“Lots of soldiers are social workers with guns”: And other highlights from our chat with Sam Richards

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Quote from Sam Richards QA

Sam Richards, whose “Radical Experiment in Empathy” prompted a lively conversation all last week, sat in on TED Conversations today for two hours to answer questions about how to find empathy for people unlike us, and how we might prejudge someone — even a TED speaker … The conversation was thoughtful, honest and deeply optimistic. Thanks to all who took part! Check out some highlights below, and if you’re inspired to, feel free to post a new question — Richards will be checking back in to keep the conversation going.

Sam started the chat by asking “How does the presenter impact the reaction to a talk? So how might people’s reactions to my talk be different if I was retired military?”:

Bob Sampron: Sam, I think the way you phrased the question points to the role of irony in a presentation. When retired military talks about empathy, it’s similar rhetorically to an executioner calling for an end to the death penalty. A passivist is expected to advocate for empathy. A person who makes war his profession is not. Because the opinion is unexpected, it gives the remarks a special relevance in the audience’s mind. Whether it should or not is another story. Move

Sam Richards: I’m sure many people will disagree with my depiction of some soldiers as “social workers with guns,” but this is what I see so often. in fact, honestly, I teach many, many vets and ROTC cadets and have had close friends and family members from the military and I see again and again that people want to do good and often join the military to do good. “I wanted to stop the genocide in Somalia,” is what one student recently told me. This isn’t all people, of course, and trust me when I say that I’m totally aware of that. But I see soldiers with kind and soft hearts again and again.


Sam Richards: Most people who have reacted negatively to this talk have said one of two things: 1. I’m a nutcase anti-American liberal academic (or some version of that :-) or, 2. This is elementary thinking — that the talk is meaningless because nobody should find themselves incapable of empathizing with Iraqis. Any thoughts on the second critique?

Laurie Mulvey: In answer to #2, Empathy (like other “soft skills” such as listening) seems like something we all do naturally and easily. My experience doing conflict resolution work for the past 15-20 years is that these are profoundly difficult things to do (and to even know how to do) in the moments when it’s most necessary. And that’s exactly why #1 occurred so often in response to your talk.


Mark Meijer: Empathizing is easy. Empathizing when it matters is hard. There is such a thing as an amygdala hijack, which basically means that whenever we are overwhelmed by the emotional urge to react to something imminent, everything else goes right out the window. This includes reason and empathy. And one might be surprised how often this occurs.

Sam Richards: I like how you write “empathizing when it matters” here. Yes, like in our day-to-day lives — with our friends and spouses and children and parents. How is it so easy to feel empathy toward someone across the world from me and yet I have a difficult time feeling it with my neighbor?


Debra Smith: I first saw you on TEDX youtube and I brought up your talk in two separate threads on TED conversations before you were a speaker on this site. One thread asked for great talks that no one had seen yet. I share that to indicate that I had absolutely no information about you or your expertise before I watched your talk for the first time. I was attracted by the title of the talk and I found your presentation to be compelling and persuasive. You do have a natural charisma but I feel that I evaluated it and loved the talk based on the merits of what you were saying. It was courageous and I thought quite controversial to take such a stance in the climate of the USA today. In hindsight, I would have been more shocked and impressed if you had been retired military because I would have surmised that you had a spirit of independent thought that had survived the indoctrination of the armed forces. Move

Sam Richards: So you simply went into the talk with an open mind and walked away with something from within that “open environment” that you created. Very cool.