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What is Empathy?

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Sam Richards explains that, (TedTalks, 2010) Empathy is all about understanding other people’s values, beliefs and cultures. Richards asks us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes in order to understand what they are going through (TedTalks, 2010). At the end of his presentation, Richards emphasizes his point that you do not have to agree but you need to try to understand (TedTalks, 2010). I think that is exactly what sociology is all about. The understanding of someone else’s culture and values.

He starts off the presentation by inviting us to put ourselves in a situation we would never consider, being occupied by China who are exporting our major resource. The Chinese are becoming richer, while the citizens of the United States are becoming poorer. When you put yourself in that situation, you can visualize how horrible it would be. It would make a person angry and inevitably want to retaliate. Once he has the audience thinking that way, he turns it around and draws the line between that example and what is happening with the U.S. occupation in Iraq.

Richards has the audience imagine they are an Iraqi Muslim. In this experiment, he explains that the Iraqi Muslims want what we all want; a healthy and happy life. All Iraqis really see is that oil is causing destruction and death in their country when really it should be making them wealthy. The problem to them is not the oil however, it is the Americans who have laid claim to this oil. The media influences them, showing that we are all rich and happy over here thanks to their resource. They look at their own situation and all they see is poverty, ruins and death. In their shoes, one can see why they are angry towards Americans and do not agree with our occupation in their country.

After visualizing Richards’ example, it is easier to empathize with them. They see it as us coming into their home, making money off of their resource, causing death and destruction on their land, and trying to convert them to Christianity. This may or may not be true but this is what they see. Now we are able to see it through their eyes, and it makes one understand their outrage and resistance. Richards has us imagine ourselves in other situations as well. We step into the shoes of American soldiers who have caught Iraqi insurgents and also into the shoes of those insurgents who were caught. Each time asking how we think we would feel in each of those situations.

This is what sociology is all about. Richards asks us to (TedTalks, 2010). If we do that enough we will have a much broader sense of the world and societies within it. We need to open our eyes and be aware of the world not just see it for what is shown on TV or portrayed in a movie but really see why people behave the way they do in a society and understand the reasons.

A few years ago I went traveling around Southeast Asia. While I was there, I felt I always had to be on guard from people trying to rip me off one way or another. It was very tiring between converting the cost to see if it was worth fighting over and trying to decide if it was the best deal I could get. I was on a tight budget and didn’t have room to make mistakes with money while there. Some of the people I encountered seemed to only see me as another westerner with money to spend. Even though that was not the case with me, media had played a big role in giving them that stereotype. It was really troubling sometimes when they wanted to fight with you for a few dollars.

However, after awhile I started to empathize with them. While I wasn’t flush with money during my trip, I could see the struggle many of them faced everyday, and empathized with them. I realized a few dollars to me was nothing but to them it could feed their family for a week It is hard to see that when your not used to that kind of life. Once I put myself in their shoes I could see their struggles and felt for them, I wanted to help even if it was just a few extra dollars. I didn’t like being blatantly ripped off but I understood why they felt they had to do it.

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