On Events, Empathy, and Alliterations
As we gather again, we realize what we missed most is feeling together.
by Tim Leberecht
First things first: the annual gathering of the House of Beautiful Business will return this fall, in Lisbon (“the capital of beautiful business”) and around the world, for five glorious days of CONCRETE LOVE. Please save these dates: Thursday, October 28 — Monday, November 1, 2021 and go to concretelove.house for details on everything there is to know at this point: the program, the themes we want to discuss with you, and the amazing contributors who have confirmed so far.
We realize the privilege of plotting an in-person gathering at this point in time, and clearly, it will not be meeting-as-usual. The question we’re asking ourselves is this:
What do we expect from an event after all these un-eventful eventful months of Zoom fatigue and “skin hunger”?
My mini focus group of friends was pretty clear — and alliterative — in their answers: “Life.” — “Lust.” — “Light.” — Laughter.” — Leisure.” — “Lightness.” — “Levity.” — “Loudness.” And of course: “Love.” The alliteration of “L”s, it struck me, was no coincidence. After all the harshness of COVID and corona, “L” sounds like a liberation indeed. We form it with our tongue. Love doesn’t get more concrete than that.
Our tongue is not the only muscle that needs some practice as we attempt to reintegrate into society. “Our social muscles have atrophied,” the facilitator Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, observes.
That’s certainly the case for many of us, but at the same time, strolling through the crowded sun-kissed streets of Berlin this weekend made me wonder if the new social awkwardness will quickly make way for a new hedonism, but one perhaps more conscious of what it chooses to overlook. Denial is human.
Never be alone again
In the concert halls, football stadiums, theaters, and conference centers this summer and fall, we’ll arrive, inevitably, with baggage — heavy hearts and minds. We are craving light touches. We want the beach in the city, a room full of strangers, and empty warehouses filled with dance; we want to be foolish and exuberant again, and at the same time somehow treasure the lessons we’ve learned, mindful of the legacy of COVID. Now that we have seen the cracks, we cannot unsee them. Now that we have been part of this massive social experiment, we want a new stability of self — one that frees us to be whoever we want. Now that we have learned how to be alone, we don’t want to be alone.
And so we gather again.
And know that it is absurd. For some of us in Western countries, the worst of the pandemic might lie behind us, but that is not the case for most of humanity. “Vaccine apartheid,” as the WHO and others call it, is real: less than eight per cent of the world’s population had received a dose of a vaccine by early May, and the Open Society Foundation estimates that the world’s poorest countries may not be able to vaccinate their populations until 2023. After a brief sense of connectedness and solidarity at the beginning of the pandemic, we’re back to “remaining true to form,” as Gregg Gonsalves, associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health, told The New Yorker.
The empathy app — that’s us.
Whether we will ever fully overcome the pandemic is thus not only a question of science, but a question of ethics and empathy. Citing various studies showing a decline in compassionate behavior and deeper friendships, clinical psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, believes we suffer from an “empathy deficit.” This deficit widens when we use technology to replace human social interaction, with sociable robots or mobile apps and the likes. Whenever we use technology to solve a problem that technology created, she argues, we aggravate the problem — because, ultimately, the empathy app, that’s us.
In a previous book Turkle demanded we “reclaim conversation” as the quintessential human empathy device. And in her new memoir, The Empathy Diaries, she reveals how she learned at age 27 that her estranged father, a scientist, had conducted psychological experiments on her when she was a child. She then later married a scientist who, like her father, was equally obsessed with scientific insights, to the neglect of his relationships, including his marriage. These personal life experiences impressed on her that technology, as the spearhead of scientific rationality, always ends up objectifying human beings. Empathy can never be a “program,” she insists, it is a distinctively human quality. “Empathy requires vulnerability…and it’s our capacity to be vulnerable that makes us human.”
A new desire for romance
One of the many beautiful things about meeting in person is that it helps us build empathy. Without a screen separating us, our mutual otherness is more obvious and immediate. We may not feel strongly for or with another person we encounter face-to-face, but feel we do. This feel-more factor is the foundation of empathy. The aforementioned pent-up “skin hunger” is not just a libidinous impulse, it is the desire for an emotional intimacy that can only occur through physical closeness and experiences that disrupt routine, expectation, or convention, or ideally all of the above. Struggling through to the end of the pandemic, we want to be touched again, not by algorithms serving and fabricating desires we are predicted to have, but by real emotions.
A similar sentiment was the spark for my first book, The Business Romantic, that aimed to bring the tropes of Romanticism to this “new age of disenchantment,” which I described as caused by the quantification, datafication, and automation of everything, even our relationships and interior lives. In its stance against the regime of “objectivity” and “optimization,” The Business Romantic is very aligned with Turkle’s argument (and I feel honored to interview her about “empathy and ethics in the workplace” at the CogX festival on June 15).
It is striking to me how, connecting our newly treasured inner lives with an insatiable desire for expressing and embracing the external world in its fullest, the Romantic’s view on life, at this moment we’re in, provides once again a viable alternative to back-to-basics economism and the reductionist technocracy. Romantics are Maximalists, at the risk of excess. I reckon most of us are Romantics now: we want to feel, play, live more, and if our life should shrink back to the size of a policy, process, cubicle, spreadsheet, or tracking app, we will not return to work.
Events are the real “empathy machines”
When we hosted the first House of Beautiful Business gathering in 2017 in an old guild hall in Barcelona, our spirit was similarly rebellious and our ambition fittingly oversized. Our goal was to create nothing less than the world’s most Romantic business conference, dwelling in whimsy, opacity, and half-tones, and inviting business people to be vulnerable enough to appreciate ideas and feelings that we hoped were bleeding-edge.
And while the House has meanwhile become a vibrant year-long community, this original desire of ours hasn’t changed: the main reason we bring together people from all over the world is because we want them to feel something together, for a few precious and beautiful moments at least.
In that sense, events are the real “empathy machines,” especially if they are theatrical, full-on immersive, alone-together affairs. They change us the way Walt Whitman put it in Song of Myself: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
“An event is the effect that seems to exceed its causes — and the space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its causes,” the philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes. And further: “An event is something shocking, out of joint, that appears to happen all of a sudden and interrupts the usual flow of things; something that emerges seemingly out of nowhere, without discernible causes, an appearance without solid being as its foundation.”
(Concrete) Love is such an event. It will happen.
This article first appeared in the Journal of Beautiful Business.