Empathy, Mindfulness, Dignity and Human Evolution

I just read a blog post by an old college friend of mine, Michael Gordon, who is now a professor at the University of Michigan, and whose work is increasingly focused on social enterprise and social entrepreneurship.

The focus of the post was a new program launched by Ashoka, a leader in the social enterprise field. The program aims to help schools teach empathy to kids and to collaboratively scale up this model on a massive scale.

Here’s Ashoka founder Bill Drayton discussing the program and its importance:

Just before reading Mike’s post I read a NYT article about a class offered to Google employees called “Search Inside Yourself,” developed by a Chade-Meng Tan, a Google engineer and Buddhist, in collaboration with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence.  A book by Tan with the same “SIY” title is being published this month.

While Ashoka’s initiative focuses on kids, the Google class focuses on the hyper-smart and generally hyper-ambitious young adults (from all of the world) helping to shape our future human systems through software and technology.  As the Times explains:

Peter Allen, a former Google employee, gave a green light to the first S.I.Y. class when he led Google U., the unit devoted to internal education, from 2007 to 2009, and Mr. Tan’s boss. Mr. Allen felt that a course focused on mindfulness was important and gave Mr. Tan the time and the budget to develop it…S.I.Y. principles are vital in any workplace where value is typically based on intellectual machismo, Mr. Allen adds. In a high-I.Q. environment, he says, I.Q. itself is not a differentiating factor, but “emotional intelligence, E.Q., is.”

Reading these articles reminded of Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathetic Civilization, which makes the case that an expansion of the scope of empathy has been a key component of human evolution, and is particularly important in today’s (interconnected for better or worse) world. Though I couldn’t make it through the whole (very long) book, this basic premise rang very true to me.

For those who, like me, don’t have the patience to plow through Rifkin’s book, here’s a very engaging 10 minute animation providing a good overview.

That Ashoka is applying its skills and resources to create a scalable model to accelerate and deepen the Empathetic evolutionary trend (which faces countervailing human tendencies and challenges) is exciting and worth watching as it evolves over time.

A related perspective that comes to mind here is “Dignitarianism,” a concept developed by Robert Fuller.  In fact, it seems to me that a chronic lack of empathy underlies the tendency toward “Rankism” (which includes racism, sexism, etc.), which Fuller describes as a core problem in human systems, and one that can be lessened by a dignitarian perspective.

Here’s Fuller giving a 20 minute TED talk on rankism and dignity:

Given the often ugly nature of politics today, I’m particularly intrigued with the application of Dignitarianism in the political sphere, something Fuller discusses here, here and here.

It seems to me that the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and other recent developments are expressions of a global dignitarian movement.  And though this often triggers resistance (sometimes violent) from those in power who prefer a “rankist” society (since they typically enjoy high ranks in that society), this expanding movement is also awakening empathetic responses among many around the world who are now able to witness and respond to it via the power of modern communication technology...technology that in a very literal sense is turning the world into a single connected community (whether we like it or not).

Though it’s still banging up against the many and often dominant “rankist” institutions in our world, I believe this use of communication technology to strengthen and expand a shared experience of dignity and empathy is a fundamental and powerful component of the kind of change that’s needed and is (thankfully) underway in the world today.

In his TED speech, Fuller makes the case that “dignity works better” than a “rankist” approach to human interactions and institutions.  I agree, and would suggest that the inherent human drive toward dignity and empathy will continue to inspire and inform the ongoing evolution of human systems in our increasingly “crowded” and interdependent world, where there’s ever-growing pressure to address the many problems that have arisen in large part due to a lack of empathy and a shared sense of dignity.



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1 Response to Empathy, Mindfulness, Dignity and Human Evolution

  1. Edwin Rutsch says:

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

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