TED Conversations

Sam Richards


This conversation is closed.

How does the presenter impact the reaction to a talk? So how might people's reactions to my talk be different if I was retired military?

I'll be live between 1:00 - 3:00 pm EST. After that I'll jump on each do to react to some of the posts and threads.

ADMIN EDIT: Sam requested we keep this conversation open after the end of his live chat. He will be checking in on this thread over the next couple of weeks to respond and comment.

  • Apr 28 2011: I notice that whenever I'm involved in a divisive issue, the people involved cannot even imagine that I could actually support the truth that exists on both sides of the conflict. The "warring" parties want to force me to take sides. And if I don't, they'll assume that I'm on the opposite side of them. It's as if we have no model, no ideal type that would allow us to recognize this category of person or perspective who can see beyond their own interests. I think that's part of the trouble some people have with Sam's talk.
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      Apr 28 2011: I'd like to see some people respond to this. Maybe I'll post it under my name.
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      Apr 29 2011: I agree with Laurie that many (most) people have boundary-seeking and social grouping tendencies which force a perceived grouping where there may be none between or around people. I think of this as a filling in of the gaps in what we know about someone's affiliation; people generalize based on limited and/or imagined information about other people. This influences the evaluation and extent of empathy responses.
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      Apr 29 2011: I’d like to tuck a tiny response below Laurie’s comment about ‘warring parties’ and their strong tendency to support a perspective by co-opting ‘fence sitters’ (Laurie, you are a FS, in their eyes only, not mine.)

      I remembered having firsthand experience of the power of propinquity; i.e.. the more we meet and interact with people, the more we become familiar and find things to like about them. “It is not so much that 'birds of a feather flock together' AS 'birds who just happen to be near each other grow similar feathers'.

      This is my experience. At one point in my career, I found myself sharing an office with someone I disliked very much (it was probably reciprocal). Those close quarters, the propinquity, the constant exposure to one another, facilitated the developed of a respect and fondness for one another. The mere fact of being in such close proximity to each other for many days changed our relaitonship; without much effort; other than strained initial courtesies.. A natural ability we humans have to connect 'clicked in' for us. I was shocked and surprised.

      We continue to connect; long after the office sharing. Today, our meetings are structured around shared interests that reinforce and promote a relationship that should never have happened.

      There is a study by Festinger, Schachter and Back (1950). It’s conclusion is “To build trust, make friends. To make friends, ensure you meet up with the target people often. To ensure you meet up, arrange your life so you repeatedly ‘bump into’ them. Caveat: When you keep bumping into a friendly person, be aware of the potential for them to have ulterior motives.”

      There are strong psychological forces that could draw 'unfriendlies' together. Perhaps we can break down barriers to communication, person by person, to subvert the group psychology of which you wrote.
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    Apr 28 2011: One place where I don't review speakers is on the TED site. There's something about how the site itself is set up and by the fact that speakers are carefully vetted that leads me to hit the PLAY button without ever reading about speakers. Afterwords, I usually read about speakers but not before hand. This is very refreshing.
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      Apr 28 2011: What about it do you find refreshing Sam?

      What's the difference for you between reading a speaker's bio before or after watching them present?
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      Apr 28 2011: I do the same.
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      Apr 28 2011: It's true. Not knowing the background of a speaker allows you to listen to the talk 'unfiltered'. It keeps the message straight forward and you avoid putting unnecessary judgement before hand. In fact, one of the best way to watch Ted Talks is to download through podcast and watch as the Ipod screen would only be big enough to tell you the title of the talk.
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      Apr 29 2011: So Nichola, I would like to explore your logic. Are you suggesting that all of the civil liberties of the USA should be reduced to the lowest common denominator of the world and only used at that level? I thought the strength of the American system was to entertain open and free communication which includes new perspectives or even discenting views. From your reference to Hegel- I have to ask if you are acusing him of having Marxist leanings? Wow - that would be a stretch- from pointing out corporate tactic to suggesting that he is anti-American! Even good old Joseph McCarthy would take note of that tactic. Perhaps you are evoking the old adage of 'my country right or wrong" if so, I wonder why we do not all love our countries enough to challenge them when they are wrong as Mr. Richards appears to do. I have seldom seen a man who I perceived to love his country more.If I sum up by following Sam Richard's example of empathy- I have to tell you that my questions are sincere and I have to take note that you might be in Beijing (I could not get any information about you from clicking on your picture). If you are far from home there is a tendancy for people to enshrine the good of 'home' to orient themselves in a place that challenges their perceptions and comfort level.
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          Apr 30 2011: Hello Nichola, Thanks for your reasoned and interesting response. Where I think we can definately agree is that empathy does not solve every problem. What I think Sam Richards was trying to do and what I took from his talk- is to jolt us out of the extreme polarization that we have been in as societies by helping 'our' side to see the 'other' as human beings who would likely react in ways very similarly to the ways we would have reacted to their experiences.
          You make the point that you were prepared to make life decisions on the basis of the 'rightness' of the wars you were or could have been faced with participating in. If WWII was a just war- what would you have termed the invasion of America by 100,000+ troops with superior weaponry (God forbid)?
          It is in the extreme interpretations that we gravitate to that we lose the merits and the original intent of the speaker.
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          May 10 2011: I agree that empathy is different from accepting what other people may do, however if we do try to understand people then we take away some of their frustrations and therefore perhaps some of their anger. If I was in Iraq but saw that other countries sympathised with my situation as a normal Iraqi person then I would be less inclined to support those that were trying to get our voices heard through violent tactics. I think that anyone would support peaceful protest over violent protest, but if the peaceful protest fails that is when more extreme tactics are utilised.

          i.e. When noone around you is listening to you then what else do you do apart from shout louder? But then someone turns round and tells you that you're shouting too loud, and you protest that if you were listened to in the first place then you wouldn't have been shouting.

          No, I don't condone their tactics, and I suspect many Iraqis don't either. But if we can start to listen now (i.e. try to empathise) then I think that support for these extremists will start to drop away. There will always be extremists, but without support around them they become less strong. To empathise with your enemy is not to be weak, and it also does not make you a traitor (rather in a democracy where you have any say in making decisions for the country it makes your country that little bit stronger, as you are more educated when it comes to casting your votes).
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          Apr 30 2011: I would prefer to err on the side of love.
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      Apr 30 2011: Frankly, I'd love to deliver such a talk. Would I be escorted to the airport (probably after some sort of detention) or delivered to a local jail? I'm not sure but you know better than me and so I'll accept your answer -- which is yes (and I'm inclined to agree with you).

      It's not an issue of bravado, of course, because I fully understand and appreciate my ability to deliver this lecture here in the U.S. People have critiqued this, mind you, as though it's a reason to not give the talk. In other words, "You wouldn't say that (about North Korea) if you lived in North Korea." Yes, well, correct, I would not say these things. And so because there are regimes that trample on the right to speak freely we should all remain silent about the governments that do not?

      I teach in the area of race relations and I will say that I rarely come across white people who are as critical of people of color as I am often found to be. And so just because this talk has a particular slant, it does not mean that I don't take opposite positions.

      I'm an iconoclast and so I poke at the things that people most cherish and value. Perhaps I ask students, "Why do you salute the flag?" WHY, I ask them. If they say "because I'm proud" then I ask, "What are you proud of?" If they say, "I don't know...I'm just proud" then I have them where I want them -- against the ropes where they they have to think about what they're doing and why. My message would be for them to go ahead and salute the flag BUT know what they're doing and why so that when they're saluting they can really appreciate the act, they can really feel the experience. Think, I say.

      So go ahead and support the war in Iraq, I tell people, whether it's about oil or some other reason. But think about the ramifications of your actions and beliefs. I thought about that long and hard when I put this talk together and this is the talk that I delivered. I really wrestled with how to do it and that's all I can ask of myself.
      • May 1 2011: Frankly I think you should, them Tibetans sure could use the support.Do one about the tienaman SQ thing too and how it mustuf felt to be slowly crushed to death by a tank, whle only wanting the freedom to peacefully hang out in a park for a few days more.Who critiqed your lectures which lead to yer pesenation, by the way,... Students who needed to please their prof so he wouldn't give them a bad grade? King needs new clothes, anybody????? Not fer nuttin' but... ya know??????
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          May 1 2011: Hi JohnnyGun Pistole (which pretty much says it all- don't you think)? I guess the partial answer to how Sam Richard's talk got onto TED in this venue was that I recommended it after seeing it on Youtube. A thread from the adminstrators popped up asking for recommendations of great talks for TED so I responded with several- the second of which was Sam Richard's talk. I am nobody in particular. If you need a description I am a 55 year old mother of 5 grown kids with an MA and and MBA. One of my kids spent years in Saudi Arabia with his wife, another diplomat trying to make a difference in conjuction with their friends at the American embassy,Austalian, New Zealand, British and others. I put Sam's talk forward in a thread here that asked for great talks. I believed and still believe that it is a great talk because it stops the knee jerk reaction of HATE and makes us pause to see that others are truly human. What if the slave traders had stopped to see that the slaves were human? What if the Nazi's had stopped to see that the Jews, Gays, and disabled were human? What if the person who assaults another stopped to feel what he was causing another to feel. What if you stopped to see that Sam Richards is human and is reaching out to do what he can to help the world be more human?So, no, I have no knowledge of Sam Richards beyond seeing this talk, no agenda beyond being a woman who feels that some sanity should reign. As I already have my grades and my degrees he has no influence over me. Here's hoping that I have shown you the truth of how this might have happend and that I have convinced you that many regular people want to find a way to connect the world rather than destroy it and we'd like to do it with words not bullets.Oh, you might also realize that I am a Canadian and having lived next door to the largest, most powerful nation in the world all of my life, I thought your nation could use a friend.
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          May 3 2011: I"m struck by this rather odd reaction that seems to be extraordinarily common among Americans, if I dare say. And that is that the best way to avoid criticism is to simply point toward some other person's behavior as being worse than our own. So because I'd be arrested in China for a talk like this, Americans don't have to consider the impact of what I'm saying.
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          May 3 2011: Hi Sam! I am really surprised that this is the way the critisicm is going too! Sam- come to Canada- you'd have a great audience any day! You might even get a few keys to the cities. One of the really odd quirks of Canadians (and I am kind of glad) is that we do things like rehash our bad moments and mistakes in history and we make public service ads out of them to remind ourselves never to do it again - (things like the way we treated our immigrants in the building of the railroads). Maybe that's why we have such a weird and wonderful sense of humour!Here's an example of the type of TV public service ad that we have: http://youtu.be/o87MgkGAqeU
          Can you imagine such a thing in the USA? (for anyone who is too concrete int heir thinking - we want to be reminded of these things so we never do them again,)
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          May 3 2011: I don't mean to sound surprised and, quite frankly, it's unlike me to ever broach the issue -- because I'm so used to it. Americans are world leaders in swinging the club called "logical fallacy of creating a straw man." But it's not easy to be God's favored nation. You Canadians don't seem to have to deal with that since you're just another outpost of the House of Windsor...eh? Thanks for the invite. I'll make it back up there one day soon.
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          May 3 2011: And we thought it was because we were so NICE! You may be the favoured nation (notice the U in the spelling given our colonial heritage) but we see ourselves as God's country!We did get front row seats for the wedding.
          Don't forget to check out the link I edited into my last post. It will really help you see a cultural difference between the nations.
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          May 3 2011: Debra, I'm a Canadian too. Hope you don't mind (we are nice) if I augment your comments about Canadian lifestyle and political difference. Enjoy.

          For Americans and Canadians: According to the comic Jim Carrey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ic3xNfEP_oltural difference and
          Perhaps for Canadians only RIck Mercer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi1yhp-_x7A
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          May 3 2011: Alicia -always room for one more Canuk in the igloo!
          Gotta watch out for those flying hockey puck- Canada's version of armed forces! eh?
          Big Hug from Niagara Falls!
      • May 1 2011: ...."The study of the way in which humans beings are shaped by things that they don't see!" I would also add the thoughts of another speaker from ted.


        To truly understand empathy it does require self reflection but if working to change the world you must reach down to the eight grade level and teach them self reflection. An everyday citizen in this country is focusing on how to make ends meet at the end of the month and never realizes how they got to living from paycheck to paycheck in the first place. This message needs to be presented to the ones that would understand the basic message or "elementary thinking" and not dissect it and dismiss it.
      • May 3 2011: I just read in the news that the Iraqis both divided houses of the Muslim family there, Sunni, and Shiite, danced in the street when they heard the news about Bin laden.
        They were ecstatic that he was gone.

        I guess their shoes are a different size than SR tries to get us to believe they are.

        God bless Iraq and God bless the Iraqis! The ones whom we can see in action!
  • Apr 28 2011: I was wondering what your thoughts are on the abilities of people to precive empathy.
    For example, I showed your tedtalk to the most out of touch person I know, she has absolutely no ability to see the world outside of her own situation, and I was hoping your great thought experiment would get through. Instead of learning from it, her response was to tell me she cannot believe I thought your talk was worthwhile and insisted that she already had a full and rich understanding of how an Iraqi person views the world. She then proceeded to tell me I was childish for needing any guidance on the issue.
    It occurred to me there is some rather massive cognitive disadence going on in her, and I am sure this is not an isolated case. So how then, do you reach out to those who it would appear to me are incapable of deeper levels of empathy.

    (P.s. This not a case of me being the one lacking in empathy: when she arrived in our home, she nearly had a nervous breakdown because our hand towels are over 2 years old and insisted as if it were a live of death issue that they be replaced...along with many other similar occurrences)
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      Apr 28 2011: You don't reach "those people." Well, at least I don't. I just assume that some of us are more focused on our own lives and not the lives of others...and so we have a difficult time seeing the world through the eyes of that person who we don't know. Hey, why not, really? Why on earth if not to be happy and I don't have to be empathic to be happy. Clean hand towels might (emphasis on MIGHT) really make me happy.

      This might sound silly, but there is a deep truth to it that I've learned from Buddhists.
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        Apr 28 2011: Agreed - considering the situation from all points of view is core Buddhist philosophy and so sadly missing from most theist teaching.
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        Apr 28 2011: How we act and react to various life situations is a choice. A person reacting negatively because the hand towels are 2 years old, suggests that he/she may not have enough important things in life to think about and feel...it's a choice:>)
      • Apr 28 2011: Sometimes those are the people who need it most, and sometimes, yes, you do have to get out the big hammer and break some stuff to make space for new stuff. I'm all for banging my head on that wall, as often as I have the energy and the time to do it. I can't do it all the time; it hurts. A little pain is worth it, though, if I can change that life, if I can get a lever wedged into the edge just a little bit, even if it doesn't open now, if I can help soften the ground for the heart and the mind to open some day? I'm not saying we should do it all the time. Sometimes, though, for the vigor of our souls, we should do things that are hard, that need doing. yes/no/maybe?
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          Apr 29 2011: I agree that we don't reach some people, and I also think we DO reach some people, and we may not know it:>) I think a very basic human need is to be accepted, and many people have learned behaviors that prevent connection with others. If we go into a situation expecting to change someone's life, we may be disappointed. When we are consistantly empathic in ourselves, we send the message that it is a pleasent way to "be". Demonstrating empathy, without expectations, detached from an outcome, may do more to change things than the "big hammer". Could this be another part of what you've learned from Buddhist teachings Sam?
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    Apr 28 2011: If I may.. Professor Richards.. can you turn it 'round a bit? How do YOU think the impact of your talk might be changed, if instead of say.. retired military insignia, you wore a turbin?
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      Apr 28 2011: Funny that you ask. I have a dishdasha (what you see men in the Gulf countries wear) and I've always thought about giving a version of this talk while wearing it. I'd love to see/hear reactions.
      • Apr 28 2011: Do it! I'd love to see it.
      • Apr 28 2011: I'd love to see those reactions! I lived in the Gulf for a short while (Oman), and traveled back to the States in my dishdasha to see what the reaction would be. Customs seemed to take quite a bit longer than usual...
      • Apr 29 2011: Better than wearing an outfit and risk causing offense, I am disappointed that this TED talk is not translated into at least one Arab language.

        Just as we need translations from liberal Islamic teachers to show a more realistic platform of Middle East opinion than what we are broadcast (and translated) from the Taliban in prime time - so should we provide opportunities for everyday Iraquis (whom don't speak English) to see that not all in the West are war mongering, Jesus botherers.
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    May 7 2011: Sam, in my opinion no speaker has generated as much controversy as you have. You may have touched an exposed nerve.

    I am hoping you will generate a new direction or a boosting question for this thread because there is a whole lot of energy still here and it has spilled out into a variety of other threads.

    Lead us forward Sam! Challenge us some more!
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      May 8 2011: Okay...I put one up. Let's see where it goes.
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      May 8 2011: exactly right Debra..this has touched a nerve and openede up many mnay many excellent conversations here at tec including yours on opposition, Andreas on transformation, Bill wonderful attempt to actually apply radical empathy as a practice and now Sam's new conversation will lead us more deeply into this..
  • May 6 2011: And how is instruction of the concept of empathy impacted by the 'role' of the presenter. The ability to empathize is a milestone of healthy social psychological development mediated by the level of empathy present in one's primary caretakers which is in itself mediated by their instruction and ability to empathize with the experience of development itself, is it not? Is not empathy really a subset of one's awareness in general such that I am aware of me and given a reasonable space for development of me, I am able to be aware of who I am, thus granting, in my conception of the world, a reasonable space for others. Alice Miller had some really interesting perspective on this related to narcissism that I think very aptly relates to the broader question of empathy.

    Interesting anectdote. I was watching a movie where the astronauts are sent to destroy an asteroid hurtling toward earth and they have failed. But at the last moment (about 1 1/2 hours into the film, of course), they realize that with the one remaining nuclear weapon on board, they can fly into the tail of the comet and detonate the weapon thereby breaking up the asteroid enough so the remaining pieces will simply burn as they hit earth's atmosphere thus saving humanity. The only 'catch' is that they will have neither the fuel nor the time to escape the explosion, thus dying in the process. I was watching this movie on TV with my then 11 year old daughter when I made a comment to the effect of 'Blow yourself up or allow all life on earth to end? What are you going to do?". And she responded without hesitation in the most matter of fact way, "blow yourself up".

    One can choose to focus on the appropriateness of watching such a movie with an 11 year old. My point is that empathy was clearly present in her comment. But does that empathy then translate to the experience of a radical Muslim suicide bomber? What about 'self' directed empathy and the perception of who the 'other' is?
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      May 6 2011: Kudos to both you and your beautiful daughter, Dean.
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      May 8 2011: When we speak with suicide bombers we find all sorts of reasons for their actions (e.g., I am saving my family from destruction, or I am saving my people from being wiped out by the invading forces, or I am protecting my culture, and so on). It's really not that different from the people in the film. Of course, I think it is if a suicide bomber is coming after me, but THEY don't see it that way. This is not to say that they are as equally correct in their assessment in matters at hand as I am, but it is rather interesting to read some of the interviews with suicide bombers and realize that they are incredibly rational and clear in their thinking. In other words, they're not crazy and to just write that off as fanatics and insane misses a great many opportunities for understanding life.

      Remember, the Founding Fathers were considered to be "terrorists" by the British.

      So this leaves me to wonder what it is that I am missing in my trek through the world. I never expect to see the world as they do, but I am still going to try to get close to it because only by doing that can I begin to fully understand my own actions. What would I do in THAT situation? What AM I DOING in my current situation that I don't understand.

      I like your thoughts on empathy, by the way.
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        May 8 2011: sam

        "Remember, the Founding Fathers were considered to be "terrorists" by the British."

        ..this goes a very very very very long way to explaining radical empathy to the resolutely " I don't even wan tto think about it " crowd. perfect.!!!
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    May 3 2011: During the run-up to the US presidential election in 2008 I was struck by comments made in an Obama speech that focused on our society's seeming inability to engage in thoughtful, mature conversations about important issues such as health care, social programs, taxes, etc.

    Given the crossroads that we are at as a nation, this idea that we take the time and care to listen closely, think deeply and share our own ideas in a constructive, respectful way seemed to me to be the "insurance" that we needed to make the right decisions. If some people are under the impression that change would come easily and quickly they are mistaken.

    I remember that the speech included the premise that our constitution was to insure that we form a "more perfect union" - not a "perfect" one. Just one that was better than the one we inherit. The message was that in a democratic society such as ours there was plenty of room for debate, disagreement, etc., but without a willingness and a resolve to negotiate through our differences and reach compromises that we all can live with, progress towards a "more perfect union" would be in jeopardy.

    Many comments below reflect that kind of inclusive, open-minded, mature thinking. It's a good feeling just to read them!! As a community of thinkers (TED) with many different perspectives, we need to continue to express our ideas where they can be heard to be included in the process of finding the right "more perfect" solutions to our problems, no matter what.

    The polarizing "us vs. them", "It's either black or white", "my way or the highway" kind of rhetoric has been deafening. It's time to walk away from it.... For the poetically inclined, read Mary Oliver's poem entitled, "The Journey".
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    Apr 30 2011: Sam,

    Regards your Q of your talk being critiqued as elementary thinking. Perhaps. Meaningless? No! Elementary thinking rarely is.

    I would broaden the definition of your talk from elementary theory to social science elegance. The definition of elegance I'm using is about applying simple concepts to address a complex problem and communicate a solution with catalyzing and common vernacular.

    What is catalyzing and common about your vernacular is what I like to think of as engaging "hidden humanity." This being the universal characteristics all people posses but which are rarely evident in contexts of superficial social norms.

    Your talk illuminates contrary realities all people share but which often remain hidden. The first, most comfortable of these is the common understanding your talk seeks to coax: empathy. The second, less comfortable to accept is apathy. Third, even harder to face -- the capacity to harm. Finally -- most difficult of all -- the possibility of complicity.

    So, here is the elegance of your talk: Empathy is far more complicated then understanding others through their eyes. The full expression of empathy calls on insight into complicated and difficult parts of self. Empathy, then, requires a good hard look at ones "hidden humanity." The good, the bad and the ugly.

    Higher order emotional and social intelligence reflects the truth of our own less flattering realities equally as much as it amplifies the difficult realities of others -- which, hard as it is to contemplate, our inability to previously conceive might have, in truth, to be interpreted in commensurate measure to our possible complicity in their problems.

    The antidote your talk offers, in my view, is to reanimate common "elementary" empathy by reflecting back to viewers far more complex "hidden humanity" and in revealing it, catalyzing humane action.

    Why, I'd say -- it's an elegant social science solution.

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      Apr 30 2011: Andrea,
      Thanks for taking the time to construct that very thoughtful response to the issue and to the talk. I think you've captured what the talk has the power to do -- to get inside of us and shake us up at multiple levels and in unseen ways. The other day I heard about some great horror being committed somewhere (place doesn't matter) and my knee jerk reaction was that someone needs to kill "those" perpetrators. I didn't even know the full story but I had this reaction. And so I stopped myself and thought, Wow...where's my empathy? It may be that if I learned the full story I could come to the same conclusion, but the point is that there is something deep within me that leads me to turn against humanity and trying to see different sides to issues.

      Mind you, sometimes there is no time to sit down and ponder and reflect and then ask people engaged in horrific behavior to explain themselves. This isn't what I'm saying. Rather, I'm just noticing how elementary empathy can be so quickly set aside for base instinctual reactions.
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        May 1 2011: Sam,

        Empathy, as you point out, takes reflection and thought. While base instincts don't.

        An essay I wrote relates to these themes in ways that I think might interest you; http://dynamicshift.org/archives/from-bipartisan-blame-to-civilized-change

        It connects, of all odd mixes, how impulse-driven social contagions lead to lack of empathy in places like a Minnesota high school basketball game, what they have to do with the assassinations in Arizona in January and how Robert Gates’ defense strategy of calling out Congress for impulse-driven defense spending that puts buying bigger-better equipment well-above soldiers' emotional development and well-being.

        Overlaying your knee-jerk reaction about "those perpetrators" and Gates points, one gets a glimpse of how soldiers base-instincts can prevail over their empathy.

        Which, perhaps, brings this somewhat back to a Q you asked earlier about how your TEDTalk might be differently perceived if you were retired military. Which I'm still pondering. Perhaps my choice of Gates suggests at least a partial answer. Though the piece was written to engage cross-partisan thinking and when I wrote it I was unaware of your talk.

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          May 1 2011: Sam and Andrea,
          I feel that empathy is a very base instinct, which we often don't recognize in ourselves. Perhaps it takes reflection and thought to reconnect with it. However, when we engage in that thought/reflection/feeling/remembering process enough, empathy can be practiced as a base instinct. The more I realize the interconnectedness of everyone and everything that "is", empathy becomes a more dominant practice.
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    Apr 29 2011: I think people take statistics when observing others, looking for validation and exceptions to prior experience and noting consistencies and inconsistences across the range of appearances expressed, visually, gesturally, in tone, language, and verisimilitude of perceived roleplaying. I think listening and viewing are contextualizing acts. and the viewer contextualizes the presenter (as author, narrator and/or character or actor) in relation to themselves, in relation to the speaker's perceived community, and in relation to social structures like values and cultures. These statistics are how we detect saboteurs and party faithful, leaders to follow and those to fell. The presenter can influence reaction by changing how they are perceived, although this effect can be dulled or compromised once a feigned roleplaying is detected or suspected. The film Borat comes to mind, as does Stephen Colbert. What I wonder about is what makes people take their empathy responses seriously, and what allows people to shorten its half life to render empathy into little more than a token or experimental gesture.
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    I notice that whenever I'm involved in a divisive issue, the people involved cannot even imagine that I could actually support the truth that exists on both sides of the conflict. The "warring" parties want to force me to take sides. And if I don't, they'll assume that I'm on the opposite side of them. It's as if we have no model, no ideal type that would allow us to recognize this category of person or perspective who can see beyond their own interests. I think that's part of the trouble some people have with Sam's talk.
    • Apr 28 2011: I'm finishing up my master's in conflict resolution this June....this is an issue we conflict resolution people face all the time. We do have a category, and there is an entire field of research on this topic out there, but it hasn't fully caught on yet. I guess I'm saying this as more of a encouraging note - don't despair, you're not alone, there is a middle way where you can see both sides, take the best from each and remain at peace with others.

      The tricky thing is that the process of remaining in this perspective, especially when you are surrounded by others that are actively trying to pull you in, is EXHAUSTING. But, think of the world of diplomacy - they do it all day long! Conflict resolution folks try to do it all the time, too. I try it with friends and family all the time, and in situations of real conflict, it can be difficult. But we do have models for it, and I'd be happy to gather some resources if you'd like them.
      • Apr 28 2011: I like what you're saying. And I do know that there's an entire field devoted to this way. (I'm actually in that field of work.) It's just that this category of person is seen more as a "professional," not a personality type or way of being. In fact, when I'm not doing this in a professional setting, it's easy for people to think I don't "get it" because I "get" the other side. I think this is an absence of a category.
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        Apr 28 2011: It's tough to remain in the middle.
        • Apr 28 2011: Sometimes it's tough, but other times it's not tough at all--except that other people want to force the person in the middle to choose a polarized position.
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          May 3 2011: A focus of my work is "non-partisan productive dialogues." When I began using the phrase people thought I was joking. Using partisan and productive in the same sentence just doesn't track. I did mean to agitate, but not for laughs. This was before the Jon Stewart Restore Sanity rally, which got to the "so ironic it's funny" dissonance.

          I agree with Sam it's tough to hold middle ground, but also with Laura, sometimes it's not. To Susie's point about diplomats, I'd say practice--lots--likely helps ease the exhausting effect of holding perspective. My experience is it can help to occasionally clap hands over ears when it gets to be too much and let all rant away for a bit.

          Hardest for me is accepting the impossibility to know in full granularity all sides of any conflict as it unfolds. Though hindsight often illuminates fuller pictures.

          The days I sense I've touched a useful nerve are those I've defended both Republicans accused of being shadow progressives AND Democrats accused of being shadow conservatives. Though these are times I feel a bit dizzy from the back-and-forth--seems to me if the accusations on both sides hold truths it might be a good sign non-paritasan progress is happening, after all!
    • Apr 28 2011: To me that's what empathy truly is. It's not feeling sorry for someone in unfortunate circumstance, but actually understanding their situation, and attempting to feel or at least recognizing what the other is feeling and why they feel it.
      I think it's a detriment to our society that many try so hard to paint things black and white, right or wrong. Be it politics, social issues, what have you, if you haven't attempted to understand the other side of an issue or argument then you haven't thought it through.
      • Apr 28 2011: Exactly.
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        Apr 28 2011: Agreed that pity clouds real empathy, and the condescension of that stance, however well-meant, can blot out true respect for one's fellow beings.
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        May 3 2011: I totally agree with you Will, Laurie and Marla,
        Empathy is not the same as feeling sorry for someone, pity clouds real empathy, is a condescending stance, and prevents a real connection with an individual. We simply cannot put ourselves in another's shoes, and try to relate to them if we are putting them down by feeling sorry for them.
        I agree that it is the black/white/right/wrong mind set that prevents understanding the other side of an issue. Real empathy requires us to consider all information without judgement.
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      Apr 28 2011: This is a good point. I experience this kind of situations too. I think the reason why people want us to take sides during a conflict is involvement of emotions into the logical thinking. I know that we -as humans- always include emotions to our thoughts but most of the time, it is the emotion-free argumentation that yields an integrative solution for both parties. When we don't take their side, they feel like we leave them alone in the middle of a war. And if one perceives a dispute as a war, then the rest of the world becomes either a friend (fighting with him/her) or an enemy (fighting against or not caring what happens to him/her).
      Maybe the best thing to do is to help them eliminate the negative emotions they associate to the conflict, and then show them that a neutral figure in a dispute can be of more help than someone who supports blindly his/her side..
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        Apr 28 2011: Taking sides. Wow. Seriously, some of the most painful moments in my life have occurred when I have refused to take a side when others thought that I should.
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      Apr 28 2011: Different parties in a conflict often want us to take his/her side because it feels like that side is validated.
      We can be respectful of people having an opinion without agreeing with it. I agree with Nafissa, that people often interprete this as us not being able to decide, not having an opinion, or not taking a stand. I also see life as a process, an exploration or adventure, and it is much more interesting for me to listen carefully to ideas, thoughts, feelings and opinions.
  • Apr 28 2011: The context of identity is part of the communication... different people speak different languages, even when the words themselves are the same. When we're talking about making judgements about their character, though, rather than using that insight to help us understand them, I see a problem. Simultaneously, we need to trust and be trusted... but we know, from bitter experience that some people are not to be trusted, or at least that their motivations may be influenced by something larger than what is immediately apparent. With the question of former military specifically, I think that for many people that would stand as a measure of commitment... but for others, a sign of being willing to compromise, morally. I think that the cultural impact of having been part of the military organism is significant enough that it bears mentioning; doesn't Rorty say something about how who we are makes our truth? I think that the fact of our cultural being will make itself apparent, and that avoiding talking about it to 'purify' the reception of our message may be dishonest. I don't know how this is for most people, though; I have an auditory processing disorder (which makes me LOVE this medium, by the way) and am thusly spending so much energy to just stay with what's being said that I don't spend a lot of time backtalking it or rehashing it until after the talk is over. I think that the sincerity and passion of the speaker matters a lot more than what they wear or what they do for a living, but that those two things are *also part of the message*. The assessment you're making is part of your listening; as long as you know that's what's happening, and don't let your imagined assumptions keep you from seeing what's in front of you, is it so bad?
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    Apr 28 2011: Knowing about the presenter can give you more empathy for their point of view -- particularly if they are not calling for something you already agree with. Details of a life story effects how I perceive someone's point of view. For instance, I have a relative with rather un-compassionate political views. But knowing his childhood backstory gives me empathy for his lack of it... and appreciation for what he's working against as he tries to be less angry and fearful.
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    Apr 28 2011: Through visuals, tone, and a good stage presence I think speakers can make a positive impact for the audience to react to. Personally, I'm affected by confidence, humor, and personality.

    I might've felt more empathy for your presentation if you were a retired military. My feelings could've swung the other way, but you empathized and understood both sides of the story (so to speak) very well. With the thought that you've experienced being on one of the sides in your presentation, it might've "felt" more powerful to me.

    Then again, I think you would've delivered the presentation differently if you actually were retired military.
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    Apr 28 2011: Because you are a sociologist people will automatically assume that you have researched this from many different perspectives and as not to taint your data you will remain impartial. However, if you were retired military than people will assume that you have a prejudice and a one vantage point perception and thus it would damage your credibility.
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      Apr 28 2011: Well yes, but military folks would be more inclined to listen to me if i was retired. So here's one for people: I'm a card carrying Libertarian. In fact, I am surely one of the few Libertarian sociologists in the U.S. Mind you, I'm balanced in my thinking and not totally off the way, but I use that philosophy in order to keep me from going too far in the direction in which my entire field of study compels me to lead. So it's a balancing tool, so to speak. Now what does that say about me and how might that change people's thoughts about me?
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        Apr 28 2011: It think it says that you are so dramatically purposeful in your pursuit of balance that one might view you as less than a sociologist and more of a politician ;)
        • Apr 28 2011: I think it says that we have no concept of people who are interested in actually "seeing" what's happening rather than in seeing what's best for them. I'd prefer to know the truth of a situation (and that most often means understanding multiple perspectives and paradox), not just what makes me comfortable to think.
      • Apr 28 2011: I think it gives you even more credibility because it is so unexpected based on the stereotype of what a 'libertarian' is and, in my own personal story, the interactions I've had with libertarians. Those interactions have led me to the opinion that the person with whom I've had these interactions actually lack any serious capacity for empathy. If you would have told me that at the beginning of your talk, I would have been skeptical of you, and the content of your talk would therefore have had an even greater impact, because I would have been completely shocked!
      • Apr 28 2011: off the top: fiercely independent, slightly ornery, but still has enough trust in the power of institutions to be a capital L instead of a small l -- but not enough to be a socialist, so that's interesting. ...so let's call it a mixed relationship with trust and power and institutions? You may have the card, but that doesn't mean you drank the kool aid... but it might mean that, and I'd be watching for that, if that makes sense?
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          Apr 29 2011: Yes...this makes sense. And I certainly do drink my own version of the kool-aid. Again, I use the philosophy as a balancing tool because once I start envisioning how to "fix" the world I find that it's very difficult to stop making plans (for spending other people's money). The Taoist and the Libertarian are largely one and the same. Just let it be, both would say.
  • Apr 28 2011: I find that most of the material presented in TED talks speaks for itself. For me, the talk usually confirms the worth of the speaker instead of the speaker confirming the worth of the talk. With that being said, I don't know if my reactions to your talk would have been different if you were retired military, but my opinion of you would definitely be. I know many veterans of foreign conflict, and if someone could go through those horrific experiences and still hold such a beautiful, transcendent view of all humans, they would achieve near-god status in my eyes. Your talk moved me completely, and once I saw it I immediately began telling everyone I know to check it out. Thank you for your gift to us all.
  • Apr 28 2011: This is a wonderful talk. I'm entering a Sociology department to begin my PhD in the fall this year, and your comments about what it is Sociologists do - beginning with empathy - is what has driven my own research for the past five years. You said that, and suddenly I was able to confirm more forcefully my decision to begin a journey in Sociology, leaving the fields of IR and Conflict Resolution for a time. My focus is on interregional violent rebellion and conflict (e.g. Darfur, Rwanda, Yugoslavia). It is empathy that has brought me to the beginnings of a new (and I think more accurate) theory of conflict....I realized, based on your talk, that I *belong* in this field. Thank you for saying it.

    If empathy becomes a motivating factor for Americans - if it actually catches on - our foreign policy could actually become a topic for critical analysis and discussion in the US political arena. It has great potential to influence the world in such a positive way if we can see from the other's shoes. Can you comment on your hopes and/or aspirations in that regard?
  • Apr 28 2011: Thanks for doing this Sam - It's an interesting question, and makes the experiment all the more challenging. I think it's asking the audience to make a larger leap of faith when the concept of walking in an insurgents shoes comes from you, rather than a former soldier. But why should that impact the ability for one to empathize?
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      Apr 28 2011: I think it's just part of the human condition (excuse me for that). I mean survival can be dependent to an extent on the ability to make quick judgments and sort through information without making critical mistakes. And so it would seem to be wired within us to ask ourselves, "Should I listen to this knucklehead because my life might depend on what he tells me?"
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    • Apr 28 2011: It does have a bearing on how much you trust what is being presented as truth. When I don't have expertise on a subject to know what is factual, I do consider the level of experience / insight / knowledge of the person when deciding how much I accept any given argument.
    • Apr 28 2011: I think it would be wrong to say that the impact of a TED talk is limited to the core logic of the argument it presents, or the hard scientific data it may show. Humans are emotional, and people who watch TED talks are no different. There's no reason to think that we aren't effected by things like the age or race of the speaker. As most of us are intelligent people we do like to pretend to be immune to racist bias and the like. But I think that is wishful thinking.
  • May 10 2011: It is a common observation that people lie. Not only to each other, but to ourselves. For most of us, most of the time, it's a lie of oversimplification, of omission, or of convenience. But sometimes it's a deliberate fabrication to save face, to cover up wrongdoing, or to manipulate others. Institutions tell institutional lies that last for generations, or centuries.

    Everyone has an axe to grind.

    We tend to assume that the axe people grind has to do with their group identification. What makes us sit up and take notice is when someone grinds what we think is the wrong axe.

    There was an article on HuffPo some months ago about a judge who claimed the Drug War was a disastrous mistake, and there have been numerous articles in the press in which police chiefs and beat cops have come out against the Drug War. The fact that such an article appeared on HuffPo was a big yawn: everyone expects HuffPo to grind the left side of the axe. The fact that it was judges and policemen, generally categorized as right-leaning, who condemned the drug laws caught a lot more interest. It makes one think that maybe, just maybe, there really is something wrong with the drug laws if even their "natural" supporters speak against them.

    I suspect you would have more credibility and impact with your talk as a retired military officer than as a sociologist in academia for exactly this reason. It has nothing to do with your presentation, and everything to do with expectations of the audience.
  • May 2 2011: Here is a way your empathy can count for something:

    Many Muslims are good, maybe 80%, just not the ones who kill people for changing religion and not the ones who want non-muslins to be forced to live under Sharia Law (Even in Europe they are pushing for this!), Not the ones who are burning down churches and beating or killing Christians for trying to go to church on Sundays in counties like Indonesia, and Malaysia; Countries which have never had a war with the USA. They Freak-out of their minds at the burning of a single Koran or at the making of a cartoon, while throwing a party for the burning of churches! But if Christians complain to the world, the world says they are not P.C. enough.

    The war in Afghanistan is to stop countries in which one can go to jail for life, or be stoned to death for saying that Jesus is God. (I do not believe that Jesus is God, but I will die to preserve the rights of those people to say that he is. And, Hell, I even invite Mormons into my home to chat about their Jesus. I don’t agree with them when they leave my house, but I don’t try to kill them either.)

    While that represents only about 20%, (Not factual statistical number, but a workable one.), of Muslims, it is still an enormous and dangerous number of people. And to allow them to kill just one such person and do nothing to prevent them from doing it again is a gross criminal neglect of our brother and sister humans.

    The war in Afghanistan is to stop Sharia Law form killing innocent people who want to practice their religion freely, in peace and in their own way; to stop them from pulling people from their homes kneeling them down and shooting them in their heads in front of their wives and children, without a trial mind you, for not agreeing to practice Talibanic Islam, I stood with a friend at Newark Airport and listened on the phone as his cousin had just been pulled out of his house and shot in the head in from of his wife and children for letting his daughter go to school, my friend was weeping, (in PRE-American intervention times mind you.) That was my introduction the words “Taliban in Afghanistan” I tried to console my friend; He latter, as an Afghan, joined the America army as a interpreter to fight with the USA to save Afghanistan.

    The war in Afghanistan is to stop the beating of women with sticks every time they leave their home without an escort, as if they were little children, or putting woman in jail for riding a bicycle or uncovering their faces in public; Were are all of the Feminist in this? Are they fighting against that USA or the Muslim misogynists?

    The war in Afghanistan is to stop the flow of BLACK TAR HERION from flowing out of that lawless land of Afghanistan like water into places like Russia and Europe. Russia’s only complaint about the war is that it hasn’t done enough to stop the flow of heroin into Russia; enough black tar heroin is flowing out of Afghanistan to build a four lane high way from Moscow to Minsk each year. That is the number one reason Russia attacked Afghanistan in the 1970’s not some land grab. Russia is talking about going in there again if the heroin does not stop. I as an American support the Russian effort if it remains necessary.

    Disclaimer; I belong to no religious group. And I wish moderate Christian and moderate Muslims, or Jews to be able to practice freely; but only moderates.

    PS: how would you feel if you were wearing your Grandmother’s wedding ring which had been handed down to you as a wedding gift, changed into the shape of a cross to wear around your neck, and while you were on a trip to the Maldives for your Honeymoon, and at the airport they confiscated it as a symbol of and outlawed religion? Same for a Bible, Talmud, Gehta, or many non-Muslim religious items
    Bet you didn’t know about that when you hear the Radical Muslims whining about headscarves in Europe.

    But where are the so called moderate Muslims who stand up against al of this! There aren’t enough, if there were, this would have been over almost as soon as it began.
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      May 3 2011: The moderate Muslims are speaking all the time. If you read newspapers, blogs, books, magazines from the Middle East and other Muslim cultures, you will find millions upon millions of Muslim voices speaking LOUDLY and proudly and without fear. That you don't hear these voices is only indicative of the fact that you're not listening to them. And really, you don't have to go far. The problem is most Americans are not looking and listening.

      As to your 80 percent number, please recognize that you pulled that number out of thin air and that it's better used when sitting on a bar stool in Topeka, Kansas than in your comments above. I say that because you make some good points and actually raise some very disturbing issues here -- about radical religious fanatics and their extremist beliefs (all of which I strongly denounce). But don't start out with that 80 percent number.

      As to Sharia law, it's really not a black and white legal document. Imagine trying to construct a legal system based on the New Testament. Impossible, of course, and as few as two people would fight about the project forever. Now imagine an entire society trying to figure out how to do it -- what to leave in, what to leave out. And also recognize that if Mother Theresa was doing it, that legal system would look very different than if Pat Robertson was undertaking the final editing. "Christian Law' could be pretty evil....or it could be very loving. This is my way of saying that you might want to read about what some moderate and loving Muslims say about what Sharia Law would mean to them. You'll get some very complex answers, needless to say, and it won't be so easy to say "These people are nuts," as many of us do.
      • May 3 2011: 80%... I said as much, it just a number, but that’s fine. Let’s say it is higher number and let's say the majority of Muslims are good-normal people. I think it is so. But the point remains.

        As to religious law. Point is NO religious law should have any part in any government law and should not recognize by the legal system of any nation. Not one nation. Not any religion.

        Rat Robertson, Very Foulsmell et al, included. And also the Mother Theresa, good as she was.

        And when I say, “where are the moderates”, I mean that may of them know where most of the dangerous ones are and do not turn them in. Their sympathies run too high.

        Two moderate Muslims that I roomed with at school said, “Well… I wouldn’t do it, but the Ayatollah Khomeini had the right to order the death of Salmon Rushdi! And I hope someone gets him!
        And in most ways these guys were very moderate Muslims.

        At times like that, one has to wonder what a moderate is?

        And to repeat: To allow them to kill just one such person and do nothing to prevent them from doing it again is a gross criminal neglect of our brother and sister humans.

        And, please don’t tell me what or to whom I am listening, I know more Muslims than I can count.
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          May 4 2011: I'm not sure that I would call your former roommates "moderates." They sound a bit extreme to me to have such an opinion.

          As to religion and politics/government, I'm with you in spirit. My point is just that Sharia Law is complex because every Muslim has a different perception of what it does or would mean in practice. I just want people to acknowledge that. And on another note, there are only so many moral codes available to create a moral order such that there is inevitable overlap between religious doctrines and governing rules. So your wish to have "no religious law...having any part in any government" will never come true. I'm just speaking as a sociologist here. At best, and I'm with you here, is to not give the fanatics assess to the judicial and legislative chambers. But politics and religion will always overlap for moderates.

          Don't believe me? Think about this: The idea of treating people as one wants to be treated is a cornerstone in every major religious thought system. AND it seems to be one critical strata of the foundation upon which Western legal thought is based. Overlap. So if some judge stands up and says, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, Mr. Jones," she sounds like a Christian extremist judge. But if she says, "Mr. Jones, how would you like it if someone broke into your home and stole your TV?" most of us would likely think that it's a reasonable question to ask a thief.
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      May 1 2011: Hey Ed, You have a charming style of challenging thought processes!

      The idea of fighting fire with fire is that you create a zone in the face of a great fire where there is insufficient food for the, in this case, fire of war to continue to burn. I am not sure that radical empathy does exactly that but I think it might have the potential to just cause enough challenge in the heart of a genuine person that they pause before they endorse the next gun shot against a faceless enemy. Saving a even a couple of lives or leaving the engines of war unstoked for a few minutes is, for me. progress toward refocusing for greater sanity.
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          May 2 2011: Ah Ed- a reference to Eckhart Tolle- no less! The pain body arises.

          We do have to deal with the built up agonies of people and their pain bodies- in fact i had to deal with my own just today in another exchange- but it is not necessary nor would Tolle suggest that it has to be mutual. A great first step - and the only step anyone can take is the one with their own two feet and one mind.
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      May 3 2011: I'd like to comment on your comments, Ed, but I'm having a difficult time following your thoughts. If you have a specific question, however, do throw it out there.
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    Apr 28 2011: I found you had a brave talk, and a good one, too. But I wish you attack the issue in a more direct way, instead of using "empathy" as your shield.
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    Apr 28 2011: Hello Mr. Richards,

    firstly, thank you for taking the time to start this conversation and answer the questions!

    I'd like to start by repeating what I posted in your talk's thread - in my opinion your main goal here is to promote empathy and not to demonize US military actions in Iraq, but on the other hand you seem to try a bit too hard with your thought experiment.
    It is a fact that you are omitting details and facts on purpose in order to create the thought experiment, which is at least questionable.

    Furthermore, I'd like to raise another question, not what the impact would have been if you were retired military, but what it would have been, had you chosen Libya and not Iraq.

    Can any of us understand and step into the shoes of a rebel currently fighting for the control of say Misrata? Can we on the other hand do the same for a soldier or a volunteer doing the same on Gaddafi's side?
    The answer to both - at least the one I suspect is true for a large majority - is a clear "no".
    As such, what gives the US or any European country like France or Great Britain the right to interfere and target government bases and weapons?
    From our moral highground it is easy to say we are supporting the right side by helping the rebels, however coming back to your talk - does anyone know that?

    I am aware the post is not on-topic, still I would very much appreciate it if you would take the time to post a reply. Thanks!
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      Apr 28 2011: Great questions. I guess that you could ask what DOES give us the right when, in the end, we're in it for our own interests because our own interests are the only things that we can truly understand. i have to run but i will try to give you a better response later. thanks
      • Apr 28 2011: Your message made me cry. Beautiful. Thank You.
    • Apr 28 2011: I think nations and politicians have a wide range of interests. Some are interested in helping people to gain their freedom while others are purely interested in Libyan's resources and political influence.

      Helping people to gain their freedom because we emphasize with them is, I think, the right thing to do. However at the same one has to worry about the bad intentions others involved might have?
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    Apr 28 2011: I'm going to head out now as I have to go to class. But I'll be checking back in to this thread and commenting over the next couple of weeks. THANKS to all for the dialogue. Best regards.
  • Apr 28 2011: Reaction of the receiver of a message will always, always, filter the message through their perception/ impression of the person delivering the message. This will be increased by the level of perception based on how much of the message has been formulated and based on the judgement of the presenter. The receiver of the message goes though several mental checks before they declare the messenger worth their trust. The only problem is, the process of securing the messenger as trust worthy has been a code well cracked in recent times, so the trustfulness of the source has been outweighed by the messenger for decades.
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    Apr 28 2011: I love the talk Sam, I think it gave a different perspective of different wars around the world. It also made me understand that every little head out there it's its own little world.
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    Apr 28 2011: One of the reasons that I give this talk, by the way, is because I have Muslim friends in the Middle East and I know them personally and have deep regard for them. This isn't to say that it's the ONLY reason that I empathize but it is to say that it compels me to step up and speak from a different voice.