the war for kindness by Jamil Zaki. Book Review

At the forefront of empathy research, Dr Jamil Zaki has made an important discovery: empathy is flexible. 

Empathy has been on people’s mind a lot lately. Philosophers, evolutionary scientists and indeed former President Obama agree that an increase in empathy could advance us beyond the hatred, violence and polarization in which the world seems caught. Others disagree, arguing it is easiest to empathize with people who look, talk or think like us. As a result, empathy can inspire nepotism, racism and worse. 

Having studied the neuroscience and psychology of empathy for over a decade, Jamil Zaki thinks both sides of this debate have a point. Empathy is sometimes an engine for moral progress and other times for moral failure. But Zaki also thinks that both sides are wrong about how empathy works.  

What is empathy?

Both scientists and non-scientists commonly argue that empathy is something that happens to you, sort of like an emotional knee-jerk reflex. Second, they believe it happens more to some people than others. This lines people up along a spectrum, with deep empaths on one end and psychopaths on the other. What’s more, wherever we are on that spectrum, we’re stuck there.  

In THE WAR FOR KINDNESS, Zaki lays out a very different view of how empathy works, one that breaks these two assumptions. Empathy is not a reflex; it’s a choice. We choose empathy (or apathy) constantly: when we read a tragic novel, or cross the street to avoid a homeless person or ask a distraught friend what’s the matter. This view has crucial consequences: if empathy is less a trait (like height), and more a skill (like being good at word games), then we can improve at it. By choosing it more often, we can flex our capabilities and grow more empathic over time. We can also “tune” empathy, ramping it up in situations where it will help and turning it down when it might backfire. 

Zaki takes us from the world of doctors who train medical students to empathise better to social workers who help each other survive empathising too much. From police trainers who help cadets avoid becoming violent cops to political advocates who ask white Americans to literally walk a (dusty) mile in Mexican immigrants’ shoes. This book will give you a deepened understanding of how empathy works, how to control it and how to become the type of empathiser you want to be.

Duffy’s Thoughts On The War For Kindness

The War For Kindness is an important read, however, as an empath, it’s a triggering one. It’s overwhelming for me to think about our Trump-era world which is driven by hate and division. I turn off the news now as it drains and worries me to think how far back in time we are travelling. However, many are thriving in this new world, feeling a sense of belonging and stoking the fire, so who should lose? How do I even know what’s real when my newsfeed is purposely filled with only my political stance and point of view?

The digital age also gets a large chunk of focus from Zaki, as it rightly should. The hatred spewed on Twitter and Facebook by sad, lonely, isolated, anonymous trolls causes people to take their own lives, but we revel in it as species like bear-baiting. However, those who are incapacitated, or living remotely can see the good in finding their tribe online and connecting with people all over the world. That’s good, right? Is it? I’m inclined to disagree, a virtual friend is really no match for a genuine human connection.

I was particularly intrigued by Jamil Zaki’s chapter Caring Too Much and the studies carried out on those who spend their lives delivering bad news such as doctors and nurses in palliative care and the heaviness, guilt and distance these professionals carry in order to help others. There is a price to pay for serving empathy daily and there is a reason the self-care industry is booming as we all search so make sense of our lives and find a sense of self.

The War For Kindness is a thought provoking read and if you want to try and make sense of the world, you may want to delve into its pages.

The War For Kindness Jamil Zaki book review
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