Networks-as-Change: The Empathic Turn

February 27, 2014 Leave a comment

In “networks-as-change,” effectiveness is grounded in affectiveness.

In an essay that I continue to revisit, the poet/essayist/novelist/farmer/ conservationist and champion of overall sanity, Wendell Berry, talks about what he calls “the turn towards affection.”  Having spent many years reflecting on and pushing back against the unfortunate demonstrated human tendency to despoil landscapes and “the other,” he takes a strong stand for both deep rooted connection and . . . imagination:

“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”

In other words, by his assessment, imagination thrives on contact, on an intimate form of knowing that is not intellectual, but full-bodied and essential. For Berry it is only this kind of knowing that can lead to truly “responsible” action.

Others, historic and present, hold the truth and power of this kind of intimate knowing to be self-evident, in conservation and social justice efforts and in what it means to be a responsible human. Professor john a. powell in his book Racing to Justice:

“There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”

Another call for connection, fundamental and unfettered; deeply human and humane; inter-personal and ontological.  In a poignant essay about the need for racial healing, Gail Christopher of W.K. Kellogg Foundation reminds us, “New laws, policies and resource-allocations are vital but not sufficient. Change must go much deeper . . . [and include] the journey towards reconnecting and re-affirming [our] individual and collective humanity.”

Imagination, justice, and responsibility thrive on contact. Believing this to be so, I often like to say that networks for social change are not simply a “so that” but an “as,” when they intentionally strive to shift (build, broaden, deepen, open, dynamize) connections.  Perhaps from a strategic mindset we reach out to connect for the sake of building movement of a mass organizing kind, to reach “that goal.” This is all good, except when the ground of our individual and collective being and understanding remains static and stands counter to our efforts to alter structural and systemic realities. As Marge Piercy once wrote:

“If what we change does not change us, we are playing with blocks.”

And we are not playing with blocks.  We are working with life, lives, and livelihoods.  So it seems that it would serve aspiring networks-as-change to make the turn towards affection, to fundamentally ground themselves in empathy.

This notion is perhaps not so outlandish and squishy for some as it might have been even just a few years ago. Empathy seems to be everywhere, in business books, TED Talks and RSA Shorts, writings about social media, etc.  Apparently more and more people are sensing that the modern industrial pursuits of objectivity, detachment and standardization are not serving us.  Carol Sanford, in The Responsible Business puts it this way:

“The challenge is to replace practices that distance and disconnect with ones that evoke empathy, caring, and creativity. . . . It is difficult to experience caring for other beings without connecting to them directly and seeking a deep understanding of their uniqueness.”

Empathy is in part good business practice, according to Carol, because it can keep organizations and enterprises from being overly self-referential, “more concerned with stated goals than with living realities.”

And it would appear that more of us, and perhaps especially those of us with considerable privilege and certain kinds of power, need desperately to tune into living realities and the larger living systems of which we are a part, for all of our sake and especially those who have lost and are already losing so much.

So what does it mean to embrace empathy and affectiveness in networks-as-change?  More on this soon. And curious to hear any reactions to this point.

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