Sam Richards: A radical experiment in empathy

Sam Richards: A radical experiment in empathy

During Easter I came across a powerful TED on empathy and then last week Osama Bin Laden was no longer. There are lots of thoughts about reactions and empathy going through my mind. I wrote this in Easter and asked for some thoughts from some friends about the YouTube clip and got some great responses. Firstly here is the clip:

Sam Richards: A radical experiment in empathy

An email to some mates:

Finally building on letting go and letting be I also want to work on understanding. On watching a TED on empathy I need to work more on understanding other people’s situation and not trying to judge them. The video is here

This is a powerful talk on developing an understanding and empathy for those individuals in Iraq as if we were in their shoes. For me the power of the 18 minutes is not only the plight of the middle east but how I can apply the concept in improving my understanding of every day living. I am intrigued that this is the clip I decided to watch out of the hundreds available given what has been happening at #villa wood over Easter. Anyway enough of my raving.

Here is what I asked my friends:

I know you don’t have time for many things but when you find time could you watch this TED clip for me. TED clips only go for 18 minutes. I would like to talk to you about it.

And here are some of the responses:

Many thanks for introducing me to the TED lectures at Penn State, via the sociologist Sam Richards. What he does he does very well, but what he does leaves me unconvinced. Unmoved, in fact. I’m temperamentally too cold-hearted, too cold-blooded, too averse to emotional appeals, or too rational, logical, and realistic to swallow his sugary pabulum. I prefer Yeats’s advice to “cast a cold eye on life, on death.”

My central objection to the Richards approach is the way he conflates minority views with majority views. He shows an isolated Bible boot camp and says “we all know” what that means. Really? All of us? He says “we all know” the invasion of Iraq was “all about oil.” If so, it’s taken an ungodly long time for Americans to get the oil flowing into their tankers, especially since Arab Iraqis are still squabbling with Kurdish Iraqis about who owns it. I don’t recall the USA claiming to “own” any of it.

Nor does it surprise me that some country dominates the military landscape. Personally, I’m glad it’s the US rather than China or Iran. Recent events in the Middle East seem to indicate that Arabs are quite happy to slaughter one another, without American intervention. Or does Richardson believe it’s all a CIA provocation?

Must democratic countries shun trade with autocracies, as Richardson implies? Must Catholic shoppers avoid Protestant shops? Should Antonio have borrowed money from Shylock? Should I die from haemorrhaging rather than accept a blood transfusion from a black man? Would anarchy be preferable to a hung parliament? No, no, no, no, and no. Our well-being and survival trump all else. We suck in our breath and do what we must, despite the purity police.

Should I be surprised that those with wealth are keen to keep it? Marx said that all property is theft, but even the Russians finally conceded that private landowners were more productive than collective farms. You can only “steal resources” if somebody already “owns” them. Should prior owners have some special dispensation to keep resources in perpetuity? Some Aboriginal Australians believe so, although I see in this morning’s news that Cubby Station is being advertised for sale in China. Has Richardson heard of progressive taxation?

Nor do I buy his “holy war against Muslims.” A recent article in National Geographic quantified the rising or falling fortunes of religious faiths in the Middle East. The Christians, it seems, are being driven out. Surprisingly, Richardson didn’t extend his shoe-filling exercises in “empathy” to the jihadists who kill apostates, subjugate women, or detonate explosives. He engages in what the logicians call “proof by selected examples.”

Geographers also advocate empathy, especially when it involves exploring and studying foreign places. I prefer submitting myself directly to the first impression of a place or event, rather than through the beguiling oratory of a fundamentalist preacher.

Now back to my meditation on the Anzac spirit. All the best…


Actually I wonder if there’s a greater likelihood of Australians being in the cross hairs of the Chinese, potentially at first through ‘friendly’ economic invasion and then through more direct action. We are a relatively soft target compared to the US and have a lot of what the Chinese need to continue on their path of ‘development’.

But to your question (and ‘m not sure I know how to answer it), there is so much at stake when one group in society attempts to dominate another or foreign interests impose their values on a broader population while greasing the palms of the incumbent ruling classes. I think we are heading for some challenging times ahead in relation to energy, food and water security. How do individuals prepare for or respond to societal disruption or breakdown? Some with means look for refuge in another country, others barricade themselves, and I guess others yet again fight with guns and bombs as a stratgey to be heard. I think this is the Iraq experience, I am sure it reflects the SA experience, and no doubt countless other places as well.

The key to social stability in my experience and reading is a strong, caring, educated ‘middle class’. Nice words, hard to achieve.

I think I am rambling but I do think there is a great urgency to reduce global oil (and coal) dependency not only to address any issues of climate change but to reduce the risk of greater world tensions. I don’t have any answers, but I do think governments should be far more aggressive in their support of good R&D in this area.

Speak soon


Hope you and the family are well.

Thanks for sending this through – really enjoyed it. Seems like a lot of selfishness and evil stems from American Christianity if you stand in an Iraqi’s shoes. We should try to be empathic to Iraqi circumstances and perceptions but what do we do about it? Things will change when we get a technology that drives our cars and industry that doesn’t need oil.

I have a neighbour who has just chewed up part of the lawn on my nature strip by cutting it too short when he shouldn’t be cutting my lawn at all. Made me angry. But I’m not sure how to be empathic about it. Sometimes we need help to be empathic because we don’t know how to question or understand what its like to be in someone else’s shoes. Maybe my neighbour thought he was helping me out when he chewed up my lawn? Maybe he is just a ….


Thanks for sending the clip. A fascinating analysis with an interesting amalgam of evangelical Christian and US liberal political influences evident within the presentation style. That almost absorbed me as much as the content.

In my more pessimistic moments, I still see hope in the new technologies to communicate at a time when the media is or has been taken over by those whom I more often than not despise. Reading any newspaper in Australia right now is being subjected to having one’s intelligence insulted.

I tend to accept the logic of his argument. What I saw in the Philippines was a stark reminder of how the US treated the country as being merely a resource pit for it. In HK, I kept trying to convince both my Chinese friends and colleagues that China had a unique opportunity to demonstrate their superiority by resisting the path that the US had followed and was understandably resented by them and the region generally. It was a hard sell!

Another analogy sits in my mind with his points. Palestinians and Jews are as ethnically as close to identical twins as it is possible to be. Even a literal OT reading has them as ‘blood brothers.’ Yet, time and perceived resentments make them appear equally incapable of sensing this. Northern Ireland and more pathetically, Glasgow each time Rangers play Celtics, reveal more of the same. Even more pathetic in that situation is that the members of the crowds who cause the problems both ways, all come over from Northern Ireland for the matches. Yet, when we to to to Cork each July, our Protestant roots are accepted happily. At the same time, many of them refuse to travel to the north because of their fear. When our brother-in-law took us into both the Catholic and Protestant strongholds near the border, we felt their fear.

Back to the coal/oil parallel, you only have to look which countries offend the US the most to see the oil links. In the Central America and South America basin, Venezuela upsets them most. I don’t need to explain why.

Of course, like all analogies, I’m sure there are some limitations.

As for me – no more comments just lots of thoughts.

cheers Martin

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