Tuesday, September 13
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
I think on some level, there is empathy for everyone that one is aware of, even distantly. But I think people can also develop an "allergy" to that awareness, and compassion fatigue is a familiar problem. The human brain may have evolved to form an awareness of one's social environment, including distant strangers who may become allies or enemies. In times of relative security, there may be an instinct to reach out to those who are different and explore possibilities for alliance. In times of danger, there may be a similar need for allies, although perhaps with more testing and probing in order to determine whether strangers are potential friends or foes.
It's easier to sustain empathy for people one has frequent contact with, especially if that contact comes with exchange of useful information, trading skills and gifts, etc. Internet makes it possible to extend one's interest group to include people around the planet. It's one thing to have abstract compassion for people in Africa, another to have an online friend in Africa who shares your interests, and through that friend, to understand the plight of Africans in general. Personal ties may be the key to creating emotional ties between masses.
Even the most selfish people are unselfish at certain times, and vice versa. People who routinely ignore poverty are quite willing to help when there's a hurricane. People are also much more giving when they feel a sense of trust and mutual appreciation, and much less giving when they feel taken advantage of or unsafe.
I think we'll have better luck with small business capitalism that forms business and friendship ties across national lines, than we would with a socialist movement (a friend of mine talks about "capitalism with soul"). If socialism were to work on a national or global scale, it would have to be shown to work in groups of 200 or so, and I'm not aware of many groups that have made it work. Perhaps they only lack the psychological resources to make it work, or perhaps humans are wired to share resources unconditionally only within families and clans, and even that sharing is rarely unconditional. For socialism to work on the national or global levels, it would have to involve either a very reliable mechanism for keeping the people responsible for distributing resources honest and transparent, or a decentralization of power into some kind of weblike network that ensures fairness and adaptability and prevents the kind of bureaucratic insanity that took over the USSR and China under Communism.
It's also important to address anger in crowds... revolutions tend to be messy and terrifying, because the overthrow of authority seems to lead not to a utopian equality and sharing, but to a series of hijackings of power by those who were formerly deprived of power. If one wishes to explore socialism, one should be very clear that Soviet and Chinese Communism is not the idea one has in mind. The association of socialism with the USSR is so strong in the US that politicians cannot speak positively of socialism without losing any hope of being elected. Even reasonable ideas like a socialized health care system or poverty safety net are very controversial, assumed to be the "camel's nose in the tent" that would lead to bureaucratic socialism and a Soviet-style nightmare. It would be dangerous to assume the opposite of a bad system is necessarily a good one, a mistake common in revolutionary movements whose idealism is greater than their capacity for self-reflection.