Arianna Huffington On The Rise Of Empathy In America

The only way to bring the world out of the recession and onto a better track is for everyone to tap into a collective sense of responsibility toward each other.

Last month, I spent a fascinating couple of days at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford, England. It was exhilarating—and deeply moving—to hear example after example of social entrepreneurs making quantifiable improvements in lives all around the world. As Stephan Chambers, chairman of the Skoll Centre, put it: "I have cried every day this week. Remember as I tell you this, that I’m male. And British. And from Oxford." I actually cried every hour. But, remember, I’m female. And Greek. And from Cambridge.

This post is part of a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

It was a reminder that the innovation, passion, and empathy on display at Skoll transcend gender, politics, geography and education. Service is in the zeitgeist. Now, zeitgeist is a German word almost untranslatable in English, but it does exist as a concept. And when individuals and businesses tap into it, they have the wind at their back.

This trend for giving back provides a stark relief for the uninspiring spirit of the 2012 election. On a national level, we’re paralyzed and polarized. Politicians are trying to use our ongoing financial crisis to roll back society to the days before safety net programs provided the essential services that helped grow the American middle class. Our leaders are engaged in misguided debates about budget cuts instead of how to spur growth. And there is a widespread refusal, especially in the media, to acknowledge that the crises we are facing go beyond the obsolete dichotomy of left versus right.

Pushing back against the failures of our leaders and institutions—and the resulting lack of trust—is a growing movement of people and organizations taking the initiative to share, engage, connect, solve problems, and demand some control over their future. While we wait for our leaders to act, thousands are looking at the leader in the mirror and taking action.

We see this in Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, which connects young tech professionals with the needs of city governments. And Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose, which connects donors to underprivileged schools. There’s Ben Berkowitz, who launched SeeClickFix, the site that connects people with non-emergency problems in their neighborhoods—such as a broken street lamp or potholed road—to others who can chime in with solutions. And Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen Fund, which combines financial expertise with empathy, investing in startups around the world that help improve the lives of people unable to do so on their own.

With unemployment still over 8%, we have more ingenuity, energy, spirit, and expertise than we have jobs—and definitely more time on our hands. We’ve seen individuals using that time to tap into the all-American barn-raising spirit to "widen the circle of our concern," as President Obama said in his speech responding to the shooting of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

"We are on the cusp of an epic shift," wrote Jeremy Rifkin in his 2010 book The Empathic Civilization. "The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy." He makes the case that as technology is increasingly connecting us to one another, we need to understand what the goal of all this connectivity is, and allow humanity to see itself as an extended family living in an interconnected world. The innovators I’ve listed, along with countless others, are the drivers of that worldview.

So, if you’ve forgotten Physics 101, here’s a quick refresher. To a physicist, a critical mass is the amount of radioactive material that must be present for a nuclear reaction to become self-sustaining. For the service movement a critical mass is when the service habit hits enough people so that it can begin to spread spontaneously around the country. Think of it as an outbreak of a positive infection. And everyone is a carrier. What we need to do is go out and carry this positive infection, so that together we can reach that critical mass.

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12 Comments

  • Sabelotodo2

    I regret that I mentioned Jesus--people can bend his words in any direction in support of whatever set of political culprits they choose to blame for "the crash." as Samuel's rambling response most capably demonstrates.

    In reality, this crash was the perfect storm, with the bursting of the housing bubble, the ensuing credit crunch, and a
    recession coming together in a way that exposed lots of financial ignorance, laxity of ethics and oversight and--Yes, greed, by both the bankers as well as the homeowners who used their family residence as an ATM.

    But since the Lord has been thrust into the conversation, Christ  did share with us a parable about stewardship of others' resources, in the Parable of the Talents. Those who took ownership of the investments with which they had been entrusted, and faithfully cultivated the multiplication of those assets, were applauded, The unfaithful steward was scorned for his anger and envy toward his wealthy master that led him to fail his life purpose of exerting himself on the side of faith, risk-taking and growth. That seems to be the "God bias"--that as stewards of such abundant resources, we apply ourselves in growing and making the most of everything with which we've been entrusted, for the benefit of others--rather than staying bogged down in class envy and blame-casting. That was obliquely Ms. Huffington's purpose--as well as my point about all entrepreneurs and risk-taking.  

  • Samuel

    Is the writer suggesting that the United States should move away from the Corporate Philosophy that there isn't anything that we can't get made a little cheaper, with even less quality and sell at a higher profit to a consumer based populace that has yet to learn the skill of delaying immediate self gratification in the interests of actually building something with intrinsic value that is sustainable and in fact, may create an advantage for generations to come?

    "Money for nothing and your chicks for free... I want my, I want my MTV" Dire Straights

    Even at the risk, of lessening immediate returns for long term gains that may positively impact a global community, promoting ideas like "responsibility and empathy" may also lead to acts of compassion that transcend the myopic focus of the bottom line.

    I am in fact, Canadian and not a resident of the United States, however, I will say that Arianna Huffington has clearly articulated a premise for Hope, and Change, you (we all) can believe in.

  • Sabelotodo2

    I'm on board--I'm all for this touchy-feely feminine-oriented social entrepreneurship, servant leadership, walking in the shoes of Jesus, bleeding for the downtrodden, etc. etc. However, Jesus never told us how to deal with a situation whereby the US government--the biggest initiator & enforcer of "social entrepreneurship" is borrowing from the Chinese and our grandchildren, some 42 cents on every dollar that's getting shoveled out the door to "progressive" political cronies--and hoping the Chinese will never expect repayment!

    At the same time, that shrinking class of risk-taking small-business entrepreneurs--the largest proven growers of both new employment and wealth, are in an atmosphere where they so fear and mistrust the future under this ballooning government, that they're hanging onto every dollar that they would otherwise be investing in starting and growing a business.

    We can spread the love, the ideas, the "hope" and the warm fuzzies associated with this beautiful ideal future, but at the end of the day, someone with a masculine appetite for risk, and a keen eye for the numbers, has to move off the dime and take risks to create something for which the public will pay a higher price, than what it cost, earning a profit--YES, WEALTH! Wealth creation used to be considered a virtue in this "unlimited possibilities" American society, but it has turned into a really bad word in this touchy-feely world of "let's forget the numbers and harsh realities, and all just be warm and cozy together."

    Sabelotodo2  

  • Samuel

    Well, since you mentioned Jesus, let's talk about what he actually said; "The LOVE of Money is the Root of All Evil." Not Money, but the love of it. Jesus warned us, he also taught that we are to treat our neighbour(s) the way we want to be treated and if that very simple premise was followed, would N.I.N.J.A.  No Income, No Job, Approval on Mortgages ever have existed? Would you want to take on an insurmountable debt with no means of making your payment(s)? Of course not! Then you certainly wouldn't put your neighbour into that situation would you?

    All of that nonsense, in the name of earning a profit, that was called "a Banking Crisis" was not a "Crisis" at all. It was the affect of white collar fraud, it was foreseeable, it was planned, it was executed in the name of earning a profit. However, there was no profit, rather a transfer of wealth to all the players involved in the greatest Con in American history. The best part of the Con, was that when the consequences of the fraud were evident, the major players said, we need money to survive or we will take down the entire economy." Instead of sending anyone to prison, Obama gives in, and rewards criminals, socially and morally reprehensible players and transfers their consequences of their actions onto the population of the United States for generations to come.

    So. You wanted reality? Here is the reality. Corporate Greed. Private interests being bailed out with public money. Enabling the Criminals. Guess what, you and your children have to work hard to create wealth to pay for a really stupid idea. Leveraging personal debt beyond any reasonable proportions without any tangible method of security. Organized crime won't even do that, it's too stupid.

    Now, here's a solution. Very simple. Back to basics. You reap what you sow. What that means is that if you hope to have a harvest of potatoes in the Autumn, then you need to prepare the soil in the spring, plant actual potatoes, water them, care for them, deal with weeds, etc Does that seem overly simplistic? It's actually a Biblical Principle. Some people are so delusional, and greedy for money that they think they can sell potatoes for a profit, even though they never planted any potatoes to begin with. That isn't a "Potato Crisis" is it?

    Now, there are people who are practicing the basics of business. Exchange something of value for money, where there exists an actual mutual benefit to both parties. Not gouging your customer, not ripping them off but actually building a long term relationship with them. Social entrepreneurship sets values and priorities that are beyond mere profit and loss statements. You can solve problems, introduce innovative solutions and make a profit and still go home at night and have warmth and coziness with your family OR You can look at the history, the Evil, that the LOVE of Money has brought into the world.

    The "Harsh Reality" isn't the numbers, it isn't profits, it is operating without any integrity, and removing natural consequences that would occur... so that nobody involved takes personal responsibility. "A wise man counts the cost before he builds the house." Yes, its in the Bible.

  • janet bratter

    Anyone who has ever experienced the benefits of Transcendental Meditation (TM) knows that for everyone to benefit only a small percentage of the population meditating is required.  One blazing campfire will warm a lot of people.  

  • Brendan Punsky

    Keep in mind that nothing is black-and-white in life. I would say that most people are inherently good, in that they feel empathy for others and have a desire to change the conditions of others without any form of self-reward. However, empathy comes in degrees. Everything in the mind has its opposition, and while people may feel the desire to help, nothing is done unless that desire overpowers the altruistic inertia that's built up - in other words, the attention span and empathy have to overpower laziness and apathy. And in that respect, I would say that less than 20% of people are truly good, but it's not that the rest are all bad. We do need to accept that most people care and want to help, but don't care enough. And there are only so many people that will fall over the tipping point when they're made aware of the suffering of others.

  • Douglas Wolf

    This woman has been the best BS artist for 30 years. She cons everyone. From her overweening ambition to get the White House as First Lady via her husband's failed run for US senate, to getting  the biggest financial coup by getting someone to put money into her failing website. And this publication falls for her too. 

  • FrankReed

    You mention worldview. Yours appears to be that people are inherently good and that good needs to be enabled or activated to create change.

    If people were inherently good we wouldn't need this kind of activism to change the wrongs of the world.

    There's hope for sure but where is comes from and what we place our faith in can make us chase rabbits that sound nice but ultimately fall short under the weight of the true human condition. Until we come to grips with that we will have nice theories, hopeful blog posts from the privileged and limited success.

  • Kurt Tappe

    Unfortunately I must agree with Frank and disagree with Lori and Arianna. That is, while some people are inherently good, we are deceiving ourselves if we try to claim all people are. I've seen studies recently saying that at least 10% of the population qualifies as "psychopathic." These people are incapable of acting altruistically; not because of upbringing but because their brains simply are not wired that way. Grouping, such as this article commits, leads to false conclusions and hopes. If we assume all people in society can be empathetic, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. It is better to recognize from the outset that there is a percentage of the population who will never assist the rest of us in pulling together. Let us concentrate our efforts on massing those who are willing to help and not wasting it on those who never will.

  • Lori Benton

    I agree people are inherently good and that where we place
    our faith (what we choose to believe in) can lead us astray.  And, I think this is the tipping point.  The activism is an emphatic reaction to the realization
    that OUR BELIEFS have led us off course. 
    We fell asleep, shirked responsibility and automatically aligned with inherited
    beliefs which now on our journey for meaning we discover we really don’t
    believe after all.  And in our slumber
    things have snowballed.  We have wakened
    from the sting of that wet, cold snowball in our face.  We are aghast.  We are mad. 
    We are connecting. We are making changes.  We are taking back our responsibility.