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'A War For Kindness' Favors The Practical Over Polemical

A war for kindness would be a non-violent war for hearts and minds. And since empathy is really a union of heart and mind, fellow feeling in the service of understanding, internal struggle and social complication are inevitable. Empathy can't happen without them.

I had high hopes for Jamil Zaki's The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. But after reading, I was left ambivalent.

Let me say at the outset that there's a lot to recommend in Zaki's approach. He demonstrates empathy to be something one can develop. He writes about how people have a disposition toward being either more or less empathic, yes, but they can get better through personal application and self-awareness. He distinguishes between the terms "fixist" and "mobilist" and points out that for a long time empathy was considered through a "fixist" lens. Fixists think you're the way you are because that's just how you are; mobilists think you might have dispositions but that you can change if you have the desire to change. Zaki is on team mobilist. Had it been the opposite, the book, of course, may have been superfluous.

Zaki — a professor at Stanford and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory — asserts the teachability of empathy, and he has a diverse amount of evidence to support his claims. He shows how working to cultivate empathy led to the redemption of a white supremacist, the reform of Washington state police, and helped in healing post-genocide Rwanda, to name only a few of his examples.

Still, if you want a clarion call to action, this might not be it. If you want a wide-ranging practical guide to making the world better, then you're in luck.

The main problem with the book is its frequent TED-Talk-like tone. It feels too light, too comfortable, to lend the requisite gravity to the legitimate crisis empathy deficits in the world really pose. Its crisp positivity feels as if it's sounding from within a climate-controlled bubble. The considerable range of social research and anecdotes Zaki marshals to demonstrate empathy building is persuasive and encouraging but, again, the book is much more practical than polemical. A mixture of the two could have been helpful.

One of the greatest lessons of the book, however, is that as mobilists people can cultivate empathy in many ways, if they're willing to put in the work. The problem is work and life sometimes get in the way. Take one example: a brilliant experiment by the psychologists John Darley and Dan Batson, who asked seminary students at Princeton to write a sermon on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan parable is one of the ultimate expressions of empathy in action, but Batson and Darley were going to make it interesting. As Zaki describes it, they asked students:

So daily stress and demands on people's time can lead to a lack of empathy. That's understandable. Darley and Batson's experiment isn't necessarily damning; it just shows that empathy can be sacrificed to practicality quite easily. Other times, in more human-facing professions, empathy must be managed and preserved, so as to prevent burnout and fatigue from giving more compassion than is sustainable for a person to give.

Zaki also explores how one loses or lacks empathy, and why. Much of it is owing to a lack of connection to the (seeming) outside world. Hatred is obviously a problem in America and across the world, and Zaki writes about a former white supremacist named Tony who observes that "when people think of hate, they see a red-faced, screaming person. That's hate mixed with anger. True hatred is a profound lack of connection...At that time I couldn't connect with people's pain or my own."

Later in life, Tony has a teacher named Dov Baron who helps him get past his hate. When Tony admits to formerly being a skinhead, he feels he doesn't deserve the compassion of Baron, a Jewish man he would have previously inveighed against. But Baron acts as a true teacher and accepts him with love and without preconditions, and that changes Tony forever.

Still later, Tony, after years of his antisemitism, recalls a night in his hotel room after visiting a Holocaust museum. He feels like something heavy is on him. "I could feel it moving up my chest and into my throat," he says, "and boom, out it came: the insight that my denial of their pain was a denial of my own." Zaki notes that Tony "wept through the night, filled with a feeling he'd long kept at bay."

Jamil Zaki should be commended for compiling such a wide range of research and evidence that show how empathy, like a muscle, can be built or atrophy. To build empathy, one must have courage, engage in self-reflection, and harness the will to venture beyond isolation to the great unknown that is others. In practicing empathy, you just might find yourself along the way to finding the varied and rich humanity of others.

Nicholas Cannariato is a writer and editor based in Chicago.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nicholas Cannariato