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A radical experiment in empathy

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    My students often ask me,
    "What is sociology?"
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    And I tell them it's the study of the way
    in which human beings are shaped
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    by things that they don't see.
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    And they say, "So,
    how can I be a sociologist?
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    How can I understand
    those invisible forces?"
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    And I say, "Empathy.
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    Start with empathy.
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    It all begins with empathy.
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    Take yourself out of your shoes,
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    put yourself into the shoes
    of another person."
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    Here, I'll give you an example.
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    So I imagine my life
    if, a hundred years ago,
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    China had been the most powerful
    nation in the world
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    and they came to the United States
    in search of coal.
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    And they found it, and, in fact,
    they found lots of it right here.
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    And pretty soon,
    they began shipping that coal,
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    ton by ton,
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    railcar by railcar, boatload by boatload,
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    back to China and elsewhere
    around the world.
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    And they got fabulously
    wealthy in doing so.
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    And they built beautiful cities
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    all powered on that coal.
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    And back here in the United States,
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    we saw economic despair, deprivation.
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    This is what I saw.
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    I saw people struggling to get by,
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    not knowing what was what
    and what was next.
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    And I asked myself the question:
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    How is it possible that we could
    be so poor here in the United States,
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    because coal is such a wealthy
    resource; it's so much money?
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    And I realize:
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    because the Chinese ingratiated themselves
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    with a small ruling class
    here in the United States,
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    who stole all of that money
    and all of that wealth for themselves.
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    And the rest of us,
    the vast majority of us,
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    struggle to get by.
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    And the Chinese
    gave this small ruling elite
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    loads of military weapons
    and sophisticated technology
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    in order to ensure that people like me
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    would not speak out
    against this relationship.
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    Does this sound familiar?
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    And they did things like train Americans
    to help protect the coal.
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    And everywhere, there were
    symbols of the Chinese --
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    everywhere, a constant reminder.
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    And back in China,
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    what do they say in China?
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    Nothing! They don't talk about us.
    They don't talk about the coal.
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    If you ask them,
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    they'll say, "Well, you know,
    we need the coal.
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    I mean, come on, I'm not going
    to turn down my thermostat.
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    You can't expect that."
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    And so, I get angry, and I get pissed,
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    as do lots of average people.
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    And we fight back,
    and it gets really ugly.
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    And the Chinese respond
    in a very ugly way.
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    And before we know it,
    they send in the tanks
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    and they send in the troops.
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    And lots of people are dying.
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    And it's a very, very difficult situation.
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    Can you imagine what you would feel
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    if you were in my shoes?
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    Can you imagine
    walking out of this building
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    and seeing a tank sitting out there,
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    or a truck full of soldiers?
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    Just imagine what you would feel,
    because you know why they're here;
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    you know what they're doing here.
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    And you just feel the anger
    and you feel the fear.
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    If you can, that's empathy.
    That's empathy.
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    You've left your shoes,
    and you've stood in mine.
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    And you've got to feel that.
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    OK, so that's the warm-up.
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    That's the warm-up.
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    Now we're going to have
    the real radical experiment.
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    So, for the remainder of my talk,
    what I want you to do
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    is put yourselves in the shoes
    of an ordinary Arab Muslim
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    living in the Middle East --
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    in particular, in Iraq.
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    And so to help you,
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    perhaps you're a member
    of this middle-class family in Baghdad.
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    What you want is the best for your kids.
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    You want your kids to have a better life.
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    And you watch the news, you pay attention.
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    You read the newspaper, you go down
    to the coffee shop with your friends,
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    you read the newspapers
    from around the world.
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    Sometimes you even watch satellite,
    CNN, from the United States.
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    You have a sense of what
    the Americans are thinking.
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    But really, you just want
    a better life for yourself.
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    That's what you want.
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    You're Arab Muslim living in Iraq.
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    You want a better life for yourself.
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    So here, let me help you.
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    Let me help you with some things
    that you might be thinking.
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    Number one:
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    this incursion into your land
    these past 20 years and before --
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    the reason anyone
    is interested in your land,
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    and particularly
    the United States, is oil.
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    It's all about oil; you know that,
    everybody knows that.
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    People back in the United States
    know it's about oil.
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    It's because somebody else
    has a design for your resource.
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    It's your resource --
    it's not somebody else's.
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    It's your land; it's your resource.
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    Somebody else has a design for it.
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    And you know why they have a design?
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    You know why they have
    their eyes set on it?
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    Because they have
    an entire economic system
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    that's dependent
    on that oil -- foreign oil,
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    oil from other parts of the world
    that they don't own.
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    And what else do you think
    about these people?
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    The Americans, they're rich.
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    Come on, they live in big houses,
    they have big cars.
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    They all have blond hair,
    blue eyes. They're happy.
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    You think that. It's not true, of course,
    but that's the media impression.
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    And that's what you get.
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    And they have big cities,
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    and the cities are all dependent on oil.
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    And back home, what do you see?
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    Poverty, despair, struggle.
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    Look, you don't live in a wealthy country.
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    I mean -- this is Iraq.
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    This is what you see.
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    You see people struggling to get by.
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    It's not easy; you see a lot of poverty.
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    And you feel something about this.
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    These people have designs
    for your resource,
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    and this is what you see?
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    Something else you see
    that you talk about --
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    Americans don't talk
    about this, but you do --
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    there's this thing,
    this militarization of the world,
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    and it's centered
    right in the United States.
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    And the United States is responsible
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    for almost one half
    of the world's military spending.
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    Four percent of the world's population!
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    And you feel it; you see it every day.
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    It's part of your life.
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    And you talk about it with your friends.
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    You read about it.
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    And back when Saddam Hussein was in power,
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    the Americans didn't care
    about his crimes.
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    When he was gassing
    the Kurds and gassing Iran,
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    they didn't care about it.
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    When oil was at stake,
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    somehow, suddenly, things mattered.
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    And what you see, something else:
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    the United States,
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    the hub of democracy around the world --
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    they don't seem to really be supporting
    democratic countries
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    all around the world.
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    There are a lot of countries,
    oil-producing countries,
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    that aren't very democratic,
    but supported by the United States.
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    That's odd.
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    Oh -- these incursions, these two wars,
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    the 10 years of sanctions,
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    the eight years of occupation,
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    the insurgency that's been
    unleashed on your people,
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    the tens of thousands,
    the hundreds of thousands
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    of civilian deaths?
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    All because of oil.
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    You can't help but think that.
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    You talk about it.
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    It's in the forefront
    of your mind, always.
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    You say, "How is that possible?"
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    And this man, he's everyman --
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    your grandfather, your uncle,
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    your father, your son, your neighbor,
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    your professor, your student.
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    Once a life of happiness and joy
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    and suddenly, pain and sorrow.
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    Everyone in your country
    has been touched by the violence,
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    the bloodshed, the pain,
    the horror -- everybody.
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    Not a single person in your country
    has not been touched.
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    But there's something else.
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    There's something else about these people,
    these Americans who are there.
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    There's something else
    about them that you see
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    that they don't see themselves.
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    And what do you see? They're Christians!
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    They're Christians.
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    They worship the Christian God,
    they have crosses, they carry Bibles.
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    Their Bibles have a little insignia
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    that says "US Army" on them.
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    And their leaders, their leaders:
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    before they send their sons and daughters
    off to war in your country --
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    and you know the reason --
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    before they send them off,
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    they go to a Christian church,
    and they pray to their Christian God,
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    and they ask for protection
    and guidance from that god.
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    Why?
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    Well, obviously,
    when people die in the war,
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    they are Muslims, they are Iraqis --
    they're not Americans.
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    You don't want Americans to die --
    "Protect Our Troops."
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    And you feel something about that --
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    of course you do.
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    And they do wonderful things.
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    You read about it, you hear about it.
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    They're there to build schools
    and help people.
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    That's what they want to do.
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    They do wonderful things,
    but they also do the bad things,
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    and you can't tell the difference.
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    And this guy, you get a guy
    like Lt. Gen. William Boykin.
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    Here's a guy who says
    that your god is a false god.
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    Your god's an idol;
    his god is the true god.
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    The solution to the problem
    in the Middle East, according to him,
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    is to convert you all to Christianity --
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    just get rid of your religion.
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    And you know that.
    Americans don't read about this guy.
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    They don't know anything
    about him, but you do.
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    You pass it around.
    You pass his words around.
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    I mean, this is serious. You're afraid.
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    He was one of the leading commanders
    in the second invasion of Iraq.
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    And you're thinking,
    "My God, if this guy is saying that,
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    then all the soldiers
    must be saying that."
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    And this word here --
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    George Bush called this war a crusade.
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    Man, the Americans,
    they're just like, "Ah, crusade.
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    Whatever. I don't know what that means."
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    You know what it means --
    it's a holy war against Muslims.
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    Look, invade, subdue them,
    take their resources.
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    If they won't submit, kill them.
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    That's what this is about.
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    And you're thinking, "My God,
    these Christians are coming to kill us."
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    This is frightening.
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    You feel frightened.
    Of course you feel frightened.
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    And this man, Terry Jones:
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    I mean here's a guy
    who wants to burn Qurans, right?
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    And the Americans:
    "Ah, he's a knucklehead.
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    He's a former hotel manager; he's got
    three dozen members of his church ..."
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    They laugh him off.
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    You don't laugh him off,
    because in the context of everything else,
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    all the pieces fit.
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    Of course this is how Americans think.
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    So people all over the Middle East,
    not just in your country,
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    are protesting.
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    "He wants to burn Qurans, our holy book.
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    These Christians --
    who are these Christians?
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    They're so evil, they're so mean --
    this is what they're about?"
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    This is what you're thinking
    as an Arab Muslim,
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    as an Iraqi.
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    Of course you're going to think this.
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    And then your cousin says,
    "Hey coz, check out this website.
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    You've got to see this -- Bible Boot Camp.
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    These Christians are nuts!
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    They're training their little kids
    to be soldiers for Jesus.
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    They take little kids
    and run them through these things
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    till they teach them
    how to say, 'Sir! Yes, sir!'
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    and things like 'grenade toss'
    and 'weapons care and maintenance.'
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    And go to the website --
    it says 'US Army' right on it.
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    I mean, these Christians, they're nuts.
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    How can they do this
    to their little kids?"
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    And you're reading this website.
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    And of course, Christians
    in the United States, or anybody,
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    says, "This is some little church
    in the middle of nowhere."
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    You don't know that.
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    For you, this is like, all Christians.
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    It's all over the Web: "Bible Boot Camp."
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    And look at this.
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    They even teach their kids --
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    they train them in the same way
    the US Marines train.
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    Isn't that interesting.
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    And it scares you, and it frightens you.
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    So these guys, you see them.
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    You see, I, Sam Richards --
    I know who these guys are.
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    They're my students, my friends;
    I know what they're thinking.
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    You don't know.
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    When you see them, they're something else.
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    They're something else.
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    That's what they are to you.
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    We don't see it that way
    in the United States,
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    but you see it that way.
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    So here.
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    Of course, you've got it wrong.
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    You're generalizing. It's wrong.
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    You don't understand the Americans.
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    It's not a Christian invasion.
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    We're not just there for oil;
    we're there for lots of reasons.
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    You have it wrong. You've missed it.
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    And of course, most of you
    don't support the insurgency;
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    you don't support killing Americans;
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    you don't support the terrorists.
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    Of course you don't. Very few people do.
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    But -- some of you do.
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    And this is a perspective.
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    OK. So now, here's what we're going to do.
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    Step outside of your shoes
    that you're in right now,
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    and step back into your normal shoes.
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    So everyone's back in the room. OK?
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    Now here comes the radical experiment.
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    So we're all back home.
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    This photo: this woman --
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    man, I feel her.
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    I feel her.
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    She's my sister,
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    my wife, my cousin, my neighbor.
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    She's anybody to me.
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    These guys standing there,
    everybody in the photo --
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    I feel this photo, man.
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    So here's what I want you to do.
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    Let's go back to my first
    example, of the Chinese.
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    I want you to go there.
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    It's all about coal, and the Chinese
    are here in the United States.
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    What I want you to do is picture her
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    as a Chinese woman
    receiving a Chinese flag
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    because her loved one has died
    in America in the coal uprising.
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    And the soldiers are Chinese,
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    and everybody else is Chinese.
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    As an American, how do you feel
    about this picture?
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    What do you think about that scene?
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    OK, try this. Bring it back.
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    This is the scene here.
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    It's an American, American soldiers,
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    American woman who lost
    her loved one in the Middle East,
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    in Iraq or Afghanistan.
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    Now, put yourself in the shoes,
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    go back to the shoes
    of an Arab Muslim living in Iraq.
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    What are you feeling and thinking
    about this photo,
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    about this woman?
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    OK,
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    now follow me on this,
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    because I'm taking a big risk here.
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    And so I'm going to invite you
    to take a risk with me.
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    These gentlemen here, they're insurgents.
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    They were caught by the American soldiers,
    trying to kill Americans.
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    And maybe they succeeded.
    Maybe they succeeded.
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    Put yourself in the shoes
    of the Americans who caught them.
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    Can you feel the rage?
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    Can you feel that you just want
    to take these guys
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    and wring their necks?
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    Can you go there?
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    It shouldn't be that difficult.
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    You just -- oh, man.
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    Now, put yourself in their shoes.
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    Are they brutal killers
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    or patriotic defenders?
  • 14:57 - 14:58
    Which one?
  • 14:58 - 15:02
    Can you feel their anger,
  • 15:02 - 15:03
    their fear,
  • 15:03 - 15:05
    their rage
  • 15:06 - 15:08
    at what has happened in their country?
  • 15:08 - 15:12
    Can you imagine that maybe
    one of them, in the morning,
  • 15:12 - 15:16
    bent down to their child
    and hugged their child
  • 15:16 - 15:20
    and said, "Dear, I'll be back later.
  • 15:20 - 15:23
    I'm going out to defend
    your freedom, your lives.
  • 15:23 - 15:25
    I'm going out to look out for us,
  • 15:26 - 15:28
    the future of our country."
  • 15:29 - 15:30
    Can you imagine that?
  • 15:30 - 15:32
    Can you imagine saying that?
  • 15:33 - 15:35
    Can you go there?
  • 15:38 - 15:39
    What do you think they're feeling?
  • 15:48 - 15:49
    You see, that's empathy.
  • 15:50 - 15:51
    It's also understanding.
  • 15:51 - 15:53
    [understand]
  • 15:53 - 15:54
    Now, you might ask,
  • 15:54 - 15:58
    "OK, Sam, so why do you
    do this sort of thing?
  • 15:58 - 16:00
    Why would you use
    this example of all examples?"
  • 16:00 - 16:03
    And I say, because.
  • 16:03 - 16:05
    You're allowed to hate these people.
  • 16:05 - 16:10
    You're allowed to just hate them
    with every fiber of your being.
  • 16:10 - 16:13
    And if I can get you
    to step into their shoes
  • 16:14 - 16:17
    and walk an inch -- one tiny inch --
  • 16:18 - 16:21
    then imagine the kind
    of sociological analysis
  • 16:21 - 16:24
    that you can do in all other
    aspects of your life.
  • 16:25 - 16:27
    You can walk a mile
  • 16:27 - 16:32
    when it comes to understanding why
    that person's driving 40 miles per hour
  • 16:32 - 16:33
    in the passing lane;
  • 16:34 - 16:36
    or your teenage son;
  • 16:36 - 16:40
    or your neighbor who annoys you
    by cutting his lawn on Sunday mornings.
  • 16:40 - 16:43
    Whatever it is, you can go so far.
  • 16:44 - 16:46
    And this is what I tell my students:
  • 16:46 - 16:49
    step outside of your tiny, little world.
  • 16:49 - 16:54
    Step inside of the tiny,
    little world of somebody else.
  • 16:54 - 16:55
    And then do it again
  • 16:55 - 16:57
    and do it again and do it again.
  • 16:57 - 16:59
    And suddenly, all these tiny,
    little worlds,
  • 16:59 - 17:01
    they come together in this complex web.
  • 17:01 - 17:05
    And they build a big, complex world.
  • 17:05 - 17:07
    And suddenly, without realizing it,
  • 17:07 - 17:09
    you're seeing the world differently.
  • 17:09 - 17:11
    Everything has changed.
  • 17:11 - 17:13
    Everything in your life has changed.
  • 17:14 - 17:17
    And that's, of course, what this is about.
  • 17:17 - 17:20
    Attend to other lives,
  • 17:20 - 17:21
    other visions.
  • 17:21 - 17:24
    Listen to other people,
  • 17:24 - 17:26
    enlighten ourselves.
  • 17:27 - 17:30
    I'm not saying that I support
    the terrorists in Iraq.
  • 17:31 - 17:34
    But as a sociologist, what I am saying is:
  • 17:35 - 17:37
    I understand.
  • 17:39 - 17:43
    And now perhaps -- perhaps -- you do, too.
  • 17:43 - 17:44
    Thank you.
  • 17:44 - 17:47
    (Applause)
Title:
A radical experiment in empathy
Speaker:
Sam Richards
Description:

By leading the Americans in his audience at TEDxPSU 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?

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
17:47
  • The English transcript was updated on 3/2/2017. The word "[understand]" (on-screen text) was added at 15:51.

English subtitles

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