Engaging the Other - Power of Compassion conference in San Mateo, California and gave a presentation on a panel about media images of "The Other" with four panelists. This is the first time I've been on a panel and we had all of seven attendees.  I learned not to be on the very first panel in the conference since most people haven't arrived by then or are still waking up.

It was, however, a perfect conference for interviewing people about empathy.  Many of the attendees came from academia, peace and justice groups, dialog and/or Carl Rogers based psychology traditions, etc.

At the conference, I interviewed Joseph McCormick who talked about his transformation from being an extreme conservative to a moderate, i.e. someone who is now trying to balance progressive and conservative values. Joseph is one of the founders of the Transpartisan Alliance, an organization that is working to bridge the left - right partisan divide through dialog.

I hope to do many more interviews with conservatives on their insights and stories of empathy. I see it as a discussion the can help bridge the partisan divide.  Here are links to the interview with Joseph.

In clip four, Joseph had some interesting comments about how it pains him to see progressives judging the judgers. After experiencing a personal a break down and becoming homeless he was embraced by 'hippies' who helped him reconnect with his feelings. It's a fascinating story.

Having myself grown up in a conservative evangelical house and with my family voting Republican, I found this interview most insightful. Joseph is quite open and articulate, and I appreciate him taking the time to share his personal experiences. Having interviewed mostly progressives, I hear all the positive aspects of being aware of others feelings.

I don't want to get to Pollyannaish about empathy, but want to listen to all perspectives about it. Hearing Josephs story, I can better see why conservatives might be suspicious of empathy.  Feelings and emotions can be manipulated, seem weak, be dangerous, make you lose your sense of self, lose your personal boundaries, open yourself to be emotionally taken advantage of, etc. For example, see this video of the conservative Senator Jeff Sessions skeptically asking: "What is empathy?". These are all important questions to be answered.


Jeff Sessions

Some additional thoughts on the dangers.


Kirk Schneider


Kirk J. Schneider is an author, psychologist and leading spokesperson for contemporary humanistic psychology. He told me empathy can be seen as dangerous and that's why it's avoided in society. It leads to intimacy and intimacy is scary for many.  There's also the terror of somebody going into an emotional space they would rather avoid.  The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a recent example of just that. Most societies want to just sweep past traumas and pain under the rug and not hear or relive the pain and suffering of what has happened in the past.

In addition, Kirk says, there's the fear of losing contact with what we call reality. It feels dangerous to open yourself up to people who are tormented and feel like bottomless pits of pain. While acknowledging all these aspects, Kirk says the rewards of empathy can be deeply moving.


Senate Debate on Empathy, Law and Justice

Here are a few more links that relate to the Left - Right divide.
This page has transcripts and video from the Senate debate on empathy. The debate was started when Barack Obama said that empathy was one of his criteria for choosing a Supreme Court Justice. This debate then heated up with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. I've downloaded and organized around 90 video clips and an amazing three hours of transcripts from this Senate debate where empathy was mentioned more than 250 times! I still have a lot of work to do on organizing this material. While the debate is now on a low simmer at the moment, it's sure to come to a rapid boil again with the next nomination to the Supreme Court. There's a possibility it could happen again as soon as this summer, since it's rumored, that the 89 year old John Paul Stevens may step down this summer.

Empathy  Documentary: Joe Brewer - Empathy and Progressive Values
Joe Brewer


A while back I talked with Joe Brewer, who was working at George Lakoff's Rockridge Institute Think Tank at the time. He was out sweeping the streets of Oakland, doing some volunteer community service. While leaning on his broom, Joe talked about how empathy is the foundation of progressive values, such as, caring, responsibility and community.


As an example of this, California State Senator Loni Hancock talked with me about her personal  values of empathy and caring.


Empathy Documentary: Loni Hancock - Empathy, Caring
Loni Hancock

 Loni tells the story of how, as a little girl, she felt distraught at seeing the animals caged up at the zoo. Her caring started early. I actually still feel that way and don't go to zoos for that reason.

Stephen Colbert from the Colbert Report replied to conservative concerns in has his own humorous way.  Here he addresses the Code Word Empathy.


The Common Humanity of Liberals and Conservatives

Empathy Documentary: Larry Rosen - Empathy is like a Magic Mirror (3 of 4)


Larry Rosen, who is a marriage therapist and mediator, shared his view of the differences and similarities between progressives and conservatives. He feels both sides have the same common humanity, but that their 'strategies' are different. (Let me translate that from therapist talk into political language: their 'policies' are different.)  He suggests dropping the labels and trying to connect to our deeper underlying needs, values and common humanity. This approach seems to work for him in couples therapy.

This discussion has just begun and will be with us for many years. A great deal of work still needs to be done so we can build a Culture of Empathy that bridges the partisan divide. I hope to interview more people on both sides of the aisle to hear their stories and find the common ground of our deeper humanity.

California GOP Convention

Reaching Across the Divide

The California State GOP convention is March 12-14th in the San Jose, CA Convention Center.  I'll be going to the convention with video camera in hand to interview Republicans, conservatives, libertarians, etc.  I'll be keeping an eye out for Arnold Schwarzenegger; - what do you think the terminator would say about the value of empathy? His wife, Maria Shriver, is a Democrat, so somehow they do mange to bridge the partisan divide.  


What questions would you like me to ask at the convention?

Empathy Expert



George Lakoff

Judith, George Lakoff and Edwin in Berkeley

The Empathy Expert featured in this issue is George Lakoff. George is Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley and author of the 'The Political Mind' and many other books. He has worked to build a culture of empathy through research, education, and now through the political process.

Judith and I attended two of his recent talks where he was promoting the California Democracy Act. We had a chance to sit and chat with him over lunch and again over dinner. George agreed to do a more in-depth interview with me in the future, so I'm looking forward to that. I video taped both talks and they are now online.

Expert Web Page

For every expert who has created a great deal of material about empathy on the internet, I'm putting together a separate organized web page on them with links to their work. I've collected and organized 25 of George's video speeches along with many articles on this page. Many of the videos have a written outline that makes it easy to see the contents. The sections where he talks about empathy are highlighted for quick access. Check this page to go in-depth into his work

To summarized Georges ideas as I see them: The old view of 18th century Enlightenment Reason has been scientifically proven to be wrong, and we need a new Enlightenment of Real Reason or an Empathic Enlightenment. A large part of our reason is used for empathy and connecting to others and this is supported by the discovery of mirror neurons. Empathy is the foundation of progressive morality and the basis for democracy, caring, fairness, responsibility, protection, equality, etc. The Obama Campaign ran on the theme of empathy and we need to create an empathy based movement to support these values.

California Democracy Act
George is now leading the campaign for the California Democracy Act, with the goal of returning majority rule to budget matters in the state of California. He says, "Democracy is about empathy - caring about your fellow citizens, which leads to the principles of freedom and fairness for all." At his talks, I asked him a couple of questions, here is a summary. Click on the photos to see the full question and answer.


Berkeley, CA
(Full video, 50 min)


Edwin: What is your current thinking on building an empathy-based movement?

When Obama is asked to support an initiative, he asks "where is the movement?".  There needs to be a movement behind each initiative. Politicians need a movement to get out in front of. The movement starts with you and me....more

San Ramon, CA
(Full video, 53 min))

Edwin: What is the relationship of empathy to democracy and the Californians for Democracy Act?

Empathy is part of the description and in the literature. The best explanation of the relationship of empathy and democracy is from Obama. Obama says patriotism begins with citizens caring for each other....more


Jeremy Rifkin - Empathic Civilization (2 of 10) Empathy Documentary


Jeremy Rifkin Video is now Public

Jeremy Rifkin - Empathic Civilization (2 of 10) Empathy Documentary
 at Sonoma

I was finally able to make my video, which I mentioned in the last edition, of Jeremy Rifkin pubic.  This 1 hour and 20 minute video is now online with another 1 hour video of his talk at Google.  See them here on his Expert Page.

Authors@Google: Jeremy Rifkin
 at Google

Huffington Post had a month of articles related to the 'Empathic Civilization'.
Here are just a few of the articles that have been posted in the last month.

    For this month's HuffPost Book Club, I have chosen Jeremy Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization, which boldly sets out to present nothing less than -- as Rifkin puts it -- "a new rendering of human history."
    Jeremy Rifkin: When Both Faith And Reason Fail, Stepping Up To The Age of Empathy
While our radio talk shows and 24-hour cable TV news programs incessantly play off the political rift between conservative and liberal ideologies, the deeper conflict in America has always been the cultural divide between faith versus reason.
     'Empathic Civilization' Excerpt: Homo-Empathicus, The Big Story That Historians Missed
The following is an excerpt from the HuffPost book club pick for February, Jeremy Rifkin's "The Empathic Civilization".
  Mary Gordon   Mary Gordon: Building A New World One Child At A Time
The basis for solving all of the problems we face is empathy. If homo empathicus can get that right, we allow for the viability of our physical and social universe.
    Alison Gopnik:  Amazing Empathic Babies
One of the best ways of understanding human nature is to study children...Reestablishing that sense of personal intimacy with the "others" may be one of the best ways of bringing about global moral change.
     David Elkind: How Little Minds Are Wired For Compassion
In our world today we are seeing a battle between human values (homo empathicus) and economic values (homo averiticus). So far, homo empathicus appears to be losing this battle.
    Richard Restak: Our Brains Were Built For Feeling Each Other's Pain
In our culture we're taught to think of ourselves as independent and self-actualizing. In reality, our brain is uniquely constructed for experiencing other people's thoughts, emotions and actions as if they were our own.
    Robert D. Stolorow: In an Age of Trauma
Imagine an "empathic civilization" in which the obligation to provide a relational home for the emotional pain that is inherent to the traumatizing impact of our finiteness has become a shared ethical principle.
    Jodi Halpern: Why Empathy Is Essential For Doctors And In Conflict Resolution
When empathy is guided by a deeper understanding of each other's perspectives, it offers enormous promise for helping us build global cooperation.

Jean M. Twenge: Narcissism Or Empathy? The Me Generation Or The We Generation?
Empathy evolved as a fundamental human emotion because, in the long run, it benefited the survival of humans as a group.


Your Comments

How are you Personally Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion?

Send me a note with your answer to this question and I'll post it here in future editions.  Eric Schechter is a frequent contributor to the empathy cafe discussion list
Eric says:

I've been blogging about politics for a few years, and more recently I'm running for Congress and writing essays about my views. In all of my blogs about politics, I have tried to express my concern for the well being of other people, my feelings about their feelings, the fate that we all share, etc. I suppose that all friendly communication works to increase the empathic bond among us all, but it does so more when the communication includes some conscious awareness of that bond.

Connect With Us Send me your insights, articles and stories for the next newsletter.

Connect with us at:
   Facebook Edwin Rutsch
   Facebook Group
Discussion List
   Subscribe or Unsubscribe to this Newsletter.