Home French News It’s so very nice to be nice, by Evelyne Pieiller (Le Monde diplomatique

It’s so very nice to be nice, by Evelyne Pieiller (Le Monde diplomatique

It’s so very nice to be nice, by Evelyne Pieiller (Le Monde diplomatique

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School lessons in empathy: scene of a girl being bullied by classmates, Berlin, 31 May 2011

Thomas Koehler · Photothek · Getty

The psychiatrist Serge Tisseron says, ‘We’re spontaneously racist’. It’s a dispiriting thought. But, since human nature is full of contrasts, it’s cheering to learn that, despite every individual being ‘programmed by evolution to give preference to those who are like them’, brain imaging techniques have established we’re also capable of employing its antidote, empathy.

This is nothing to boast about, though, since it’s merely a ‘form of adaptation that various species have developed to increase their odds of survival’, which nudged humans ‘in an increasingly social and cooperative direction’. Nonetheless, it’s all too obvious that we humans don’t always choose the empathetic path. Nor is it as spontaneous as we might wish. One solution, then, is to ‘improve on’ human nature by ‘boosting’ empathy – to enhance our programming, so to speak, which sadly is sometimes defective and needs to be coaxed in the right direction.

It’s worth pausing at this point to consider what exactly empathy is. The term – or at least its German equivalent, Einfühlung – is thought to have been first used by the philosopher Robert Vischer in 1873 to describe an aesthetic experience. Psychoanalysts picked it up, then sociologists. And eventually pretty much everyone else. Readers of Philip K Dick’s novels know it as the quality that distinguishes humans from androids. The word has become familiar, even ubiquitous, but remains nebulous.

It’s one of the most searched for terms online (along with bipolar, narcissist and secularism…). The Larousse dictionary simply defines it as ‘the intuitive faculty of putting oneself in the place of another, of perceiving what they feel’. The French Encyclopædia Universalis calls it an ‘innate capacity’ with three components: ‘emotional, cognitive’ – the latter unique to humans – ‘and motivational’.

‘An innate skill’

In 2019 radio station France Inter offered its own definition: ‘the cognitive function which enables someone to analyse (…)

Full article: 1 539 words.

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(1Serge Tisseron, L’Empathie (Empathy), Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2024.

(2‘Kit pédagogique pour les séances d’empathie à l’école’ (Teaching kit for empathy sessions in school), Ministry for National Education and Youth, January 2024, eduscol.education.fr/.

(4‘Utiliser la carte de l’empathie pour développer son entreprise’ (Using the empathy map to develop your business), bpifrance-creation.fr


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