Empathy in the Global World: An Intercultural Perspective

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Carolyn Calloway-Thomas

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  • Dedication

    For my mother and father, Idell and Alvin Calloway

    Copyright

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    Preface

    There is an urgent need for understanding global empathy. It is the subject of this book, and it is a topic that I have thought a great deal about over the years, as I grappled with variations on a sobering question that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 6-year-old daughter raised in the 1950s when she was told that Funtown, a public amusement park in Birmingham, Alabama, was closed to “colored” children (Washington, 1991, p. 293). The question is, “Why do people treat others so mean?” I also remember very well a similar incident that happened when I was a little girl growing up in Bernice in Louisiana. As my father and I walked down the narrow main street near a drugstore—with a soda fountain—that served ice cream, I asked my father whether we could go inside for an ice cream cone. As I write these lines, it is still difficult for me to do so without tears welling up in my eyes. I watched the face of my dejected father as he uttered words that wounded my gustatory expectations and placed social consciousness on a shelf where I could reach it. “We cannot go into that store for ice cream,” said my father, “because. …”

    My intellectual and affective world was framed by that painful moment, and in this book, years later, as a result of being studiously attentive to both national and international events, as a result of my intercultural experiences, and as a result of my cognitive engagement with scholarship on empathy, intercultural communication, anthropology, psychology, history, political science, religion, and other areas, I came to see the world in a whole new way. And I set out to understand more fully the role of empathy in public culture.

    In 1956, in his address before the First Annual Institute on NonViolence and Social Change in Montgomery, Alabama, without ever using the term empathy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged human beings “to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity” (quoted in Washington, 1991, p. 138). And he pronounced the new world to be one of “geographical togetherness” and “understanding goodwill.” Employing the terms togetherness and goodwill, with implicit echoes of the humanism of his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi of India, Dr. King challenged human beings to craft a compelling vision of a beloved community by defining the basis upon which the communication or sharing of ideas and feelings can proceed.

    But it is one thing to identify a set of values out of the shared common ground language of a community; it is something else altogether to vivify a world to the point of comprehending and elevating empathy. A half century later, King's philosophical notions that interplays between goodwill, other-regarding behaviors, and a sustainable life can make a huge difference still resonate. This book is animated by a belief that our significance as human beings stems in a very large measure from how much goodwill we inject into the troubled world of globalization.

    The vexing issues explored in this book are at the center of some of the most salient aspects of globalization today, and they play a commanding role in arguing one type of community into existence (one based on inclusivity, peace, respect, and universal human values) as opposed to arguing another kind of community into existence (one based on turmoil, meanness, wretchedness, genocide, and heaps of trouble). The challenge of empathy is the great challenge of our time.

    Although the last chapter in this book articulates an agenda for change that reflects a common ground approach to understanding and “doing” empathy, I am mindful of the nexus that exists between points of reality and an unrealizable utopian dream. I believe, however, that the last chapter sets forth a realistic agenda for empathetic fluency that contains seeds for deepening intercultural relationships among human beings around the world.

    During my travels, I have encountered so many people—children at play, tour guides, bus drivers, store clerks, professors, farmers, villagers, townspeople, city dwellers, the downtrodden, haves and have-nots—and all have reinforced my view that human beings worldwide share both the burdens and consequences of empathy or its absence. For this reason, this book is written not only for undergraduate and graduate students but also for general readers who wish to add more light than shadows to the world.

    On June 5, 2009, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who was imprisoned at Buchenwald concentration camp as a 16-year-old boy, toured the site with President Barack Obama during the latter's trip to Germany. While standing upon the ground where much misery had occurred during World War II, Wiesel raised a question of piercing proportions, and it also has a special bearing on the subject of this book.

    In commenting on the barbarism resident at Buchenwald and in reflecting on other terrible and evil acts that are “meant to diminish the humanity of human beings,” from Cambodia to Bosnia, Nobelist Wiesel asked, “Will the world ever learn?” (“Obama, Elie Wiesel,” 2009, p. 4). One strong, resonant reply to his question is that an understanding of empathy is sorely needed if we are to turn the world toward a more humane bent and away from global unrest and cruelty. I wrote the last sentence with a full and thoughtful knowledge of the multifaceted, weighty dimensions of human empathy. But we human beings must, in the words of Wiesel, “stop hating the otherness of the other” and “respect it” (“Obama, Elie Wiesel,” 2009, p.4). If we do not follow the way of empathy, then what and who will save us?

    Acknowledgments

    I am most grateful to my wonderful husband Jack E. Thomas, who, over the years, through his invaluable commentary—both spoken and written—helped me to dissect the workings of empathy. But the charitable record would not be complete without acknowledging my sacrificing, devoted parents, nine sweet siblings, and the caring citizens of Bernice, Louisiana, who taught me to wonder more deeply about the relationship that obtains between empathy and the “other.”

    In countless ways, as a result of my experiences with so many friends and colleagues worldwide, I am the fortunate beneficiary of their kindnesses and insights that helped to bring this book into being.

    My former students have taught me so much about what is good and rich in the world, and I thank them for this gift. I also especially thank the following reviewers for their generous time and comments on this work: Molefi Kete Asante (Department of African American Studies, Temple University), Deborah F. Atwater (Associate Professor Emerita of Communication Arts and Sciences and African and African American Studies, The Pennsylvania State University), Benjamin J. Broome (Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University), Alexia Georgakopoulos (Department of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Nova Southeastern University), Robert Hariman (Department of Communication Studies, Northwestern University), Fred E. Jandt (Department of Communication Studies, California State University, San Bernardino), Mark A. Pollock (Department of Communication Studies, Loyola University Chicago), Mark V. Redmond (Department of Communication Studies/English, Iowa State University), and Therese Saint Paul (Department of Modern Languages, Murray State University).

    Finally, I am deeply indebted to the editors at SAGE and Todd Armstrong for believing in this project.

    CarolynCalloway-Thomas, Bloomington, Indiana
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    About the Author

    Carolyn Calloway-Thomas is an Associate Professor and Director of the Preparing Future Faculty program in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She is coauthor of Intercultural Communication: A Text With Readings (2007) and Intercultural Communication: Roots and Routes (1999), as well as coeditor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Sermonic Power of Public Discourse (1993). Her teaching and research areas are intercultural communication, public dialogue in America, civic engagement, pedagogy, and communication in Black America. In 2007, Professor Calloway-Thomas was invited to participate in the Oxford Round Table conference on diversity and public policy at Oxford University in England. Her national awards include a Ford Postdoctoral fellowship; a Fulbright scholarship to Nigeria, West Africa; a Carnegie scholarship; the National Communication Association's Robert J. Kibler award; and the Distinguished Alumni award from Grambling State University. She holds a BS degree from Grambling College, an MA degree from the University of Wisconsin, and a PhD degree from Indiana University.


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