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Politics of Compassion

Displays of emotion are often feigned. Empathy is the real time End Game.

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Charles III holds an Audience with the President of the European Commission Ursula von oder Leyem.

At the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine reports 100,000 killed or wounded in action, 30,000 civilian deaths, and Europe's largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Over 8 million refugees fleeing Ukraine have been recorded across Europe, while an estimated 8 million others had been displaced within the country. 90% of Ukrainian refugees are women and children.

Humanitarian behemoths like UNICEF, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and International Rescue Committee immediately began channelling monetary donations and provisions to refugees affected by the crisis. Many smaller outfits like the Krohn Breakthrough Foundation transported roughly $1 million in tourniquets, trauma kits, and other supplies via planes that had been donated to the cause. "We really just feel called to help the people there,” Krohn said.

The unprecedented humanitarian response around the world was triggered by Crowd Wisdom, the collective opinion of a diverse independent group of individuals rather than that of a single expert. But where does knowledge and experience come into play, and who are the real time heroes of today?

Social Neuroscience

Mimicry is the tendency to automatically synchronize affective expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements with those of another person, according to social neuroscientists Tania Singer and Klaus Lamm in The Social Neuroscience of Empathy.

“You yawn, I yawn,” Singer observes, “it’s just that simple.” This response, for most, is automatic and the psychosomatic data is compelling. For example, in a study where participants were shown photographs of sad faces, the participant’s pupil size mimicked the pupil size of those in the photographs. Physical evidence that mimicry occurs outside our consciousness.

Emotional contagion goes further, described as “a subconscious spread of emotions and behaviors.” Reasoning, analysis, and imagination all contribute to political rallies, protests, and revolutions. “Within families,” Singer observes, “emotional contagion creates the atmosphere of a household.” In fact, children learn what they live.

The undifferentiated self is unable to separate their own thoughts, feelings, and attitudes from those with whom they share experiences. Differentiation requires the ability to distinguish a life you share from the one you wish to live.

The Empathy Effect

Research in social neuroscience points to gender differences between men and women in studies on empathy. In the largest study to date in 2022, Cambridge University scientists performed 312,579 “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” tests on adolescents and adults across 57 countries and found that women on average scored higher for “cognitive empathy” in 36 of the 57 countries.

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29 female MLAs of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Cognitive Empathy refers not only to how well we see and perceive the world around us, but implies we understand and know how and why to respond. Called empathic accuracy, it involves “a more complete, increasingly accurate knowledge about another person's mind, emotions and experience” according to the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, “while maintaining a distinction between oneself and others.”

While sympathy, in contrast, is a reaction to our understanding of distress, compassionate empathy goes further by requiring we somehow share the experience of others.

A New Way Forward

The Windsor Framework was announced this week, designed to address the borders and movement of goods in Ireland. One island hosting two religions. Two economies. Two nations.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak struck hands at the Fairmont hotel at Windsor Great Park, after which they announced the deal at Windsor Guildhall, von der Leyen took tea with Charles III.

The rift begins when Henry VIII declares himself King of Ireland in 1542, igniting Catholic factions in his now Protestant kingdom. The Acts of Union (1800) leads to a War of Independence (1919-1921) followed by the partition of the island, and the creation of the Irish Free State (1922). The Emerald Isle of 7 million people remains divided into the Republic of Ireland (5.1 million) and Northern Ireland (1.9 million) to this day.

Trade along their border was easy before Brexit, both were in the EU and shared the same rules, but when the latter chose to exit the ERM II (2020) they left the otherwise open, friendly boarder in peril.

The original Brexit deal (Northern Ireland Protocol) was designed to avoid creating a hard border in deference to The Troubles: a 30-year “irregular war” over the status of Northern Ireland. Unionists, loyalists, wanted to remain within the UK. Irish Nationalists and Republicans wanted a united Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland / United Kingdom border has had a special status ever since the internecine conflict was ended by the Good Friday Agreement (1998). EU single market and UK internal market provisions could have installed customs checks and trade controls along the 270 crossing points between the two nations. Brexit, in fact, was reigniting passions along the border and testing the peace process.

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President of the European Commission Ursula and the UK's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have announce Windsor Framework

Sunak’s ”Green Lanes” proposes averting those checks to ensure easy passage for agri-foods staying in Northern Ireland, while “Red Lanes” will face customs and physical checks for those products continuing to the EU. The Northern Ireland Assembly can hit the brake if or when needed and therein lies the Sunak effect. For a second generation Brit, discussions about borders have two sides that intrinsically matter. DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is considering the “collective view,” and President Joe Biden said it this way from the White House:

Today’s announcement between the United Kingdom and the European Union on the Windsor Framework is an essential step to ensuring that the hard-earned peace and progress of the Good Friday Agreement is preserved and strengthened. I appreciate the efforts of the leaders and officials on all sides who worked tirelessly to find a way forward that protects Northern Ireland’s place within the UK’s internal market as well as the EU’s single market, to the benefit of all communities in Northern Ireland.

The “It” Factor

Richard Davidson, Director of The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a renowned and rigorous investigator of the neuroscience of compassion and empathy. MRI scanning has enabled Dr. Davidson and his team of scientists to study the brains of the Dalai Lama and other long-term meditators and monks. One conclusion Davidson draws from his research: “empathy, without compassion, diminishes our capacity to serve.”

The word compassion derives from the Latin compassio, “to suffer with,” and Davidson suggests creating small, seemingly selfless acts of compromise to strengthen the neural networks of compassion. "Where ever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness."

We can’t all be expected to resolve international trade disputes, humanitarian crises, or walk in other people’s shoes. But scholars in the emerging field of social neuroscience are imagining a world where we do.

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