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What Can You Learn from a Celebrity Masterclass on Empathy?

Each online course from Masterclass begins with the same introduction. Heels click purposefully into a room. A piano lid is confidently opened, a marble slab floured, a knife honed. Lighting pools warmly amid expensive-looking wood. Swells of music coalesce into momentary silence; something of quality is about to start.

The instructors in this nave of learning have unequivocally made it in their fields. Margaret Atwood speaks on writing, Frank Gehry on design and architecture, Misty Copeland on ballet. If you want to learn about acting, here is Samuel L. Jackson; if you’re interested in directing, here is Ron Howard. Lately the topics have also edged into softer territory, bathing everyday challenges in celebrity wisdom. Some feel like unboxing videos for admirable personality traits. Anna Wintour had a lockdown hit with a course on “creativity and leadership.” RuPaul’s, on “self-expression and authenticity,” touches on the craft of drag but mostly focuses on concepts like conquering your inner naysayer and cultivating stillness.

Into this mix comes Pharrell Williams, pop star, producer, designer, reality-TV judge, guy with a skin-care line. In the first frames of his new course, he slides into a chair dressed in knee-shorts and a shrunken schoolboy blazer, as if to sartorially convey that every student is a teacher. His skin is amazing, his head chiseled into gorgeousness, his gaze unswerving, as if blinking were for the less focused. He is not here to teach us hitmaking, or streetwear design, or even multitasking. He’s here to give a class on empathy.

“I think empathy is the most important thing,” he says. “It’s not a natural thing to just literally think of others all the time. It’s just not. You constantly have to challenge yourself to be a little bit more open to what other people are going through.” With that, we’re full steam into a seriously weird offering of 21st-century moral instruction, or self-help, or celebrity branding, or whatever this edutainment golem is — 10 segments in which the pop star will show us how to become more boundlessly compassionate humans.

For this job, he has been teamed with a brain trust that includes Cornel West, Roxane Gay, Walter Mosley and Gloria Steinem, among others. All the guests also teach their own, more specific Masterclasses; judging by the wardrobe, they seem to have taken time in their own class shoots to drop some off-the-cuff wisdom on what Williams calls “the art and sport of considering others.” The result feels like a compilation of commodified theory of mind, generously spiked with images of pride flags, Black Lives Matter placards and people in kaffiyehs smiling warmly.

Empathy has had a hot ride in America lately. The word saw a nearly fivefold increase as a Google search between the first inauguration of Barack Obama — who defined empathy as being able to “stand in someone else’s shoes” and famously talked of America’s “empathy deficit” — and the summer of 2020, when interest spiked to an all-time high. Now C.E.O.s are being encouraged by organizational psychologists and consultants to cast themselves as “Chief Empathy Officers,” in an attempt to reimagine their offices as places workers might actually desire to return to. The concept seems to have become a cure for any societal ill. A recent HealthDay headline asked, “How to Counter the Anti-Mask Backlash?” and then answered with, you guessed it, “Empathy.” The word has expanded in such fascinating directions that there is a Damien Hirst-designed “Empathy Suite Sky Villa” at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas — the most expensive hotel room in the world, featuring formaldehyde-preserved sea animals and a transparent bar filled with medical waste.

Such concepts don’t float through popular culture at random. They come when they are needed most. Interest in mindfulness, for instance, grew as the popularization of the smartphone fractured our focus. Similarly, the rapid rise of empathy — at least as a word you might see inscribed on a river-rock keychain or kitchen poster — paralleled the bifurcations of the Trump presidency. It’s as if the word spent the era expanding into a mantra of secular transcendence, some spirit of better angel, containing all that is good and bonding and human.

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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