I was leaving a comment on a blog post by my friend Nance, Mature Landscaping, when I realized that my comment was getting a bit long. Thanks, Nance for the inspiration for my own post.
I don't recall when it was that I first realized that there was a lot of meanness in the world. I do know that by the time that I read The Diary of Anne Frank, that I suspected that she was wrong, and that people were not really good at heart. I think that I was 12 years old when I first read Anne's diary.
Sometime during my twenties, I became absolutely certain that people are not essentially good at heart. I don't think that I'm a cynic, just a realist, and it's a realism born of experience.
Neither do I believe that we are essentially evil. I think that we are neutral until we choose to act on the specifics of our experiences and/or circumstances. Life is all about choices yet far too many of us consistently make those choices based on misinformation, prejudicial beliefs, and self-interests.
I think that we confuse aging with maturity, and make the fallacious assumption that empathy is an innate quality that develops as we mature. As children, we are all motivated by self-interests, by instant gratification. Small children are adorable but they are also inadvertently cruel in their actions. If you don't believe me, spend some time with a group of two-year-olds. Each wants whatever he or she wants when they want it. There's crying, biting, a blow here and there, and a lot of run by toy snatching. As we age, left unchecked, those desires continue to predominate. Empathy has to be taught and it has to be taught by example.
Empathy--the ability to identify with others, to put yourself in their shoes--is the most powerful force for good in the world; sadly, it is the emotion most lacking in so many of us. We're taught not to hit and to share our toys, but most of those lessons are narrowly applied to our immediate circumstances and we never learn to adopt the empathy model as defining our world view.
Listen to the tea partiers, they are obsessed with making certain that undeserving people do not receive a free ride. Who's undeserving? Anyone whom they deem to be so. Of course, that translates into anyone who doesn't look like them, or who speaks with a foreign accent. A free ride includes basic necessities like medical care. One of the biggest objections to the Health Care Reform Act was the belief that illegal immigrants would receive free health care at taxpayers expense. Even the terminology indicates the distancing from any identification with the perceived "other." Typically, the language refers to illegal "aliens," not people but creatures from another planet, inherently different and dangerous.
The recent anti-immigrant law passed in Arizona is further progeny of the empathy deficit. Angry supporters of the law insist that it is fair, secure in the knowledge that they will not be the ones stopped and challenged as to their legal right to be here. In their minds, the fallout from this law is not their problem.
The slide from disinterest in the well being of others into outright evil is accelerated by the fear mongers that appear in every generation. The Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs who nurture the fear and feed the hate. These people make conscious choices to ramp things up, to stir up a frenzy among the masses. They are not unique; history is full of these depraved folks who for profit and egoism disseminate malicious lies and half-truths designed to fuel the anger of those who believe that they have an entitlement that separates them from those they have designated as other.
I don't believe that there is some essential goodness in humankind that will simply win out. I'm not a total pessimist; to the contrary, I think that we have the ability to teach people to make more humane, informed choices. However, it means that we have to continually reiterate the need for change. We can't simply live locally and hope that the global issues will resolve if we build a sense of local community. Humankind is interconnected and we are global, regardless of what we may want to be. I understand the desire to withdraw from the larger world and to focus on one's community, but we do not live in isolation. There are no walls that can be built that are high enough to keep out the rest of the troubled world. Our local community is global.