• Ivan A. Kirchgaesser

How can we extend our empathy beyond what is familiar to us?

When I asked Anne Ploin, who is a writer, AI researcher, and my housemate, what the notion of Global Citizenship conjures up in her, I was busy doing the dishes. As she started to talk, I had to keep on drying my hands to make quick notes, trying to keep track of all the interesting thoughts that were coming out.

Strangers at the airport - drawing by Annelinde Kirchgaesser

The first image Anne came up with was of people on the planet, talking to each other about what it means to belong - on different scales. These people were also thinking of others living on the other side of the planet, and finding it hard to imagine what their lives would be like. Elaborating on this picture, we found that it embodies some of the key questions related to Global Citizenship. How do we grapple with different scales - from local to global and what lies in between? And how can we expand our empathy towards people and regions of the world we don't know?

Whilst for some people the idea of being a global citizen involves travelling to many places, we both found that this is not the essence. First of all because travelling and tourism can be quite a superficial way of engaging with other places. Secondly, it would be a rather exclusive notion of global citizenship, since the option of travelling is only available to those with the financial means and the right kind of passport. We wondered if there could be other ways of expanding our empathy towards the other and the unknown, that don't involve physical travel.

At this point, Anne referred to the principle of inference: could it be possible to expand our empathy for what is other by building on what we know? This reminded me of Goethe's idea that we don't necessarily get closer to knowing the whole by adding up the parts (such as in the travelling example), but instead, the whole is present and can be encountered within each part. In other words, if we really live into the situations we can have a direct experience of, we might recognise certain overarching principles - by some people called 'archetypes'. Realising that these might also be at play in other people's lives, even if their culture or living situation might be very different, could possibly help us empathise beyond the realm of what is familiar to us.

These are only a few of the thoughts that emerged in our conversation, which, despite only lasting as long as it takes to do the dishes, was very evocative. Anne and I agreed that she is going to write a response to my recollections, which will be shared on this blog soon.

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