Understanding Empathy … and Activism

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What is empathy? The answer to this question is easy.

But it may not be as easy as you think.

Empathy, while an incredibly common concept, is often only half understood. There is more to empathy than just feeling what another person feels, and the relationship it has to an individual person is far more complicated than the have/have not dichotomy most people imagine it to be. The common idea is that everyone has empathy, and those who don’t are probably afflicted with the kind of “scary” mental illness you learn about in the “abnormal psychology” unit of any Psych 101 class. People without empathy can’t relate to other people. They’re emotionless. They’re abusive. The list goes on.

This misconception is incredibly damaging, especially to those who actually do suffer from mental illnesses. Debunking this myth is was the goal that CJ and I worked toward in completing our activist project.

In the beginning, we were both sure we wanted to do a project involving A. the internet, and B. mental health stigma. The problem, though, was that we could not pick a steady direction. Each goal we envisioned seemed, within the parameters of a single project, outside of our abilities. We had narrowed it down to focusing on highly stigmatized disorders, such as bipolar disorder and numerous personality disorders, when we had a revelation. What is something that most of these disorders have in common, and that not only we, but any other average individual could relate to? Empathy. And so, armed with a topic, we started down the path of construction.

It didn’t take long for us to further flesh out what to do – we decided to make a video debunking some common misconceptions about empathy, but to keep it relatively simple in order to not overload ourselves or people new to ideas we would be discussing. Empathy 101, in a way.

An actual slide from the video.

An actual slide from the video.

Next would be to construct a script, which we agreed to do simultaneously, in a shared Google document. We each outlined some main points we would research, and set out to write as much (and as concisely) as we could about our designated topics. Our word count goal was incredibly basic – there was no ending word count, but each section should aspire to be at least one hundred words. We easily met this and then some, as our final script came out to two pages and nearly eight hundred words! Once the script was organized, we organized a meeting so we could record audio. After that, it would simply be a matter of putting the audio together, slapping it in a video, and making the visual content. Easy!

CJ had even agreed to be the voice for our video, and the resulting recording was pristine enough to hardly require any editing at all. Thank you, acting major!

Except, of course, there were unforeseen obstacles to run into.  We had trouble finding a quiet, hopefully soundproof place to record the audio, and then after finding a place to record, we had even more trouble getting a quality recording. It turned out to be that our microphone was too high quality and our “soundproof” room was too low quality, and we recorded our audio on CJ’s computer microphone in order to cancel out all of the echoing!

The final stretch, editing the video, was my responsibility. I had not expected it to be quick or necessarily easy, but considering I had already had quite a lot of experience with video projects like this one, I did not expect much surprise. For the most part, this was true, but I quickly realized I had a lack of visual content I could use, and opted to improvise and actually draw my own images! It seemed the best way to keep the video visually engaging, without having it be entirely boring or serious. In retrospect, it seems like the best route I could have taken for the visual aid, and multiple people have commented on how cute the drawings look, including CJ!

Peace, Unity, and Stick Figures

“Peace, Unity, and Stick Figures.”

Before taking on this project, I would not have considered myself an activist. I simply would not have thought that I did enough to qualify myself as any kind of an actor. After this project, I am still not sure what to think. I know that I believe in the video we have made and would love to continue spreading the information as much as I can, but I still cannot answer my own question: what is “enough”? I know I have done video projects like this before, and I know I have performed activism in small ways throughout the years, but still, am I an activist?

I think of one of the first readings we did, from the book Grassroots. If activism can be as simple as “consistently expressing one’s values with the goal of making the world more just” then I believe, yes, I am an activist.


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