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The Forum for European Philosophy recently hosted a conversation between a philosopher (Raymond Gaita) and a neuroscientist (Tom Farrow) on forgiveness. While talking, they come up with all sorts of ideas about forgiveness, morality and empathy. How about an empathy pill, for example, which could be taken three times daily to trigger the empathic capacity of your brain, making you a more moral person? Farrow and Gaita agreed that this would be a wonderful invention.

The Forum for European Philosophy recently hosted a conversation between a philosopher (Raymond Gaita) and a neuroscientist (Tom Farrow) on forgiveness. While talking, they come up with all sorts of ideas about forgiveness, morality and empathy. How about an empathy pill, for example, which could be taken three times daily to trigger the empathic capacity of your brain, making you a more moral person? Farrow and Gaita agreed that this would be a wonderful invention.

This came as somewhat of a surprise to me. Intuitively, the idea of an empathy pill seems to be grabbing the wrong end of the stick.

Suppose we were to approach it as a question of means and ends. Most of us can agree that a more humane, compassionate, empathic society is a worthwhile end to aim for. But is it good irrespective of the means we use to get there? If we have to medicate someone - forcibly, perhaps, in the case of a serial killer or a member of the EDL - to get them to understand the ideas, values and feelings of others, does that count as empathy?

Then, I started thinking about David Cameron's recent speech about the death of state multiculturalism and, particularly, the need for what he calls 'muscular liberalism'. Having a society - even a Big Society - premised on democracy, inclusion and a shared sense of belonging is all well and good. But if these values are suggested or imposed – or even prescribed – by others, do they still count? What is 'democracy' without active, discursive engagement between individuals and communities about the things that impact upon their everyday lives? What is 'integration' without a healthy appreciation of what it means to tolerate the views of those you disagree with but happen to live next door to? What is 'empathy' without a direct and deeply personal awareness - and acceptance - of one's own and others' imperfections?

Two recent events hosted by Citizen Power Peterborough, a collaboration between the RSA, Peterborough City Council, Arts Council East and the citizens of Peterborough, provided a tangible reminder of the importance of empathy, particularly as a foundation for what Peter Block calls ‘restorative conversations’. These are a form of public dialogue in which each participant sees herself as an owner or co-creator of whatever it is that might be achieved (a community project, a local network, a change in behaviour patterns, and so on) and is therefore personally committed to it. Shared ownership of efforts to improve a community or way of life can only occur, however, when there is space for people to talk over the small things, learn from each other’s knowledge, experience, ideas and values – whatever form these might take – and find a common sense of empathy.

A sense of co-creation and shared ownership, founded on empathy and engagement with others, was very much present at the latest Creative Gathering, a day-long event that brought together over fifty creative practitioners living and working in Peterborough. Watching people come together to listen, debate, disagree, and share their ideas throughout the day, culminating in an open-space workshop exploring the development of a new local artists’ network – Creative Peterborough – it was obvious that a collaborative partnership was gradually coming into focus.

It hasn’t happened overnight, or without heated disagreement about the best means towards a shared end, but it is happening through direct participatory engagement premised on a growing understanding of and appreciation for each other’s strengths, weaknesses, ideas and values. And, precisely because it hasn’t happened overnight – by taking an empathy pill, perhaps – but is founded on shared conversations and the co-ownership of ideas, this collaborative partnership is more likely to become a self-sustaining catalyst for change within the arts community in Peterborough.

More recently, Tessy Britton, an RSA Fellow and social action researcher, hosted a Travelling Pantry at Nacro in Peterborough. This was the final event in a series of community development workshops that Tessy and partners have been providing around the country. The emphasis was on doing things together – sharing stories, making community spaces out of Lego, getting to know each other over lunch – and, as Hannah Bullock and Tim Smit, co-creators of the Big Lunch, put it, on "parking" the big issues and letting conversation "work its magic". It was wonderful to watch a diverse group of people laughing together, learning about each other, and getting enthused about shared ideas for new community spaces in Peterborough, without an empathy pill in sight.

Meanwhile, returning to the original conversation, Gaita – in that baffling stream-of-consciousness way that only philosophers can get away with – suddenly asked, at one point, "Why can't you love someone passionately for five minutes? Because that is not love." Well, then, I would ask, "Why can't you take a pill to care more about others? Because that is not empathy."

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