Children evacuated from London have their feet inspected at their new home in Kent, 5 December 1940

This article is a preview from the Winter 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

It ranks as one of the greatest meetings of strangers in British history: evacuation. From 1939 to 1944, between one and two million children were evacuated from major cities and towns to more rural areas to escape the German bombs. As every schoolchild learns, rather than being placed in camps, they were mostly accommodated in private homes, many staying with their foster families for several years.

Recent public discussion of evacuation has focused on the emotional turmoil and trauma that it caused. Children were split from their families and frequently thrust into homes where they were unloved and sometimes abused. But such issues, important as they are, mask a vital aspect of the evacuation process: for the first time, relatively well-off rural householders were exposed to the realities of urban poverty.

Suddenly hundreds of thousands of homes in small towns and villages were filled with scrawny children from the slums of London, Liverpool and other urban centres, who were often malnourished, suffering from rickets and lice, and lacking shoes or decent underwear. The nation was shocked by the destitution thrust into its provincial living rooms. According to an editorial in the Economist in 1943, the great migration of evacuation “revealed to the whole people the black spots on its social life”.

Evacuation produced an unprecedented explosion of mass empathic understanding, by enabling rural people to step into the lives of the urban poor. Although they hadn’t observed the squalor of East End tenements with their own eyes, they were able to hear first-hand accounts from the children and to see the terrible consequences of poverty standing before them (even if they didn’t always want their grubby little guests to sit on their nice settees).

The response was a remarkable wave of public action. Letters were written to the Times, organisations such as the National Federation of Women’s Institutes lobbied for new child health policy, and members of parliament called for reform. Even more extraordinary was that the government responded almost immediately with a far-reaching expansion of child welfare provisions, which was all the more striking for taking place in a period of wartime austerity and resource constraint. The standard of school meals was raised and cheap milk and vitamins were made available for children and expectant mothers. Throughout the early 1940s new legislation was introduced to ensure improved public health, nutrition and education for children, reversing decades of inadequate social care rooted in the Poor Laws of the nineteenth century. Most of these policy changes were made permanent after the end of the war.

The impact was so great that the historian AJP Taylor concluded that “evacuation was itself a disguised welfare scheme”, and noted with irony that “the Luftwaffe was a powerful missionary for the welfare state”. Evacuation undoubtedly deserves its own chapter in the unwritten annals of the history of empathy.

The imaginative capacity to step into the shoes of another person and understand their feelings, perspectives and experiences is often depicted as a feel-good emotion; a “soft” skill that is more relevant to private life than public affairs. But the story of evacuation opens our minds to another possibility: that empathy can be a powerful force for social and political transformation.

Marx said that the fundamental driver of human history was the conflict between classes. Darwin believed it was the evolutionary struggle for survival. Others have claimed that the most important force for change is the clash of civilisations, the rise of political ideologies and religious movements, or advances in technology. A growing number of thinkers, however, are starting to recognise that empathy is an essential missing ingredient in these traditional narratives.

“The extraordinary evolution of empathic consciousness is the quintessential underlying story of human history,” writes the social scientist Jeremy Rifkin. Psychologist Steven Pinker makes a similar case in his monumental book The Better Angels of Our Nature, suggesting that an “expansion of empathy” has been one of the major causes of the marked decline of violence over the past half a millennium – including judicial torture, slavery and the persecution of minorities.

Empathy has been a vital – though neglected – secular moral force bringing about social and political change throughout history. While empathy is never the whole story, it has been a crucial factor in the struggle for human rights and social justice since at least the eighteenth century, and continues to be a key driver of progressive change today.

It’s important to acknowledge, though, that there are plenty of sceptics out there. In a recent public conversation I had in Oxford with the philosopher Peter Singer about his latest book The Most Good You Can Do, he argued that “reason, not empathy” should be the basis of moral behaviour. Why? Because empathy focuses our attention on individual cases or people close to us, to the neglect of distant strangers with whom it is harder to make a personal or emotional connection. So empathy induces us to care more about the suffering of the old lady next door who has a broken leg than for thousands of nameless famine victims in Sub-Saharan Africa. Singer likes to quote his anti-empathy accomplice, the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who claims that “a reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy”. For the critics, empathy is a highly emotional, individualistic and ultimately flaky character trait that should have no serious place in moral thought and that does little to create a more just and ethical world.

I believe they are seriously mistaken. For a start, they place almost all their attention on just one kind of empathy, what psychologists call “affective” empathy. This refers to our ability to mirror or share other people’s emotions: if you see anguish on a child’s face you too might feel anguish, just as you might wince when you see someone getting their finger trapped in a door. But there is another, less emotionally-charged kind of empathy that they conveniently dismiss, known as “cognitive” or “perspective-taking” empathy, which concerns imagining what it is like to be another person, with their different viewpoints, beliefs, hopes, fears and experiences. So when you see a homeless man on the street, cognitive empathy involves really trying to step into his shoes and imagine what it’s like to be him, sleeping out on a cold winter night or having people walk straight past you without looking you in the eye. Both types of empathy develop naturally in most children by the age of around three, and motivate us to act on the behalf of others (a useful argument against those who claim that we need religion to teach us how to be moral). But as we shall see, when it comes to social and political transformation, it is cognitive empathy that really makes the difference.

The more significant failure that can be levelled at the critics is that they are blind to the lessons of history. They seem unwilling to recognise that empathy – especially cognitive empathy – has frequently emerged on a collective scale to shift the contours of society and deepen democratic culture.

What’s the evidence? We are all familiar with mass collapses of empathy, from the slaughter of the Crusades through to the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. What we don’t hear about so much are the moments of collective empathic flowering. Evacuation is one of them. Another, which involved a more intentional effort to harness the power of empathy for political change, was the movement against slavery and the slave trade in late eighteenth-century Britain.

In the 1780s, Britain presided over the global slave trade and more than half a million African slaves were being worked to death on British-owned sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The country was as dependent on slavery as we are on oil today. But then something astonishing happened: the rise of the world’s first great human rights movement, led by Quakers and the Anglican Deacon Thomas Clarkson, focused on the injustice of slavery. What made the campaign so original, according to historian Adam Hochschild in his book Bury the Chains, is that the abolitionists “placed their hope not in sacred texts but in human empathy”.

How so? The cornerstone of their strategy was to give members of the public a vivid, almost visceral sense of what it might be like to be a slave. In other words, the aim was to switch on people’s cognitive empathy. They printed a shocking poster of the Brookes slave ship, showing how nearly 500 African slaves were packed into the dark, airless hull on their voyage across the Atlantic. They supported talks around Britain by former slaves, who described their treatment in graphic detail, such as being hooked on cranes with fifty-six pound weights hanging from their feet, and then being whipped with ebony brushes. They put torture instruments on public display, including thumbscrews, iron collars and the speculum oris, a force-feeding instrument that was used to pry open the mouths of slaves who were attempting to commit suicide by not eating.

The campaign was extraordinarily successful. It led to tens of thousands of people empathising with the hardships faced by slaves, triggering public protest, parliamentary petitions and the first ever fair trade boycott of slave-produced sugar. Combined with other factors such as slave revolts on plantations and the decling profitability of the slave economy, it played a major role in the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and later the end of slavery itself. As Hochschild put it, the campaign was remarkable for creating a “sudden upswelling” of empathy and the fact that “it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else’s rights.”

This is the kind of example that should make the likes of Peter Singer think twice about his critical stance on empathy. It reveals what I think of as a rough historical rule-of-thumb: empathy opens the door of our moral concern, then laws and rights wedge that door open. Empathy makes us care about the plight and suffering of strangers outside our local community and impels us to treat then as human beings of equal value to ourselves. We then use “reason” in the form of legal mechanisms and public policy to universalise this moral concern. This is a pattern we have seen again and again in political struggles over the past half century, for instance in the US civil rights movement, and campaigns for gay rights, women’s rights and the rights of indigenous and disabled people.

Simply put, empathy and reason typically operate in conjunction to create the foundations of human rights and social justice. They are not polar opposites but are in fact the best of friends, a democratic double act. Like knife and fork, ball and socket, Fred and Ginger, they work best when they work together.

We should also think about what the world looks like in the absence of empathy. Throughout human history the failure to take the perspective of “the Other” has been at the root of prejudice, exploitation and violence. The British colonisers of Australia, for example, largely ignored the perspectives of the indigenous population: the British believed they were bringing “civilisation” whereas from the indigenous viewpoint colonisation was an “invasion”. More recently, Western countries engaged in warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed they are bringing “democracy” to the region and acting for the greater good, but this perspective has not always been shared by the civilian populations subject to their bombing raids, who frequently view them as invaders rather than liberators. This is precisely why it is so important to draw on cognitive empathy, or what Adam Smith referred to in his 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as our capacity for “changing places in fancy with the sufferer”.

What would it mean to bring empathy to the forefront of strategies for social and political change today? I’m inspired by trailblazing peace-building initiatives such as the Musekeweya (New Dawn) radio soap opera in Rwanda, which is broadcast weekly and listened to by around 90 per cent of the population. Its storyline – which concerns Tutsis and Hutus living in adjacent villages – mirrors the tensions leading up to the 1994 genocide. But the difference is that the script is specifically written to promote the importance of empathy and foster community healing and national reconciliation. Studies have shown that the soap opera has not only increased levels of affective and cognitive empathy amongst listeners, but made people more accepting of cross-group marriage, and increased inter- and intra-group cooperation.

A recent related project was the Hello Peace telephone line established by the grass-roots peace organisation the Parents Circle, which operates in Israel and Palestine. This is how it worked: Israelis could call a free phone number and were put through to a Palestinian stranger to talk to about anything for up to half an hour, and Palestinians could similarly call and were put through to Israelis. In its first five years of operation over one million calls were made. Sometimes the conversations turned into shouting matches, but more often they created mutual understanding, and even long-term friendships. Just imagine if similar empathy phone lines – or maybe Skype lines – were set up in Britain that connected wealthy investment bankers and people living off food banks, or climate change activists and climate change sceptics.

Ultimately, I believe that creating a new vision of progressive politics requires teaching empathy skills in the school system, elevating it into a subject as important as maths or geography. There is strong evidence that it can indeed be taught. One of the best programmes on offer is Roots of Empathy, which began in Canada in the mid-1990s and has now spread to half a dozen countries (including Germany, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland) and reached over half a million children. A class of primary-aged children ‘“adopts” a real live baby for the year (I’m not joking). Every few weeks the baby visits the class with a parent and programme instructor. The kids sit around the baby and start talking about it – Why is she crying? Why is she laughing, or looking back to her mother when reaching for the toy? The children are trying to empathise – to step into the baby’s shoes. They then use the baby visit as a jumping-off point for discussing what it might be like to be a child bullied in the playground, or someone in a wheelchair. The impact of this experiential learning programme is striking: increased cooperation, reduced playground violence and even improved general academic attainment.

The task we face is to create a generational shift, rebalancing the focus on individualist values with a greater emphasis on collective values. Teaching empathy in schools is one of the best tools to make this happen.

Thinkers such as Peter Singer and Paul Bloom are right to argue that rational thought matters. It undoubtedly possesses a power to cut through superstitious belief and fuzzy thinking, and anchor morality in universal principles. But let’s not forget that it gains in strength when woven together with empathy, the invisible thread that connects us to other human beings. If we fail to make the effort to step into other people’s shoes, we have little chance of forging a world where a humanist vision can thrive.