Daily Archives: February 8, 2010

How Long Has This Been Going On?

Professor Flostre will see you now.

“In the past two weeks, President Obama has made an unprecedented plea for civility in public discourse. Washington insiders say they can’t ever recall a period in American public life as full of anger and polarization as now. TV and radio talk show hosts, in particular, have fanned the flames of hatred with occasional outrageous personal attacks on public figures and advocates of policy agendas with which they disagree. If we continue along this toxic road, it could lead to unfathomable damage to the American psyche. The question is “Why is The United States becoming so uncivil”?

Well seeing that this country was founded on rape, theft and genocide on the grandest scale imaginable it’s a wonder we’re not worse than we were.

Still in the world of “public discourse” a whole cast of egregious characters have of late found new ways to foul the air.

“When we talk about civility, we are really talking about empathy: the willingness to listen to another’s point of view, to put one’s self in another’s shoes and to emotionally and cognitively experience what they are feeling and thinking. To civilize is to empathize.
Below all of the fiery rhetoric and finger pointing, the acid comments and degrading personal attacks, is a deep-seated fear and mistrust of the “the other”- in other words, a lack of empathy.”

Cue Cariibou Barbie

“My sense is that the fear that is spreading like a wild fire across America is due, in large part, to a seismic shift occurring in our thinking about the most cherished values of American life: our notions of freedom, equality, and democracy. In other words, what we are really discussing- underneath the surface of the political and ideological debates- are our beliefs about the basic drives and aspirations of human beings.”

There are upsides to these seismic shifts. Consider this animated film by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

“To be vulnerable is to trust one’s fellow human beings. Trust is the belief that others will treat you as an end not as a means, that you will not be used or manipulated to serve the expedient motives of others but regarded as a valued being. When one is treated by others as an end, not as a means, one becomes truly free. One can’t really be free in a world where everyone mistrusts each other. In such a world, freedom is immediately reduced to a negative, the ability to close oneself off from others and be an island unto oneself. Authoritarian societies that promote paranoia and mistrust and pit each against the other, squash the spirit of freedom.”

On the other hand…

“The idea of freedom has also historically gone in tandem with the idea of equality. The American and French revolutionaries viewed the two ideas as inextricably linked. They became the alpha and omega of the New Order of the Ages. Equality, in the rationalist mode, is a calculable legal phenomenon. Laws are enacted to guarantee political sovereignty, individual civil rights, and market access.”

Cue Alice Rosenbaum.

“The empathic philosophers define equality more in psychological terms. They ask how one comes to think of others as equal to themselves and vice versa. They view empathetic extension as the great leveler, the force that breaks down the myriad forms of status and distinctions that separate people into subjects and objects. They remind us that as long as equality is narrowly measured in material terms–the opportunity to succeed in the marketplace, even if it’s by merit rather than by hereditary claims–the end result will always be defined in terms of “mine” versus “thine.” Wealth and professional and academic distinctions will continue to create status distinctions and divide one from another.”

Cue Cole Porter and Chuck Walters.

“Empathic extension is the only human expression that creates true equality between people. When one empathizes with another, distinctions begin to melt away. The very act of identifying with another’s struggle as if it were one’s own is the ultimate expression of a sense of equality. One can’t really empathize unless one’s being is on the same emotional plane as another. If someone feels superior or inferior in status to another and therefore different and alien, it becomes difficult to experience their plight or joy as one’s own. One might feel sympathetic to others or feel sorry for them or take pity on them, but to experience real empathy for another requires feeling and responding “as if ” you “are” that person.”

Well that’s what Jo (Audrey Hepburn) came to Paris to find out about: Empathicalism. Not just to “feel sympathy” for other people but to “put yourself in the other person’s place. Naturally this led to her becoming a fashion model.

“That doesn’t mean that empathetic moments erase status and distinctions. It only means that in the moment one extends the empathic embrace, the other social barriers–wealth, education, and professional status–are temporarily suspended in the act of experiencing, comforting, and supporting another’s struggle as if their life were one’s own. The feeling of equality being expressed is not about equal legal rights or economic entitlements but the idea that another being is just like us in being unique and mortal and deserving of the right to prosper.”

Cue Henri Laborit and Alain Resnais.

“Status hierarchies are, of course, designed to create inequalities. Status is about rankings and the claiming of authority over others. Every society establishes various boundaries of exclusion. A highly stratified society generally is low on empathetic consciousness because such societies are segmented between so many status categories that the ability to empathize beyond one’s own group, both up and down the hierarchy, is limited.
The ability to recognize oneself in the other and the other in oneself is a deeply democratizing experience. Empathy is the soul of democracy. It is an acknowledgment that each life is unique, unalienable, and deserving of equal consideration in the public square. The evolution of empathy and the evolution of democracy have gone hand in hand throughout history. The more empathic the culture, the more democratic its values and governing institutions. The less empathic the culture, the more totalitarian its values and governing institutions. While apparent, it’s strange how little attention has been paid to the inextricable relationship between empathic extension and democratic expansion in the study of history and evolution of governance.”

Cue Roberto Rossellini

“Reimagining freedom, equality, and democracy from an empathic perspective has far-ranging consequences for the kind of society that we choose to live in. We would need to rethink our parenting styles, educational systems, business practices and, even governance itself to reflect our empathic nature. This would constitute nothing less than a cultural revolution.”

Or maybe just a revolution revolution.

“No one would deny that there is merit to our long-standing ideas about freedom, equality and democracy-especially the notions of personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, and the protection of basic economic and political rights. Still, it’s hard to deny the fact that a younger generation is beginning to broaden and deepen its sense of freedom, equality and democracy in an increasingly interconnected, interdependent and collaborative world.
That doesn’t mean that empathetic moments erase status and distinctions. It only means that in the moment one extends the empathic embrace, the other social barriers–wealth, education, and professional status–are temporarily suspended in the act of experiencing, comforting, and supporting another’s struggle as if their life were one’s own. The feeling of equality being expressed is not about equal legal rights or economic entitlements but the idea that another being is just like us in being unique and mortal and deserving of the right to prosper.”

“Status hierarchies are, of course, designed to create inequalities. Status is about rankings and the claiming of authority over others. Every society establishes various boundaries of exclusion. A highly stratified society generally is low on empathetic consciousness because such societies are segmented between so many status categories that the ability to empathize beyond one’s own group, both up and down the hierarchy, is limited.”

Which means somethings got to give.

“The ability to recognize oneself in the other and the other in oneself is a deeply democratizing experience. Empathy is the soul of democracy. It is an acknowledgment that each life is unique, unalienable, and deserving of equal consideration in the public square. The evolution of empathy and the evolution of democracy have gone hand in hand throughout history. The more empathic the culture, the more democratic its values and governing institutions. The less empathic the culture, the more totalitarian its values and governing institutions. While apparent, it’s strange how little attention has been paid to the inextricable relationship between empathic extension and democratic expansion in the study of history and evolution of governance.”

For example —

“Reimagining freedom, equality, and democracy from an empathic perspective has far-ranging consequences for the kind of society that we choose to live in. We would need to rethink our parenting styles, educational systems, business practices and, even governance itself to reflect our empathic nature. This would constitute nothing less than a cultural revolution.”

Indeed!

“No one would deny that there is merit to our long-standing ideas about freedom, equality and democracy-especially the notions of personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, and the protection of basic economic and political rights. Still, it’s hard to deny the fact that a younger generation is beginning to broaden and deepen its sense of freedom, equality and democracy in an increasingly interconnected, interdependent and collaborative world.”

Sing us out Audrey