This guest post is by Christopher Padfield (Engineering 1968), who attended the launch of Fitzwilliam alumnus Sir Peter Bazalgette’s new book “The Empathy Instinct” at the British Library in London on 25 January 2017.
There’s a lot of gloom at present about what looks increasingly like the re-emergence of the extreme right wing in politics, feeding, as always, on resentments within the population about the way the pie is shared. How terrifying that these resentments have had reason to grow to the point that citizens succumb to the temptations of deeply rooted evolutionary instincts towards xenophobia, racism, nationalism, protectionism.
In the last decades, differentiation between rich and poor has grown apace; the privileged among the baby-boomer generation having creamed off the fat of the land both relatively (widening the gulf in income, wealth and education, life-expectancy and social mobility) and absolutely (our planet’s ecology and natural systems now face an existential challenge without parallel).
So blind have been our leading figures to the extremity of these inequalities, real and moral, that few of them have seen the possibility that those who feel ‘left behind’ might fight back at the polls; that they might start walking from their impoverished or war-torn countries to nirvanas of apparent plenty.
What a treat, then, to attend a lecture and book-launch hosted by the British Library and organised by the Royal Society of Arts, where Sir Peter Bazalgette talked with passion, humour and animation, about a theme (“The Empathetic Citizen”) the Arts Council has been developing under Peter’s Chairmanship, the purpose of which is to play a proportional part in rectifying the imbalance at the core of our system.
Peter, as he is still known in Fitzwilliam, where he matriculated in Law in 1973, is now an Honorary Fellow, and is deeply loved as one of our most wonderfully delightful alumni, seems to be known universally in the Arts world as Baz. He has come to the end of his 4-year term as Chairman of the Arts Council, and is recognised as having played a leading role in a renaissance in the self-confidence and the resources of the Arts community in Britain to ‘make a difference’.
The title of his book is “The Empathy Instinct: how to create a more civil society”. His argument, that empathy can be developed throughout life, and specifically through engagement with the arts, is set in the context that, on one reading, the ills sketched out above testify to an empathy deficit in our society. The Arts Council have been working to find ways in which this hypothesis can be confirmed and acted out, across the country and throughout our over-stratified society. I have certainly come across theatrical and musical initiatives both in prisons, and in the community, led by ex-offenders, which appear to change lives.
His book is now on sale and reads well. The reception he received at the launch was testimony to a huge force for good and a great vision for the arts in Britain. Thank goodness there seems to be a vibrant pool of talent to take over that leadership role, because without it, and not only in the arts establishment specifically, the tendency seems to be to reduce to the lowest common denominator – for our education system to retreat to the furnishing of work-related skills, for example.
Bravo, Sir Peter Bazalgette and his many like-minded colleagues, who invest so very much of their lives in maintaining the vibrancy of aesthetic aspects of our culture, and above all, extending this into regions where people feel left behind.
Christopher Padfield (married Nicky in 1979 and) worked in sustainable development in Africa and Asia until 1988 when they came back to Cambridge to re-balance their professional opportunities. He set up and directed the Cambridge Programme for Industry (now the Institute for Sustainability Leadership) and then a decade later the University’s Corporate Liaison Office, all the while doubling as a Fellow, Director of Studies in Engineering and a 16-year stint as Graduate Tutor at Trinity Hall. Retired from both University and College, he now spends some of his time monitoring a prison, HMP Bedford, where the heat has been on of late
Peter Bazalgette was Chair of Arts Council England from 2013-2017. He also chaired the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation. He was educated at Dulwich College and read Law at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge but escaped the law to spend most of his career working in television. He devised some of the biggest entertainment shows in recent TV history, such as Ready Steady Cook and Changing Rooms, and brought Big Brother to the UK. He now chairs ITV. His previous books include Billion Dollar Game and The Food Revolution (co-authored). In 2011 he was knighted for services to broadcasting.
Empathy is the power of understanding others, imaginatively entering into their feelings. It is a fundamental human attribute, without which mutually co-operative societies cannot function. In a revolutionary development, we now know who has it, who lacks it and why. Via the MRI scanner we are mapping the human brain. This is a new frontier that reveals a host of beneficial ideas for childcare, teens challenged by the internet, the justice system, decent healthcare, tackling racism and resolving conflicts.
In this wide-ranging and accessible book full of entertaining stories that are underlined by the latest scientific research, Peter Bazalgette also mounts a passionate defence of arts and popular culture as a means of bridging the empathy gap.
As the world’s population expands, consuming the planet’s finite resources, as people haunted by poverty and war are on the move and as digital communications infinitely complicate our social interactions, we find our patience and our sympathy constantly challenged. Here is the antidote.
Culminating in a passionate manifesto on empathy, The Empathy Instinct is what makes us human and what can make us better humans.