Sunday, May 30, 2010

Empathy, Community, and the Nature of Evil

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.


dmappin said...

Yes, but we must never give in or give up. Evil people only wins when we lay down and let them have their way.

Mark said...

Obviously, we're on the same page, as usual. Down to every crossed t and dotted i.
I also have come to believe that trying to determine whether people are inherently "good" or "evil" is not a useful question. The answer is too easily influenced by what we want to believe as we seek to explain the pain in the world. More helpful, at least to me, is the simple recognition that
we are animals. Highly evolved animals, but animals. All animals are genetically programmed to survive, and for the overwhelming majority, this involves a level of aggression. Usually it's around getting food, but often around mating as well.
Not only do humans have the agressive impulse in spades, but the best at violence are most likely to pass down their genes. How ironic. In the impulse to do anything to survive, we have evolved to the point of perhaps guaranteeing our mass destruction.

mrs. miss alaineus said...

the mentality of the two-year old in the playroom has transformed into a mindset that says 'f them if it aint me'.

i dont know how or why it got to be like this. i know it has to change and when i work with my kids to try to get them to see that giving of themselves for the benefit of others is the greater good they look at me like i'm nuts because they dont want the greater good- they want the quick fix and the easy money and the cheat codes to succeed at life.


Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

I find that we are paying attention to the loudest and angriest. Our ability to have patience and reason out problems is disappearing. So many people are about the quick fix, no skin in the game for them, and not in my backyard. I fear it will bet worse before we slowly claw our way back to some sense of normality.

Cathy said...

Think global, act local - that's how I feel, I can't change Alabama but I can change Mr. Granger's fear-based ideas about Islam. And I'm glad to see you stressed that empathy is something learned, not a born trait or instinctual. It has to be taught, usually before age 6, or a conscience just doesn't develop. As for being neutral, I'm not sure: we all have these ever-changing, developing opinions and feelings that put us in one area or the other - I can't think of anyone who is truly on the fence, or neutral as you say, until forced to act on an issue. I think open-minded folks have to take a moment and realize the hate and fear mongers are frightened and unsure, and what better way to make their point than to undermine another. Without being too optimistic, I still say the better angels of our humanity will win out, if for no other reason than we will see that they do. There are more lovers than haters. More knowledgeable people than ignorant scared fools. Hate begets war, which begets death. Perhaps when we've exhausted our need to butcher each other we'll see clearly enough to build what will be left of this planet and its fewer inhabitants into the kind of society we're so worthy of.

Nance said...

With you 100%. Within the space of two generations, we've moved from local to global and there's no going least, not to the innocence of that bygone localism.

Our new local will come about because of greatly reduced mobility as we withdraw from our fossil fuel jones, ration ourselves at last, and work on developing our alternative energy sources. I think, with McKibben, that we will remain digitally global all the while and that we'll grow that dimension as far as we can, so that we'll be able to act in concert. And that's the most optimistic future I can imagine. It lets me sleep at night.

Thank you for the shout-out! I always perk up for a new post from you.

Sybil said...

What you have written as always is so true Sheria, I can only pray the before humankind does press the destruct button on itself that common sense comes to the fore. Oh if only everyone would learn to LOVE ONE ANOTHER in the true sense what a wonderful world we would have.
Love Sybil x