Riding the elephant towards empathy: an RSA Animate

In this RSA Animate short film, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA (whose blog is here: https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/matthew-taylor-blog) gives a really interesting overview of the currents of change in big thinkers’ ideas about society. The RSA itself is an organisation that follows, curates and influences these developments. He points forward to what we can expect in the coming years – what are the big differences in how we might be doing things as businesses and as a society? A great summary of where we’re at and a little advert for the RSA, of which I’ve been a fellow the last few years.

He talks about the importance of not just education but “empathic capacity”, the ability to think about and pursue the wider public interest in a self-aware way. In Taylor’s eyes, we were developing ourselves nicely enough in Britain on that score, until the last decade or so, but we seem to have hit the buffers somewhat. The global financial crisis, followed by austerity and growing discomfort around immigration have been antithetical to our empathic capacity. Since Taylor produced this in 2015 it’s only got worse, with first the rancorous self-destruction of the Labour Party and then the bitter division of the country though the Brexit vote. It feels like, for now, our empathic capacity is exhausted; we need some back, badly.

I also enjoyed the echoes of John Gray’s Straw Dogs in Taylor’s criticism of our tendency to pursue “progress” as if it’s the same as pursuing well-being. The logic-driven “progress” of science & tech, markets and bureaucracy can as easily work against overall public wellbeing as for it.

For example, former Chairman of the Fed Alan Greenspan’s shrugging off of the crash as the product of unavoidable “human nature” was inadequate. We clearly need to move beyond mere acceptance of current processes into thinking about what kind of society we want then changing our processes to make that a more likely outcome.

This guy will not lead you to the sunny uplands. Commonwealth bronze though.

The same goal-blindness – perhaps a conservative-ideology-driven one, rooted in a love of the organic and an aversion to planning – applies also to those politicians jumping to respond to perceived concerns about immigration. This is one kind of social engineering that social conservatives will advocate, but apparently with no picture (attractive or otherwise) of what they are trying to engineer towards.  One suspects that the goal is left undescribed because to articulate it clearly would be to reveal both its ugliness and its impossibility. We need a whole lot more realism and honesty there.

I didn’t mean literally but hey, here’s one

As Taylor puts it, logic gets you from A-Z but you need ethical reasoning to work out where Z should actually be. We need a lot more focus on the Z and an honest debate about what it looks like. I suspect there is a rather large amount of consensus among politicians, when pinned down on this as individuals, on a rather large proportion of the elements of that Z. But we do need some idea of what kind of progress we want and how to recognise good progress when we see it. Otherwise we consign ourselves to being hamsters on the shiny, cool, dazzlingly impressive and cleverly built wheel of some other kind of progress – an illusory one.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

One thought on “Riding the elephant towards empathy: an RSA Animate

  1. Hi Simon

    Another thought-provoking post as ever!

    Just emailing though because I’ve just joined the RSA and wondered if you have any hints and tips about how to get the most out of it? – I want to get involved but have a few areas of interest and not sure how to narrow them down/make them more concrete. (Also, am taking my partner along to the Feminist Fight Club talk tonight as my first foray into RSA events and to have a nosey at John Adam House…..)

    Let me know what you think when you have a minute!




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