Empathy is the basis for equality

The new American movement ‘Black Lives Matter’ is important, and that was certainly also the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Later movements have taken the world ahead: the Women’s Movement and the Environment and Climate Change Movement, beginning in the 1970s and still going on, and also the LHBT Movement, with this week’s Pride events against discrimination of people’s gender orientation. People with physical handicaps are treated better than before, and we have begun taking mental health issues seriously, and they affect a quarter of us all at one or more times in life. Under all the concern for equality and a better life for all, there is empathy and solidarity, and political plans and strategies are put in place. We have come to realise that the issues don’t only affect others; ‘it could have been me’. The Norwegian poet Arnulf Øverland(1989-1968) said in his many poems about the evil of the Nazi ideology of WWII that we have no right to forget or pretend. In his poem ‘You must not sleep!’, he wrote that it was not good enough just to say: “It is sad, we feel sorry for them” (in Norwegian, Det er sørgelig, stakkars dem).

Although much remains to be done about racism and other fields of inequality, yet, the world has moved far and fast since I was young in the 1960s and 1970s, indeed as regards gender issues. In Norway today, there are many women who are top politicians; they certainly rule the land as well as men, sometimes better. I believe women leaders in many countries have handled the corona pandemic better than many men have, such as Erna Solberg in Norway, Katrin Jakobsdottir in Iceland, Saima Marin in Finland, and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. Maybe they are better at administering health and social aspects of diseases; well, and men may still have an edge over women in commerce and industry, perhaps because they are willing to take more risks than women. Well, I should perhaps not generalise too superficially; there are many exceptions, based on experience, work cultures, even genes, and more.

Last week, I read a couple of articles in the Norwegian newspaper ‘VG’ about two gifted ‘whiz kids’, graduating from upper secondary school with top grades in all subjects; one was an 18-year-old boy who had gone through the three-year programme in two years, coming from an ethnic Norwegian backgrounds with a professor father; the other one was a girl from immigrant backgrounds, but no mention of the vocations of her parents. They had both opted for the new interdisciplinary honours’ programme in mathematics and natural sciences at the University of Oslo. Often, immigrant youth, both girls and boys, who excel in education, may come from quite ordinary backgrounds, and sometimes, the mother may not have had much schooling at all. It becomes a class journey for the next generation of youth, who become doctors, lawyers, economists, engineers, and other things. In Norway, there are, for example, top politicians of Pakistani, Iranian and Iraqi backgrounds. Let us rejoice all equally.

The Western countries are lucky that immigrants, especially young women, are so keen focusing on education as a vehicle for social mobility and independence. In the USA, South and West Asians are generally doing particularly well in their new land, often thanks to their mothers who follow up with homework and more. And then, to do well at school and be successful and competitive in life is not only good; it also has its downsides. Some say that immigrants in one or two generations will become more like the other youth in their new land, no longer be over-focused on education and careers. But that is another debate. For the time being, we should celebrate the success of young immigrants and minorities, and also be concerned about those who are not successful because that may be caused by socio-economic and other issues, difficult to handle by the youngsters alone.

At this particular time, it is important to focus on racism, discrimination and inequality, indeed in USA, but all over the world. The violence that we have witnessed recently is probably only the top of the iceberg of a systemic and structural problem that runs through the whole society. Furthermore, racism is almost always caused by wrong structures. Those at the bottom of the ladder are trapped in situations with very few avenues for upward social mobility and hope. The situation is particularly bad for young men, and up to one-third of young black men serve prison terms. Blacks are more often than whites charged and sentenced to long prison terms; today, the percentage of non-white males in prison is about 37 percent of all prisoners, but the total black population is only about 14 percent, about 40 million, in a country with 330 million inhabitants. The country’s justice system is broken, left to drift along with so many innocent victims. The American prison population of 2.3 million is shockingly high and makes up for about a quarter all prisoners in the world. In USA, prison terms are often unreasonably long, and even in our time, many states in the country allow the uses death penalty, which has been abolished in most Western countries.

It will be essential to overhaul the justice system, not only the police system. Parallel to such major reforms, the social sector must also be reformed. Health insurance for all must be seen as a human right in the world’s richest country, and other countries. It can no longer be tied to jobs. Although the unemployment rate was just a few percent before the corona outbreak, it has currently reached 13-14 percent with scant benefits and safety nets. Many would not even find it worthwhile to register as unemployed, surviving on some limited food help from religious and other charities – those few who show empathy, while others, also the reach, are selfish and look after themselves only.

America urgently needs to put new and fairer regulations in place to give equal opportunities for all. The country’s inbuilt racism must be changed. The middle class in the country is shrinking, and whites too face more problems, and therefore show less empathy and solidarity. Elsewhere in the West, the capitalist system is much better regulated than in the USA, although everywhere, there is a need to safeguard rules, protect existing labour unions and welfare rights. America’s system, though, is in urgent need for correction to avoid even deeper class and race differences. It should be noted that unless improvements are made soon, many problems may become very difficult to control and improve. The race relations, evidenced by the recent police violence, have led to an uprising that must be handled properly, not only putting the lid on and taking it away. The whole American model, democracy and growth are at stake. In 2020, we can all afford to show empathy and love. That was how God created us. The politicians must follow God’s commandments and the people’s will – even in this eleventh hour.

Atle Hetland
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid. Email:

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