Why we need to make empathy a compulsory subject in schools
There was a day last week when I had to turn everything off – the TV, radio and push notifications pushing (they are aptly named) the violent exterior in your inside pocket, where I keep my smartphone.
Pocket atrocities, I call them not only because that’s where they are delivered, but because the headlines make the reports of individual misery so mundane that they are sort of rendered in pocket size. Little newsletters forgotten in an ever-changing cycle.
Is it me, or is the news particularly grim right now? Or did everyone, like I did last week, just stop? Or become so callous that graphic reports just don’t register?
How else to explain the lack of response to the flow of violence, very often gendered, brought to our attention?
Coming back to that day last week, that was the main story buzzing in my pocket: “A man from Cork said to his wife, ‘I’d fuck you up if you were a man,’ hears the court.”
It was followed by this: “A woman from Cork tells at trial that her brother raped her so many times that she felt ‘like a robot’.”
The previous week, a headline about a ‘rape song’ on a Night Dart in Dublin was one of the most read articles on my feed.
Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell tweeted that he heard a group of guys chanting “Fiddle it” as a woman got off the train. He then confronted them at Malahide Station in Dublin.
No wonder more than half of Irish women say they would not use public transport after dark or late at night, according to a report by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, “Traveling in a Woman’s Shoes “.
This week we got a big picture of this degradation of body, mind and spirit with the release of figures showing that gardaí received 43,500 calls reporting domestic violence in 2020, an average of d ‘about 120 each day.
This represents a 17% increase from 2019, according to Garda’s annual report for 2020.
And that’s not even a complete picture. As Women’s Aid CEO Sarah Benson said, the numbers are “the tip of the iceberg.”
They also don’t reflect the number of male victims of abuse, who continue to go under the radar, according to Kathrina Bentley, CEO of Men’s Aid Ireland.
Covid-19 has, at least, made the public aware of the continuing suffering of so many. This prompted the launch, in April 2020, of Operation Faoiseamh, a Garda service that increased contacts with victims as well as prosecutions against the perpetrators.
We have also seen the first convictions under the new coercive control legislation, which should help raise awareness that emotional violence can be as, if not more, damaging than physical violence.
And yet, to quote Mary McDermott, CEO of Safe Ireland, we just had a budget that ignores the problem. It is “puzzling that policymakers and public officials have ignored the epidemic of domestic violence, have not taken note of the evidence of how to address the problem, and have not acted to provide [domestic violence] up-to-date infrastructure ”.
It’s not as if the people closest to the problem haven’t come up with solutions. At the height of the pandemic, Airbnb has partnered with Safe Ireland to provide emergency shelters for those fleeing domestic violence.
Mary McDermott later explained how everyone – from businesses, the community and workplaces – could participate in a series of initiatives aimed at creating a safer future for women and children.
These are conversations that we must have if we are to start tackling the violence that has become so common in our society that we have almost become numb to it.
Conversations like the one sparked by High Court Judge Madam Justice Deirdre Murphy when she called for access to internet pornography to be addressed in elementary school in a case where a teenager was sentenced to a suspended sentence for raping his niece. He was, according to the court, “performing” pornographic scenes that he had watched since the age of nine or ten.
Judge Murphy said there was no point in talking about consent at the third level if young people were watching pornography at the elementary level.
Rape Crisis Network Ireland agreed wholeheartedly, saying the case was a wake-up call to face the reality that in Ireland the majority of boys first access pornography before the age of 13 years.
While it is definitely time to talk about internet pornography in schools, we could start with empathy. We seem to have forgotten what this means.
Barnardos is already offering “The Roots of Empathy” to some elementary school children. It “showed a significant effect on reducing levels of aggression in schoolchildren by increasing socio-emotional skills and increasing empathy”.
Imagine what could happen if this were available in all primary schools in Ireland?
Meanwhile, the inspiring Social Empathy Activation program nurtures empathy skills to the second level where it helps students develop a strong sense of connection to their school and community. But the course, developed by Dr Ciara Boylan and Professor Pat Dolan in 2017, must be national.
Empathy is just as important as math, science or English, according to Professor Pat Dolan, co-founder and director of the Unesco Center for Research on Children and Families at NUI Galway.
Evidence from neuroscience shows that when children and youth learn empathy and understanding, their academic performance improves. “That alone should be enough to get schools to embrace it,” says Professor Dolan.
“Most importantly,” he continues, “in a world where narcissism, hate speech, racism and self-centered behavior are increasing… the solution is to develop altruism in young people through empathy education in school and community environment may be the key to the future stability of Irish society.
The research, across a range of disciplines, is conclusive. It shows that the presence of empathy is linked to positive academic, social, psychological and personal development outcomes.
Why, then, are we not ready to embrace a system that teaches us not only to sympathize with others, but to understand and emotionally identify with them? Imagine the world we could create if empathy was a topic in every school curriculum?
As I finish this article, my smartphone is sending another update: “Passengers used phones to record a rape on an American train without intervening.”
I’m tempted to turn off again but instead let’s start thinking about ways to increase empathy in this indifferent world.
The first lesson might recall the name of the Transport Infrastructure Ireland report and encourage people to think about what it is to “Travel in a Woman’s Shoes”.