Walk A Mile, Inc. Bespoke Empathy Tours is a satirical tour agency that packages empathy into a consumable product.
Together with Ava Burke, I created this piece in response to the troubling trend of using "empathy" as self-aggrandizement. We believe this actually derails important conversations about the complex issues facing our world. To be clear, we do not condone or support the views and tourism packages described on the Walk A Mile site. It is not a real business. It is a critical design piece.
“This is the grand fiction of tourism, that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it. It's a quick fix of empathy.”
–Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
“Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.”
–Paul Bloom, “Against Empathy”
The idea that the experiences of others must be seen for yourself, or, best of all, experienced for yourself, in order to be legitimate and valid is at the center of the concept for Walk A Mile. This version of empathy is troublesome, as it carries with it deep-seated privilege and notions of superiority and condescension.
From Gwyneth Paltrow's food stamp challenge to the LA Gang Tours to luxury package tours fetishizing the "real people" of foreign countries, as well as the popular notion of voluntourism, examples of this shallow, appropriation-based empathy are prevalent these days. Ava and I created Walk A Mile to critique this trend and challenge people to think harder about their assumptions regarding empathy and the validity of others' experiences.
As chief illustrator and co-web designer, I worked with Ava Burke through ideation and conceptualization of each aspect of our fictional tourism business. Ava took the lead on copy writing, as she is a brilliant wordsmith and talented writer, along with her co-web design responsibilities.
Everything in the icon is carefully designed. First, I researched "hipster" logo shapes, and immediately connected the shield shape with the idea of the Savior – a complex associated with the idea of volunteer tourism. The crossed arrow motif at the top is another reference to this, as well as the anatomical heart and modern map pin – empathy and feelings are location-based in the world of Walk A Mile, Inc. The popular Toms shoes feed into the savior idea, too. Their premise is "buy a pair, give a pair" – without any thought to the cobblers and shoe-makers they might be putting out of business.
The icon style is a playful take on the hipster notion of adventure and facial hair – a rosy view of traveling the world that is capitalized on by the consumer-centric tourism company we built.
Each level of tour package – carefully timed to fit into your already busy life – has several options for consumable empathy. From homelessness – weather permitting – to stop-and-frisk police arrest – even a fully stocked life-like jail experience! – to Native American reservation travel destinations, all are meticulously planned for the consumer's benefit and experience.
The rhetoric, style, and tone are inspired by the real-life tourism and volunteer sites, as well as the prevalence of try-it-to-believe-it experiments done by celebrities and others. It caters to the idea of empathy performance over reflection and true feeling for others.