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Month July 2015

The Link Between Power, Courage & Empathy …*

The Link Between Power, Courage & Empathy ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

If you draw a series of parallel lines closely together, and then another series across them at an angle, you have the simplest visual example of the dialectical process. Cross-hatching as they call it. You have the first series of line, then you have the second series in opposition to the first. But out of the two you get a series of diamonds.

Now, if you look at these diamonds, remembering that every one has had to be drawn, you are overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the task. The diamonds are like the future we work for. Yet, courage. The first series of lines is there. All we have to do is to cross them.

– John Berger, A Painter of our Times, 1958


In a fascinating article recently published on The Greater Good Science CenterWhen Courage Goes Bad, Jeremy Adam Smith examines Cynthia Pury’s research on courage–how we experience, perceive and attribute it to others. Courage, it turns out, is often used as a currency of power–we attribute it to those who share our goals while withholding it from those whom we perceive as being outside our self-defined groups.

In the article, Adam Smith examines a recent social media post which stated, “As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!” The post was accompanied by a picture of toy soldiers and went viral, being shared almost a million times. This is a prime example of how we tend to frame courage as a zero-sum game–by calling Caitlyn Jenner courageous, the author of that social media post felt we were detracting from the ‘real’ courage of American armed forces. The withholding of attributing courage to someone’s actions is very much linked to an absence of empathy for their experience. The good news is that how we frame courage is very much a choice. We can choose to see it as a finite resource and guard it jealously only for our own self-perceived groups, or we can choose to acknowledge the vast plurality of human experiences and understand that ultimately, courage depends on the series of lines we each choose to cross.

. . . *

Pury’s research suggests that courage is something we grant to validate certain goals and withhold to invalidate others. While it might seem as though Jenner and an American soldier could both be courageous, in fact we appear to feel a strong impulse to treat courage like a finite resource that goes to some people but not others. Just as we sometimes withhold empathy or compassion from out-groups, so we will refuse to grant that people can be courageous if we don’t approve of their goals or values.

[ … ] 

Pury’s research has found that courage is more likely to emerge when a person sees a meaningful goal and then believes he or she has the ability to achieve that goal, a product of cognitive appraisal she calls “process courage.”

A man is more likely to run into a burning building to save kittens if he has the training and equipment to do so. A man who runs into the building without those things might be seen as courageous—but not, perhaps, very smart. A third man who has the training and equipment but doesn’t see saving kittens as a worthy goal would simply stand on the sidelines. So whether to take action depends on a person’s goals, as well as evaluations of personal risk and his own ability to achieve the goal.

But how will observers view that private decision? Here’s where things get interesting—and debatable.

Much, argued Pury, depends on whether other people share the goal in question. To the community of people who have transitioned from one sex to the other, Jenner is a hero: an accomplished male athlete who was willing to embrace a new celebrity identity as a woman. In this view, it took personal courage to go public with a very intimate decision—and by doing so, pave the way for others with less social power and wealth to follow the same path. She had the resources to create an image for others to pursue.

The conservative reaction was very different. To conservatives, Jenner’s goal—to raise the visibility of transgendered people—is socially destructive.

To a degree, it’s a problem of empathy and group affiliation. “If it’s your lived life, you know that that transition is really important and you value that goal because you’ve pursued it yourself,” said Pury. You would also know firsthand all the barriers and hostility that Jenner would face. Knowing something about her struggle might make her courageous in your eyes.

But to conservatives, all of that pales in comparison to the goal of maintaining rigid barriers between men and women, a dichotomy on which they say the American family depends. In the pages of the National Review, Doug French framed courage as resistance to the trend Jenner represents.

“By refusing to speak, we contribute to the notion that even conservatives understand that something is wrong—something is shameful—about our own deepest beliefs,” he writes. French (an Iraq veteran) is not willing to attribute courage to Jenner, instead granting it to members of his own self-defined group, people who share his values, experiences, and goals.

Source: When Courage Goes Bad by Jeremy Adam Smith via The Greater Good, published July 16, 2015

{ On “Doing” Philosophy with Children } Philosophy cultivates a generation of inquisitive minds that will grow up challenging the assumptions that hold us back

{ On "Doing" Philosophy with Children } Philosophy cultivates a generation of inquisitive minds that will grow up challenging the assumptions that hold us back | rethinked.org

“By encouraging children to examine the world from perspectives other than their own, philosophy cultivates a generation of inquisitive minds that will grow up challenging the assumptions that hold us back.” – Giacomo Esposito

I was thrilled to discover the work of The Philosophy Foundation through Giacomo Esposito’s deeply relevant article, Why I Teach Philosophy in Primary Schools. The Philosophy Foundation is a UK based, award winning educational charity raising aspirations and attainment through doing philosophical enquiry in the classroom.

Our aim is to make ‘Reasoning’ the 4th ‘R’ in education – by giving children the tools to help them think critically, creatively, cohesively and autonomously we aim to fill the gaps in education and consequently benefit society as a whole. 

Philosophy can help to shape the way we think and live in the world. Learning to think clearly and creatively helps in many ways – the most obvious being the effect it has upon one’s actions.

At the core of The Philosophy Foundation ‘s work is the belief that thinking is a capacity–a habit of mind–and that thinking well requires learning and practice.

It is the job of our specialist philosophy teachers to identify and draw out from the children philosophical material, and to encourage them to adopt a philosophical attitude. Our aim is to cultivate the habit of thinking and we do not believe that this will come about simply by giving them the opportunity to think. Like anything else it needs to be learnt. So the facilitation should include teaching and guidance. Philosophy is not something that can be learnt by being told a list of propositional facts about what it is, it is best learnt by modelling. In other words, the children will learn how to do philosophy best by seeing it done well on a regular basis by a skilled philosophy teacher.

Head over to The Philosophy Foundation website to learn more about the fantastic work they are doing and check out their many excellent resources to start doing philosophy with the children in your own life.

Below are some highlights from Esposito’s article, first published on The Guardian, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety.

THINK, LEARN, DO . . . * 


The sessions I run usually begin with a story or short “stimulus” which draws on a traditional philosophical problem, but reframes it to make it more engaging for a younger audience. The story then ends with a question, and a discussion ensues. Throughout the class, I try to take a backseat; I’m there to help draw out the children’s thoughts, but it’s really for them to decide where the discussion goes and, crucially, what they think. In fact, rather than teaching philosophy, a more accurate description of my job is “doing” philosophy with children.

Children can be fantastic at doing philosophy. Their natural disposition to wonder at the world is given free rein during lessons. Recently I was running a session about time travel. In response to the claim that “time is a feeling”, a 10-year-old boy thought hard for about a minute and then said: “Time is different for us than it is for the universe, because 100 years passes in a flash for the universe, but seems a long time to us … so time is a bit like a feeling.”

[ … ]

At its core, philosophy is about thinking and reasoning well. It’s about learning how to be logical, present arguments, and spot bad ones. Yes, this is often done through strange, improbable examples, which can feel removed from – and therefore irrelevant to – the real world (like the tree in the forest). But these exercises in mental gymnastics train the mind to think more clearly and creatively, which benefits all aspects of life.

As well as learning how to naturally construct arguments, the children are also invited to question them – both their classmates and their own. When it seems like there’s a firm, unwavering consensus across the class, I only have to ask them to put themselves in the shoes of an “imaginary disagreer”, before a flurry of hands appears.

. . . *

Source: Why I Teach Philosophy in Primary Schools by Giacomo Esposito via The Guardian, published July 13, 2015

{ Empathy Is a Choice …* } Research Says: Empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be

{ Empathy Is a Choice ...* } Research Says: Empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be | rethinked.org

“Arguments against empathy rely on an outdated view of emotion as a capricious beast that needs to yield to sober reason. Yes, there are many situations in which empathy appears to be limited in its scope, but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.” 

In a recently published article, psychologists Daryl CameronMichael Inzlicht, and William A. Cunningham dispute the notion that empathy is a limited commodity, making the much more compelling argument that empathy is a choice.

We believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.

The co-authors highlight several studies which show that the absence of empathy is linked to extrinsic and context-specific factors. By disproving the idea that our failures of empathy are linked to inherent limits in our capacity for the emotion, these studies offer an inspiring and compelling case for choosing to empathize.

. . . * 

Two decades ago, the psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues conducted a study that showed that if people expected their empathy to cost them significant money or time, they would avoid situations that they believed would trigger it. More recently, one of us, Daryl Cameron, along with the psychologist Keith Payne, conducted an experiment to see if similar motivational factors could explain why we seem more empathetic to single victims than to large numbers of them.

Participants in this study read about either one or eight child refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. Half of the participants were led to expect that they would be asked to make a donation to the refugee or refugees, whereas the other half were not. When there was no financial cost involved in feeling empathy, people felt more empathy for the eight children than for the one child, reversing the usual bias. If insensitivity to mass suffering stemmed from an intrinsic limit to empathy, such financial factors shouldn’t have made a difference.

. . . *

Some kinds of people seem generally less likely to feel empathy for others — for instance, powerful people. An experiment conducted by one of us, Michael Inzlicht, along with the researchers Jeremy Hogeveen and Sukhvinder Obhi, found that even people temporarily assigned to high-power roles showed brain activity consistent with lower empathy.

But such experimental manipulations surely cannot change a person’s underlying empathic capacity; something else must be to blame. And other research suggests that the blame lies with a simple change in motivation: People with a higher sense of power exhibit less empathy because they have less incentive to interact with others.

. . . *

Likewise, in another recent study, the psychologists Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki and Carol S. Dweck found that when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.

C H O O S E   E M P A T H Y   . . . *

Source: Empathy Is Actually a Choice via New York Times, published July 10, 2015

“We have put up too long with schools that are devoid of hope, humor & potential.” – Dominic Randolph on Rethinking Schools …*

Here are some excerpts from Dominic’s If I Were Secretary of State for Education post, which is a series of 41 articles written by leading international educationalists about what they would do if they were Secretary of State for Education in the UK. The articles were commissioned by the Sunday Times Festival of Education and Summerhouse Education, and sponsored by Pearson. Read them all at IfIwereSoSforEducation.tumblr.com.

*

I would tackle what I think are the three principal issues that plague educational systems in the UK and in much of the world: how we undervalue the work of teachers, how we undervalue the task of educating our young people and how vitally important it is, and how we undervalue the crucial necessity for supporting lifelong learning so that people have the opportunity to learn new knowledge and skills throughout their lives. Therefore, I would concentrate on vigorously reframing the place of schools in our culture by making schools the most exciting place to be in any given community, making them the core of communities.

. . . *

Schools would be places that would inspire and normalize intellectual development but also the development of character and good ethical decision-making. They would be places that are truly human and, rather than reducing people industrially to summative scores or grades, would encourage ongoing formative development of the full range of their capacities. They would be preventative care health centers. Schools would become the community resource center. People attending schools would develop their potential and grow. They would focus on the delta of their development in an ongoing way rather than measuring it statically at certain points.

. . . *

Making schools positive, productive and cool places at the heart of each community would be the aim. We have put up too long with schools that are devoid of hope, humour and potential. Starting a movement to change this reality and bring learning to the centre of what we are about could be a great dream for us all to have.

Read Dominic’s full post here.

imagine, reframe & rethink …

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