Social Equity and the Empathy Gap

Leaders are taught to empathize more.

To close deal with clients, to meaningfully create value for stakeholders, you must first bridge the empathy gap. You must first be able to see things from their points of view. Take into account their concerns; how they live, work, and play. That is when you truly can make decisions that will create value, that will benefit them.

That has been how those in power succeed.

Modern Segregation: Los Angeles county

But who exactly do they empathize with? Most often it’s those who also have power or money. For a historically non-ethnically diverse community, that would mean those who have the same skin color; the same gender; the religion; the same way of life.

Let’s consider a country that has just been founded, where the halls of power have not yet inducted any members. How long does it take for that hall to be filled with people who look and act the same? A few years, tops.

To bridge the empathy gap, to see things from each others’ perspective, is how any and every communities of leaders succeed. In addition, if they can sustain their group’s status and exclusiveness, they make sure that they get first pick. That is, dominance. Preferential treatment. Opportunities. Plus, it will also help the next generation of those who look and act like the previous community of leaders to have an easier time getting to power. Who would want to betray that priviledge and shake the boat? Civilization has been stable for thousands of years most likely thanks to this generational tradition.

But, things will collapse should this continue in the next few decades.

Disinvestment in non-socially-dominant communities has led to poverty and stagnancy. Both the CDC and the EPA have raised concern about this as there are real public health concerns associated with continually not providing the infrastructure and support and care and dignity a group of people need. They will be more likely to suffer diseases. They will be more likely to end up living with bad air and water. These public health and environmental concerns would need to be fixed with proper (read: costly) solutions. There are externalities attached to not caring. Externalities that will end up draining away any (and possibly all) short-term gains.

When people can no longer support their lives, they pack up and migrate to wherever hope is. The other option for them is of course, to become revolutionaries. Terrorists. This was arguably how the Bolshelvik revolution started, or how the Syrian civil war came to be. Disadvantaged people either seek to find better chances with another group in another land, or they get angry and point the sword at the group that had been mistreating them. That is, the community of leaders that have been busy catering to stakeholders who look more like themselves than those different people over there.

Leaders can continue to practice empathizing only with those they are familiar with, but climate change is coming. Things can happen in two ways if this continues: either those leaders will have been complicit in indirect mass genocide, or they will be very busy defending against an angry mob (who will likely be funded by opposing communities of leaders).

Time for Diversity!

The alternative is to build empathizing capacity with non-familiar others. Why? Because for leaders to “do good” without seeing things from the other’s perspective did not work out well (sexism vs feminism for example). Thus we need to start empathizing with others: those of different skin color, of culture, of religion, of way of life.

Either the hall of power learns to serve those unlike themselves, or it starts inducting representatives of new groups in.

To truly have a culture of diversity, leaders must first actively and regularly be seeing things from the POV of those unlike them. It is not our unalienable right to alienate others. We need to bridge as many empathy gaps as we can. And soon.

So how? Just get out more!

Sometimes planners or designers or producers or politicians would look at the concerns of people different from them and immediately think: I’ll lose out! This is not true, as although the short-term loss/bias is true, investing in those others will mean higher future potentials (or buying power) for them. This is also beneficial as then the cost of externalities such as public health fixes is reduced. To prevent things from going down this path leaders simply need to stop responding to bias with bias. But instead, cross the gap, and respond to bias with empathy. Admittedly this solution is on the individual scale, dependent on the leader themself to do it. But there are also other bigger solutions!

In city planning residents from diverse groups are sometimes invited to provide their opinions to planners. At the end of the day those inputs would be appreciated, and ignored. This means involving under-served communities in the discussion alone is not enough (the power to discuss is not power). They need to be involved in the planning itself, having their voice allocated voting power in the final plans (the power to plan is power, at least in city planning).

There is a practice called “building engagement capacity.” That is, community organizers would swoop in and talk with people from under-served communities. Then they would mobilize and take part in public engagement planning meetings. Then whenever planners seem to ignore their inputs the established “engagement capacity” would kick in, resulting in things like protests. (People don’t like protests cause banks and insurance companies don’t like lending to people protested against, in most countries…) This would pressure planners to truly start incorporating those viewpoints and probably finally begin to empathize.

There’s a policy fix: to mandate all planning that has social impacts to be influenced by voices of all. That is, if it has social impacts you should be operating like a mini US Congress where everyone is a like state, instead of a mini dictatorship where the expert leader appreciate but ignore inputs from different others.

There’s a cultural fix: encourage more relationships with people you’re not familiar with! It is always an uncertain thing to see things from others’ views, but familiarity can override uncertainty. This means disrupting the “bubble” and “echo chambers” culture we have of now. Make friends with those of the other political party. Make friends with someone who grew up other side of town. Stop feeling so aversive whenever you see someone different and move away or react hostilely. If we start responding to bias with empathy, chances are those bias will be resolved soon enough. That’s why they teach empathy in leadership courses in the first place. So just do some more of it, but with new people!

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