Wednesday, September 14
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
It's a little disturbing to see the "you asked for it, now deal with it" argument popping up so often. So a girl has a baby outside marriage (or marries a guy and is abandoned), because she's lonely and dependent on men to save her when Jesus fails her. Does she mourn her dead baby less because it was "her fault" she remained poor and lost everything in the flood? And, do we extend that idea to include the nation as a whole? Do we deserve suffering because we failed to conserve energy, or failed to take responsibility for the national debt? Some would say we do. But it's frighteningly convenient for people to avoid the human connection that gives them empathy for others, by saying people brought on their own suffering. It's no consolation to the victims to tell them it's their fault. It's a bit like a hellish triage, doling out compassion only to those who are "moral enough" to deserve it. Empathy is not something given strategically to reward good decisions. It's an innate response to the sight of suffering, and disabling it with rational judgment can become a dangerous mental habit.
It's true that pregnancy and dropping out of school are major factors in poverty. But moral condemnation isn't going to make much of a difference. The best way to prevent teen pregnancy and reduce dropout rates is to develop a culture of mutual support. Saying, "Stay in school, get a job, don't have sex!" is often another way of saying, "Stay out of my consciousness, I'm not responsible for you, I don't want to feel empathy for you". It takes social ties, not just platitudes. Religion is one way to provide social connections and a new start in life, and for many it's a good one. Religious groups have the advantage of organizational power and a network of churches ready to help in a crisis. But religion doesn't work for everyone, and there have to be more options. Religion comes with a catch: "Accept our dogma and beliefs, and you can be a new person, start over and have a support network at the ready to help you. Reject the dogma and we'll always be suspicious of you." There need to be social programs that enable people to start over with a new support network, without requiring them to accept a narrow set of moral and theological beliefs. Otherwise, religion turns compassion into a recruiting tool that discriminates against those who can't wrap their minds around the required dogma in order to feel "truly saved". Redemption and support are basic human needs, however damaged a person has become. Requiring that people accept Jesus as the only way to redeem oneself from the consequences of bad decisions amounts to theological extortion.
The failure of empathy in our culture is as terrifying to me as the breakdown of responsibility. Every social group seems bent on voting some other group off the island based on its previous choices, rather than working together to repair the social fabric and adapt to changes in the world.