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Privilege And Bias Affect Our Empathy

By ALEX GABBAY

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IN 2001, I moved to Kathmandu to produce three films for UNICEF. Whilst making them I realised that films were able to connect two communities: people in need and people with privilege. And that through storytelling we could create awareness and ultimately empathy.

To give you an example, I made a film on Lamu Island in Kenya. We featured three young boys around 17, all quite different from each other except for one thing they had in common: they had finished school but were so poor their school fees had not been paid and all three were working to pay off the debt. And until they did, their results were locked in a grey filing cabinet. The cabinet was full of hundreds of results of boys who hadn’t been able to pay.

After the film was broadcast by BBC World, they received so many offers to help these boys that all their debts were cleared and they were able to use their results to get proper jobs. One was even sponsored to study medicine.

Over the years, working on documentaries about the environment and social development had a profound effect on me and in 2009 I began my journey on a series of films exploring some of the obstacles we face in achieving a more equitable society.

One of them, Love, Hate & Everything In Between, was on empathy and through the making of it, I had a better understanding of what empathy really means.

There is a debate as to whether empathy is an inherent quality or something we learn – the nature versus nature argument again. But it is probably a bit of both. We could call it a natural instinct arising out of our need to understand how our fellow human feels and acts if we are going to live in societies or groups. Therefore empathy not only benefits us as individuals but also allows us to function and live effectively as a group.

Until recently, empathy was not a widely understood concept. I believe it is a skill we can enhance through education and through realising its huge social benefits.

Unfortunately, there is another evolutionary phenomenon that works against us all living together and having empathy for each other – bias for your own ‘kind’. Experiments have shown that babies experience bias within the first few months of being born. This prejudice divides us and affects our empathy. Scientific studies have reported that we exhibit more empathy for those like us – the in-group – rather than the others, or the out-group.

Bias can be an obstacle in terms of developing a culture of giving. If you are privileged and have a comfortable standard of living then you belong to a particular group of people. You surround yourself with people who are similar to yourself and you will relate and have empathy for those people because they are like you.

To relate and have empathy for people who are not like you is difficult and requires us to suppress our biases.

My next film was on the concept of fairness and in the process of making it, I discovered how many factors affect our position in society. If you come from a privileged background you are more likely to succeed because you will have access to all the tools you need to succeed. For example, you might have better education, better social skills and a better understanding of how people, who are different from you, think. Conversely, if you are poor, you are more likely to fail and to remain poor. This is the vicious cycle that is still going on.

I think the key to developing a culture of giving depends on us first GIVING a little time to appreciate just how we got to where we are, what factors contributed to our own success. Was it all through hard work or did we have a good start in life?

Perhaps then we will not be fooled by our biases and realise that people who are more unfortunate than ourselves are just the same as us and deserve our empathy.

(Alex Gabbay is the director of SmallChange.ngo’s recently released promo film which won the Best Ad Film award at the 7th Bangalore Shorts Film Festival last month. Check it out here:


Alex Gabbay is a documentary filmmaker based in Berlin. In his 20-year career, he has made more than 50 films for major broadcasters such as the BBC, Arte, ZDF and Al Jazeera, covering a wide variety of topics – from nomads in Tibet, the Hadza tribe in Tanzania and honour killings in Iraq to women’s education in Sierra Leone. His latest is a series of films on human behaviour, examining subjects such as consciousness, empathy and fairness through the lens of science and social science.

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