“A Radical Experiment in Empathy”
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By leading the Americans in his audience step by step through the thought process, sociologist Sam Richards sets an extraordinary challenge: can they understand — not approve of, but understand — the motivations of an Iraqi insurgent? And by extension, can anyone truly understand and empathize with another? (Filmed at TEDxPSU.)
by Dr. Samuel M. Richards, Penn State University Senior Lecturer in Sociology
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation was integral in the development of my TED talk, A Radical Experiment in Empathy, in which I invite listeners to step into the shoes of average Arab Muslims living in Iraq and reflect on two decades of U.S. military involvement in their country.
I initially had the idea for the talk while walking across campus on my way to my 300 student Introduction to Sociology class. In this course I used to spend five weeks discussing many different issues related to the sociology of war but on this day I had nothing planned. I was running late and remember feeling unhinged because I was not prepared. But on my way out of my office I grabbed a letter that I had just received from the American Friends Service Committee because I saw that it contained what looked to be some interesting information about the Iraq war. So during a five minute walk that would get me to class precisely on time I read excerpts from this letter.
What jumped out from that AFSC letters was information they included from MRFF about soldiers carrying Bibles that were imprinted with a US Army logo on the covers and a story about Christian prayer groups on U.S. military bases in Iraq and deployed soldiers who were feeling pressured by their commanding officers to pray allegiance to Jesus Christ.
I remember walking into class and reading this to my students, some of whom were vets. I asked them to reflect on what they thought about it given our previous conversations. I don’t remember how people responded but I distinctly remember saying, “Here, let me help you make some sense of this,” and on the spot I created the radical experiment that I would later title Christian Invaders by starting with, “Imagine you’re an average Iraqi…”
I remember walking back to my office feeling stunned by how interesting that class turned out to be and thinking that I needed to remember to do it again the following semester.
As it turned out, I delivered this lecture four or five times in the next couple of years and eventually had it down tight with videos and photos. But each time I gave the lecture I also left with the feeling that I was making too much of this issue. However, throughout the many intervening months between semesters MRFF kept coming out with more information (e.g., rifle scopes with Bible verses on them, quotes from lectures by high ranking U.S. military officers espousing their dominionist Christian beliefs, discriminatory treatment of American Muslim soldiers). And so not only did I remain empowered to keep doing the lecture, but I also kept packing more and more provocative information into the talk.
And then I decided to give the lecture in my 750 student race relations course and frame it around empathy and cross-cultural relations. I talked up the class for a few weeks ahead of time so that the room would be packed and I would feel the pressure to deliver what I was then calling, tongue-in-cheek, the “best class of the semester.” I borrowed three video cameras and hired an editor and it was game on.
And I delivered. In fact, to this day I call that the most powerful class from my nearly thirty years of college teaching–and we captured it on film. The room was packed as the parents of some students came from out of town to see the talk, as did students and staff who were not enrolled in the class. The trailer from the lecture gave me goosebumps the first time I watched it.
About a month after the FULL video of the lecture was edited the filmmaker and I gathered eight respected friends and colleagues together late one night and screened both videos. Then we discussed what I should do with the video and someone mentioned TED. As it happened a few months later I received an invitation to give a TED talk. I sent them the trailer and I was accepted as a speaker at the event.
While I was preparing the TED version of the talk MRFF kept releasing powerful revelations related to religious freedom and U.S. military personnel. While I didn’t subscribe to the MRFF newsletter or ever visit the organization’s web site, I was connected to many other organizations that did and so I remained up-to-date on all that was happening. And again it was invaluable because now I would not be speaking to students at Penn State but, rather, to strangers who did not know or trust me. As such, I needed to feel like there were larger global issues in play and that this was a serious and valuable topic to speak about to the world.
Without a doubt Christian Invaders and A Radical Experiment in Empathy would not have happened without the hard work of MRFF. Not only would I likely not have had that initial “Wow, that’s amazing!” insight while walking to my classroom that November afternoon, but I would definitely not have continued to feel the rush of importance in helping Americans see a tiny slice of life from the eyes of people from another culture in a way in which they would generally not be inclined to do.
Samuel M. Richards, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer in Sociology
Director of Development, World in Conversation Center for Public Diplomacy
Penn State University