The life expectancy of one community is 83 years. The life expectancy of another is ten years less. One community has high levels of educational attainment, subsequently high incomes and no child poverty. Another has a high percentage of adults without qualifications, low incomes and high rates of child poverty.
You would imagine that I was talking about global inequality – Europe vs Africa say. But I’m talking about a place where rich and poor live much closer together. So close, in fact, that the better off community built a wall to segregate itself from the more deprived community, and urged teachers to keep their children separate in school.
So maybe it’s somewhere like Palestine? Or perhaps apartheid South Africa? Actually, it’s my own home town of Oxford. Lovely, leafy, Labour-dominated Oxford. Ah, but yes… Oxford, suddenly we remember when the dreaming spires echoed with the sound of screaming tyres. The Oxford Haves still shudder at the mention of Blackbird Leys and assume that the comparatively low life expectancy there is because they are all murdering one other, high on crack cocaine, rather than because of a web of social and economic factors – including low income and low educational attainment – each of which exacerbates the other. With demise of the car industry and the prevalence of high brow jobs in Oxford, people are trapped in this web. On the other hand they have a much stronger sense of community and identity, than most of the Have neighbourhoods. And just like the Haves they are mostly just families getting on with their lives, bringing up their kids, enjoying the odd evening in the pub, and hoping to grow old peacefully and comfortably. It is even the home of an award-winning choir.
Late one night recently, at a Cowley Road bus stop – one of the areas of Oxford where the Haves and the Have Nots live cheek by jowl, a thin young woman came up to me and said in lilting Irish traveler tones, “Excuse me, miss.” I waited for the inevitable request for spare change to get to the night shelter. But instead she said “Can I interest you in a poem?” Pleasantly surprised, I said I would love one and she sat herself down beside me on the wall, opened an exercise book and read out loud, in clear, measured, confident voice, what turned out to be a pretty good poem about the Easter story. I felt it was well worth the two quid I paid her. She immediately crossed the road to the chip shop, with head held high.
Maybe she knew that a fellow traveller on the rather arty Cowley road was likely to be a fellow poetry enthusiast. Whatever the reason, by reading me her poetry she made me empathise with her rather than feel sympathy for her. Sympathy is an emotion which, when acted upon, provides a warm glow of satisfaction for the person feeling it, but can be demeaning for the person who is forced, through lack of alternatives, to receive it. While empathy implies a level of understanding, of identifying with their predicament. Sympathy is something you do to someone. Empathy is something you do with them.
Donating to charity, for example, is prompted by sympathy, and most donors expect to be thanked (and even admired) for their generosity. But buying fair trade is motivated by empathy and buyers presumably do not expect gratitude for paying the fair price for their purchase.
Oxford’s Cutteslowe wall demonstrates that even if their immediate neighbours are Have Nots, Haves may not be moved to feel empathy for them. How much more difficult, then, for them to feel it for people on the other side of the world. Thankfully, increasing numbers of people are choosing fair trade – so many that fair trade sales are bucking the depressing trend of the rest of the retail sector. So maybe there is hope that instead of Haves and Have Nots, we will all become Have A Bit Mores and Have A Bit Less But Enough.