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What Can You Learn from a Celebrity Masterclass on Empathy?

Williams is one of many celebrities to have jumped into this cultural current. Back in the early 2000s, he started a streetwear label called Billionaire Boys Club, a name shared with a notorious 1980s Ponzi scheme; in 2013, he co-wrote the Robin Thicke hit “Blurred Lines,” which was criticized by feminists for its “rapiness.” Now he sells goods under the brand name Humanrace, “in the belief that taking better care of ourselves can teach us to take better care of each other,” and talks about having his “mind opened up” by reactions to the Thicke song and realizing “how it could make someone feel.” From a branding perspective, his Masterclass makes perfect sense.

But from most other perspectives, it’s a strange offering. For one thing, its takeaway tends to be disappointingly self-serving. In his second lesson, Williams describes how his solo hit “Happy” made him a less selfish person — because he’d made a song that made others genuinely happy, and then watched as it became hugely successful. Gloria Steinem talks about starting Ms. Magazine as an act of empathy. The ultramarathon runner and Peloton executive Robin Arzón tells of a sudden diabetes diagnosis that did not stop her from running an important race, and how this inspired other diabetics. Much of what’s described seems to climax with personal achievement, rather than anything having to do with others.

Self-actualization is, of course, different from empathy. And while some forms of empathy are surely teachable — there are books, meditations, soup kitchens, hospices and family members that offer great opportunities for empathetic practice — it feels very unlikely that watching impressive people talk about their lives is going to do it. The selling point here seems to be more about comfort and validation. The course is as cozy as reading a picture book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg to a child at bedtime, as righteous as planting an “IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL” sign on an upscale suburban lawn overlooked by security cameras. It presents a cast of thoughtful, optimistic, largely Black and brown figures patting their assembled audience on the back, in effect assuring them that, yes, they are on the right side of history, part of the solution, just for paying to be there.

Perhaps the course could be a gateway to action for some, in the same way that watching a baking show might make them hungry for cake. But mainly, what this Masterclass offers is a chance to feel nearer to the people whose shoes we’d already love to be standing in. It has less to say about any of the shoes that might be tougher to imagine walking in, the ones that actually need filling.

Source photographs: Screen grabs from Masterclass

Mireille Silcoff is a writer based in Montreal. A longtime newspaper and magazine columnist, she is also the author of four books, most recently the story collection “Chez l’Arabe.”

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