Bridging the Empathy Gap

Pulitzer-Prize winners offer inspiration, global perspective at 2016 Hanway Lecture

By Rita Buettner  |  Photos by Larry Canner

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When Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn addressed a packed McGuire Hall at Loyola University Maryland for the Hanway Lecture on April 11, 2016, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and human rights advocates challenged the audience to stretch themselves.

“What would you do if there were a drug that allowed you to become a better person, to be happier, possibly to live longer, with no side effects… Would you take that drug?” WuDunn asked the crowd.

“And what would you do with that potential extra length of life? You could continue doing the same things you’ve been doing all along, the status quo. But would that really be a good use of that extra length of life? Well, suppose that you—basically because you are a little bit more super-human—consider taking on some of the super problems that face this world… What would those problems be?”

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Weaving stories of people they have encountered through their travels into their talk with research to support their points, the couple engaged their listeners with a multimedia presentation.

“For the cost of deploying one U.S. soldier a year, you can start 30 schools in developing countries and keep them going for about three years,” Kristof said. “One of my frustrations in these areas is that this is something that extremists get. Why did the Afghan Taliban throw acid in girls’ faces? Why did the Taliban shoot them in the head? Why did Boko Haram kidnap 200-plus school girls in Nigeria? The threat to extremism is educated girls, and I don’t think we’ve absorbed that same lesson ourselves.”

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The couple challenged students to try to bridge what they called “the empathy gap” and to identify with people who are of a different socioeconomic status, maybe even living in another part of the world.

Kristof warned, however, that working to help people is not always easy. “Anybody who has worked in these ventures knows that helping people is harder than it looks, and that it doesn’t always work. You take a risk on people, and sometimes you just get your heart broken.”

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Before the lecture, the husband-wife team met with members of the Loyola faculty and senior Global Studies majors.

Encouraging their listeners to consider how to give of themselves, the couple reminded their listeners that they can contribute in a variety of ways, giving of themselves through time, money, or advocacy.

“It’s very clear that you do need public policy, you need government also to play a role in bringing back changes in society,” WuDunn said. “So we often forget that governments and institutions are made up of people, so you still need to reach out, you still need to appeal to people and persuade individuals. I mean, it’s almost as though we sometimes forget that there’s this conceptual thing called ‘institutions,’ called ‘government,’ and that it will make the right decision. It’s the people inside government, in those roles, that are making these decisions. And they don’t always make them very rationally, but they do have to be persuaded by reason, by data, by emotion.”

WuDunn and Kristof both studied abroad in college and Kristof shared his thoughts on the importance of studying abroad—or stretching in other ways: “It doesn’t have to be abroad. You can get out of your comfort zone right here in this country. You can tutor in a jail or prison. You can tutor in plenty of places in Baltimore that are going to be completely outside of your comfort zone, and will give you that same sense of learning about the world and about yourself and your society. And I really hope you will take advantage of that.”

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After the lecture, Kristof and WuDunn signed copies of their new book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, and spoke with students and others who attended the event and heard the challenges the speakers issued.

Through the Hanway Lecture in Global Studies, Loyola University Maryland brings noteworthy leaders to campus to share timely, relevant insight into today’s global society. The Hanway Lecture is an endowed series made possible by a gift from Ellen and Ed Hanway, a member of the University’s Class of 1974 and former chair of Loyola’s Board of Trustees.

“I think one of the ways in which we psych ourselves out is the notion that these problems are just too big, and that anything we do is going to be a drop in the bucket. And in a sense there’s something to that,” Kristof said. “Anything we do is, in some sense, a drop in the bucket. But I’ve become a believer in drops in the bucket.”

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