Empathy is a National Duty

“We may not be deceived by the wealth to be seen in the cities of India… It comes from the blood of the poorest… I know village economics. I tell you that the pressure from the top crushes those at the bottom. All that is necessary is to get off their backs.” 
– Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, 1944

People of the centre – in Sudan – are not only unable to understand the suffering of the people of the margins, but are even unable to imagine their own inability to understand. When they experience, from time to time, events that are only small doses of what the margins experience daily, they get highly frightened and frustrated. Apologies should be made to the honourable people of the centre for the disturbance. The fire sometimes gets too big to contain within the margins, so some aparks make some unwelcome noise in the centre.

Some of them, after such sparks, will proceed to tell you that the country is on the verge of disaster. If we don’t contain the situation, they say, this place is going to be another hell on earth. By ‘this place’ they probably mean the centre, because the margins are already classified as hell on earth. 

It is not uncommon that privileged groups of society are quite isolated from the grim realities of the other groups. Gandhi’s quote above gives a good example from India. In Sudan, while it is also true with regards to urban and rural areas, it is more accurate to use the terms ‘centre’ and ‘margins’. 

The centre is not simply a geographic location. It is more a description of a socio-political, and partly cultural, social stratum. It is not distinguished necessarily by ethnic affiliation (although ethnicity plays a large role) or clear geopolitical affiliation. It cannot be called a coherent socioeconomic class either. However, it tends to sustain its power over the other social groups, and reproduce itself, through ideology and privilege. The ideology may carry a religious veil, or some other ‘sacred’ veil. The privilege is that of social status—of perceived and politically-imposed superiority. Economic privileges usually accompany, but may not be equally distributed across the centre stratum. The margins are basically all the other groups within the county, with different degrees of marginalization. 

Marginalization is a complex process, not easy to define comprehensively. It usually expresses itself culturally in the open, but its direct weapons are the distribution of power and wealth. Culture, after all, is a historical expression of a collective identity of a group of people with shared experiences and, sometimes, shared language and ancestry. However, culture by itself does not marginalize, because culture is about the group’s perception and expression of itself. It does not necessarily determine the rules of engagement with others (i.e. other cultures). Also, the common belief that groups of people may have that their culture is better than others does not also lead to marginalization by itself. Marginalization only starts to manifest in systemic denials of fair access to power and wealth in a given geopolitical context. 

However, while culture doesn’t do anything by itself, there are certainly aspects of culture that make it more likely or less likely to be used as a basis of oppression (i.e. marginalization). This is why fighting marginalization is essentially an act of culture. I intend to address the proposal of ‘political and economic liberation as an act of culture’ at another point, but it’s worth mentioning briefly here to help synchronize our thoughts (reader and writer). One of the very strong and well-written treatises of political analysis in Sudan is the CUSH Manifesto (CUSH  – ‘Congress of United Sudan Homeland’). The strength of this manifesto is directly drawn from its approach to political analysis through understanding culture and marginalization. This manifesto, and the political role of culture in general, deserve more talk than this brief summary. I shall come back to them here in the near future. 

So, what has empathy to do with all of this? And why do I claim that it is a national duty?

Empathy is one of the most interesting gifts of humanity. It allows us, through our imagination, to get a glimpse of other lives, personalities and experiences. Dictionary.com defines empathy as “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Through empathy, we can identify with humanity in a ‘humane’ way. We can appreciate the thoughts and feelings of those who differ from us; we can try to understand their responses. The phrase ‘to put oneself in somebody’s shoes’ captures the essence of empathy.

So, historically speaking, empathy is the one shared foundation of morality, in all the moral teachings the world has known. It is the basic realization that the world does not revolve around our egos, and that we owe the members of our community as much as we benefit from the community. Ultimately, empathy leads to the realization of what Mwalimu Nyerere once articulated: “We can try to cut ourselves from our fellows on the basis of [the privileges] we have had; we can try to carve out for ourselves an unfair share of the wealth of society. But the cost to us, as well as to our fellow citizens, will be very high. It will be high not only in terms of satisfactions forgone, but also in terms of our own security and well-being.”

What makes empathy a national duty today is simple: If we want a healthy nation, where every citizen comfortably identifies with its history and present and joins the caravan for its promising future, we need to learn to feel the weight of the injustices we have inflicted upon each other. Then, we need to honestly, and bravely, work to redress those injustices. Anything less will not forge a healthy nation, and will not produce sustainable peace and prosperity for any of us.

While it is an established historical truth that rights are not given on silver platters, but are rather taken, by serious and persistent demands, it is also a historical truth that the oppressed and marginalized, of any category, always find allies from the other side. Empathy plays a critical role in this process; a role that cannot be played by any force.

(published in the Citizen Newspaper, Sudan, May 12, 2013)

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