Connecting Empathy to Action with Art as the Glue

illustration by Lief Parsons

Connecting the presidential pardon of a turkey on Thanksgiving to the need for a educational focus on empathy for other species, might seem a stretch. Then again, after reading much of David Livingtone Smith’s fascinating book, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, I’m not so sure.

It seems that, according to Livingstone Smith, humans in all cultures and throughout recorded history have prepared for war through dehumanizing their perceived enemy, often equating them with some type of animal or insect. As Smith points out in detail, recent examples of this abound in war reporting and in the language used by people involved in genocide. Inhumane treatment of prisoners of war seems closely tied with animal references – dogs, vermin, rats.  Jane Goodall has said that humans are the only animal capable of conscious cruelty, which makes this use of animal imagery to justify cruelty all the more ironic.

In a recent interview which I highly recommend reading, Goodall says “It simply doesn’t make sense that the most intellectually smart creature that has ever walked on planet Earth is destroying its only home, and destroying it so heedlessly. So how do we mend the damaged connection between brain and heart? Through the youth.”

Human activities are causing the sixth greatest extinction known on the planet. It seems as if there couldn’t be a more important moment in history to take action and stop such needless suffering and extermination of other species, whether willingly or unwittingly. Take, for example, the impending extinction of tuna due to overfishing and trawling in the oceans, the impending extinction of the Asian elephant in the wild, great apes and big cats on the decline, countless species that are less familiar to us but are dying from hunger, pollution and dwindling habitats. Although extinction is a part of the unfolding of life in its fluid and ever-shifting forms, it has never happened so quickly and pervasively due to human activities.

Goodall affirms the power of stories and of children’s hope and ability to change their parents but says that behavior change requires a multi-leveled approach. Most importantly, she emphasizes nurturing the hope that children naturally have about the world and giving them tools to implement their compassion. She also makes clear that she is not fighting for animal rights, per se, but for human responsibility. This is also my aim with Naturestage – to create connection and empathy that make audiences and students want to protect other species and ecosystems.

A recent column in The Stone, one of my favorite blogs on philosophy in the New York Times, discusses the link between the practice of pardoning a turkey on the eve of Thanksgiving and the “strange power vested in politicians to decide the earthly fates of death-row prisoners.” If we were more empathic and sensitized to the needs of other animals, might this not extend to how easily we could be manipulated into becoming dehumanizers of other humans?

David Brooks, regular op-ed contributor and author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, has also written a thought-provoking post on the new buzzword, empathy. In his October article, “Empathy versus action: Don’t just feel – lend a hand”, Brooks suggests that feeling empathy is not enough; that for empathy to be connected to positive social action, it must be connected to moral codes. As Brooks points out, peoples’ codes often conflict.

He writes “In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to.”

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937 Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid

Examining one’s moral values and talking about social codes is a thorny path to pursue as an educator. Enter art, the great means of forming empathy and simultaneously questioning our individual moral codes. Some of the greatest art causes you to examine your own inner limits of where your feeling urges you to act and why you do or don’t follow through on that urge. Picasso’s Guernica depicts the horrors of war, but does it turn the viewers into peace activists? Do people understand it without knowing its context? The painting did indeed raise world attention to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Picasso scholar Becht-Jördens writes,

In his chef d’oevre, Picasso seems to be trying to define his role and his power as an artist in the face of political power and violence. But far from being a mere political painting, Guernica should be seen as Picasso’s comment on what art can actually contribute towards the self-assertion that liberates every human being and protects the individual against overwhelming forces such as political crime, war, and death.

I discovered through my current interest in incorporating animation for The Elephant Project films, that a fellow artist, animator extraordinaire Ed Hooks, has coincidentally read and written about the same article by Brooks. He has this to say, and I agree completely. The most crucial element of the following is that humans can imagine what others are feeling based on what they see others doing. This naturally extends to how other animals behave. He writes,

…The way that empathy is triggered in acting – on stage and in animation – is through action. Emotion by itself is not actable and has zero theatrical value. Acting is doing. It is nice that you can make a character have the illusion of emotion, but that is not enough. The formula you want to remember is this: Thinking tends to lead to conclusions, and emotion tends to lead to action.” The audience sees what your character is doing and then, through empathy, relates to the emotion that led to that action.

Empathy is an innate trait in humans. It is necessary because we are social creatures that organize in groups in order to survive. If a person is unable to empathize, he is a sociopath. There is a lot of research showing that there is a specific section of the brain that is involved with empathy. In sociopaths – serial killers and such – that section is inactive. One of the characteristics of autism is an inability to empathize, which is why autistic children most often do not want to look you in the eye. They are unable to interpret the emotion they see in you, so it is more comfortable not to see it at all.

There are smart people who assert that an ability to empathize can be developed and strengthened, like strengthening a muscle. I disagree. Your ability to empathize is what it is, and it has been with you since birth. The real issue is not how to increase the ability to empathize, but to acknowledge the values that are behind the emotions we express, and the actions we take as a result. As David Brooks observes in that September 30th column, the presence of empathy is no assurance that a person will act responsibly or morally. A human is the only creature that can know something is wrong, and still do it.

To read his full blog entry…

One of the implications of Ed Hooks’ discussion of the use of action to evoke empathy with animated characters is that in real non-animated life, our actions do in fact influence how we feel. This is verified by Nick Cooney in his book, Change of Heart. He has been touring around the country speaking to activists of all stripes about how to really cause behavioral change in others and how we often think we believe in something, because it is how we have been accustomed to acting.

One of his insights that fuels my thinking about how music, theater and film can use their emotional and storytelling power to cause compassionate action is this: “people often learn what their beliefs are by looking at their own actions. We typically think things work the other way around…in our advocacy work we usually operate under the assumption that we first have to change people’s beliefs, which will in turn cause them to change their behavior…Behavior creates attitude: in part because we learn more about the issue, but also because we decide how we feel about an issue by looking at the things we say and do.” p. 61, Change of Heart.

In my multi-media presentation, Saving the Elephants, Saving Ourselves: The Role of Art in Social Change, I show examples of the numerous artists who are using their art forms to raise awareness for the human connection to elephants, and to their struggle for survival. Art here is crucial, not only in raising awareness, but in building empathy through action. Here is a photo from  the Human Elephant Foundation, based in South Africa, of children making an elephant sculpture which is then exhibited with flower petals.

My wish for The Elephant Project film set and curriculum is that through working with the material using an art form, through actually making art – whether in music, dance, video, poetry or theater – students can truly integrate the heart with the hands and the head and feel their kinship with the rest of the beings on the planet, motivating them more strongly than anything else to be global caretakers in whatever way they can.

Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right. – Jane Goodall

For more powerful quotes from Jane Goodall, a courageous voice for the non-human animals and for social justice, please visit this page.

About naturestage

Miranda Loud is the Founder and Artistic Director of the non-profit NatureStage based in Waltham, MA, and is an interdisciplinary artist - classical singer/organist/filmmaker/photographer and environmentalist. She writes about the vital need for education to include a more heart-centered approach to studying other species that leads to a sense of stewardship. Naturestage creates works that foster empathy and kinship with other species, using the emotional power of storytelling in different art forms, mainly film, photography and music. She is also a public speaker on art and social change. Her current projects include The One Language Project, Park Dreams, The Elephant Project, and Elephantasia which all use different art forms to encourage a mind shift in how we relate to other species by asking "How would the world be different if we viewed other species as someones instead of somethings? If, instead of drawing lines, we drew circles?"
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