Shadows of Moral Imagination

“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee…”
– Song of Solomon 2:17

“The moral imagination,” Russel Kirk wrote, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” He resurrected the Burkean moral imagination and maybe modernized it in the process. Jonathan Leamon Jones, similar to Gerald Russello and William F. Byrne, argues that Kirk’s moral imagination wasn’t modern but postmodern in its mistrust of metanarratives, including those of mainstream conservatives and radical right-wingers (others such as Peter Augustine Lawler go further in declaring that all of “conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism.”).

Modernity is always the frame of the reactionary mind, as conservatism in operating within the liberal paradigm can’t help but be an endless response to and borrowing from liberalism. The attempt to speak for the pre-modern inevitably leads to a post-modern attitude, even as modernity remains securely in place. There is no ‘pre-modern’ and ‘post-modern’ without the modern that defines and frames it all.

Such is the case with the development of moral imagination, but as a consciously articulated notion it took form in conjunction with the mature rise of modernity. The French Revolution symbolized the end of the ancien regime. Edmund Burke wasn’t postmodern, that is for sure, since modernity was only then taking hold. And moral imagination has its roots in the distant past. One important difference to keep in mind is that Kirk’s moral imagination, as opposed for example to the reactionary imagination of a conservative-minded classical liberal like Jordan Peterson, included the social or sociological imagination (Peterson is so post-post-modern that he is all the more modern for it). Burke did speak of the social, but of course he lived long before social science and social constructivism. “I contend that,” Jonathan Leamon Jones writes,

“Kirk, as a figure more concerned with culture than politics, attempted to negotiate his conservatism as a denial of the “autonomous self” and as an acceptance of the social construction of life (guided by, in his case, religious and socially traditionalist norms developed over extended periods of time). What is shared with Lyotard is that his postmodernism rejects the “grand narratives” of liberalism (such as “autonomy” and “progress”) as well as collectivism (such as fascism, socialism, and communism). Even so, Kirk is grounded in what might be termed a metaphysical master narrative, one of divine interaction with humanity. And because human beings are sinful and severely lacking in knowledge, their statements about the world can only be provisional, subject to revision and circumstance.”

Burke was a professional politician of a partisan variety. Kirk was not, as he was more wary of formal politics, it ironically being in part because of his own interpretation of Burkean moral imagination that he avoided following Burke’s political example. It was Kirk’s moral imagination as a conservative that actually allowed him to vote for those who didn’t identify as conservative, since his moral imagination allowed him to put moral character and personal concerns above both narrow ideological dogmas and lockstep political partisanship.

Where Kirk resonates with Burke is maybe along the line of the Burke’s denial of natural law as a human-imposed abstraction that risked idealism and radicalism. This is an attitude that he shared with John Dickinson’s worldview of Quaker constitutionalism (a constitution not as a paper document, espoused dogma, or mission statement but as a living pact between God and a specific people). Natural law has been cited by conservatives in making claims of traditionalism, but it was used even more persuasively and powerfully by radicals and revolutionaries seeking divine authority above human law.

One might note that Burke came from a family that was originally Catholic whereas Kirk converted to Catholicism as an adult. And one might note that both Burke and Dickinson were educated by Quakers. The commonality between Catholicism and Quakerism is the heavy emphasis on the social, specifically the social imagination as expressed through social theology and social action, including social activism. The moral imagination ultimately is a social imagination, overlapping with what some simply call culture or what Daniel Everett describes as the dark matter of the mind (i.e., the sociocultural unconscious). The social component isn’t only about what defines imagination but also what constrains or focuses it. Enculturation as with conversion is all about moral imagination, as are social control measures from propaganda to perception management.

To continue with Jones’ analysis: “Kirk sought to guide the reader to that place where he made his “home” – the small, local networks of associations that echo Burke’s well-known “little platoons” of society. Set against the “modern” in ways at once superficial and philosophical, such guidance was placement in an uncertain yet transcendently-grounded “postmodern” time and place.”

This is where, I’d argue, Burke lost the thread of his own narrative. With the French Revolution, his fevered rantings and detached fantasies about distant royalty had nothing to do with human-sized “little platoons” at the local level of comunity, certainly nothing to do with the lived experience and real world concerns of the average person in France or England — as Thomas Paine put it: “He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

A major point Paine made was that modernity had destroyed those “little platoons” and that the remnants of that loss required moral re-imagining to compensate for what was stolen for that loss was intentionally caused by those who gained from it. Those in power had intentionally and actively targeted the destruction of those “little platoons” (the communities and commons of feudalism) and on the rubble they built the British Empire.

This created an insurmountable problem for the burgeoning conservative mind. Burke’s moral imagination had become untethered since, for whatever reason, he lacked Paine’s urgent sense of the living memory of the disappearing past. Maybe that is because Paine, in having come to the colonies as Burke never did, saw with his own eyes the Indian tribes living within their “little platoons” and so this concrete experience that no longer could be found in England ensured that Paine didn’t get mired in idealistic fantasies and ideological abstractions. In speaking of common sense, Paine was turning to the common past and gave voice to the most powerful vision of moral imagination of his generation.

Kirk’s moral imagination is the perception of others as moral beings as part of a moral community. That much I agree with and so would the likes of Thomas Paine. It is reminiscent of a distinction I often point to. Germanic freedom embraces this kind of moral imagination whereas Latin liberty does not, as freedom is etymologically related to friend and means being a free member of a free people whereas liberty originally meant just not being a slave in a slave-based society. This concern over a moral community is where Burke’s moral imagination met Paine’s common sense, not that either of them saw the connection.

Kirk’s ultimate failure as with Burke’s was a too limited imagining of moral imagination in that over time conservatism despite all its protestations to the contrary had shackled itself to ideological dogmatism and so denied the radical challenge (radical, etymologically-speaking, as going to the ‘root’) of moral imagination as it operates in the human mind and human society, an unwillingness to follow negative capability into the dark unseen realms of the collective psyche. In relation to the likes of Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, I might argue that Burke and Kirk were comparably superficial thinkers which is not entirely their fault since, in being products of a specific place and time, they both lacked education in such fields as linguistic relativism, anthropology, social constructivism, consciousness studies, etc; although Kirk seems to have had a broader a liberal education.

These two had an intuitively astute sense of the moral imagination while lacking the cognitive frame to fully and consciously articulate it, such is the sense I get from reading their writings and reading about their lives. In the end, there is something lacking and dissatisfying about the conservative constraints placed not just on the enactment of moral imagination but on its very definition and explication. Before beginning to explore it, moral imagination in these earlier texts had already been made into something small and manageable. In constructing a moral imagination into something usable for the modern conservative mind, maybe a few important parts get left and forgotten on the shop floor.

In looking for what has been lost, let’s return to the issue of modernity. For all that post-Enlightenment modernity gets blamed, the seeds of modernity including autonomous individuality and vast meta-narratives were planted during the Axial Age. The entire civilizational project following the Bronze Age has been a suppression and retooling of the moral imagination. According to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, earlier humanity was fully immersed in the moral imagination such that it was their entire lived reality, even to the point that the imagination was taken for (superimposed upon) reality and this imagination spoke to them in clear voices. The archaic moral imagination is no longer part of our paltry consciousness with ego boundary-walls that keep it all safely contained and controlled, such that the gods no longer are even a small inner voice to be heard at all.

For all its florid and flaunted fantasizing, Burke’s moral imagination is a pathetic, weak creature that is chained, beaten and starved if not yet fully subdued and domesticated. Burke wonders how moral imagination might serve us, but for archaic humanity they served at the behest of moral imagination. Burke’s censures of radicals was the replaying of Plato’s banishment of the ancient poets whose wild and unruly more-than-human imaginings threatened that aspiring civilizational order. Revolution wasn’t caused by a lack but by an excess of moral imagination, as it had become unleashed from millennia of oppression. Burke felt the necessity to philosophize about this fearsome moral imagination in order to safely put it back in its cage and then to lock the door to that Burkean wardrobe.

What Burke’s moral imagination and Kirk’s conservatism touched upon but never quite grasped is that Eric Hobsbawm’s invented traditions didn’t merely replace but were used as weapons to destroy and dismantle the traditions that came before, erasing the living memory of them from the the public mind. Conservatism, as a modern phenomenon, is a non-traditional tradition (within the liberal tradition itself that is the paradigmatic framework dominating and defining all of modernity). As such, conservatism inherently is a reactionary persuasion and there is no way to escape this for all the attempts at philosophical diversion and special pleading. There is no going back for the revolution, once begun, can’t be stopped. Moral imagination is a living fire that consumes the world and remakes it. And conservatives have played a key role in radically creating something entirely new.

Paine’s radical liberalism acknowledges the dire situation of tragic loss, not getting deluded in the process by nostalgic fantasies. And so Paine’s moral imagination seeks to engage the world rather than evade the situation. Kirk, in his friendship with the sociologist Richard Nisbett, maybe comes closer to seeing what Paine was pointing toward, the loss of community. But what Kirk didn’t understand is what community once meant, not just in the near past but centuries earlier. Consider the Jeffersonian freedom proclaiming each generation’s right to self-governance which seems like a radical and revolutionary ideal of the Enlightenment but in actuality was built on the Anglo-Saxon (and Scandinavian) tribal tradition in Britain, as written laws and constitutions were as abstractly modern as was ethno-nationalism and colonial imperialism. Jefferson was invoking the traditional moral imagination of a once free people and, such as his referencing the fight against Norman invasion, was quite explicit about it.

Burke ran up against this issue. He struggled to admit the problems of colonial and corporatist imperialism and to admit the impotence of his moral imagination in dealing with those problems, stating in a 1783 speech about the British East India Company that, “it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” This caused Burke to switch back and forth between progressive reformer and reactionary counterrevolutionary, at one moment criticizing empire and at the next reverencing its authority, at one moment defending the rights of corporations and next demanding a corporation be put under government control. Moral imagination, however it was dressed up, offered little guidance for making sense of the radical character of imperialism that was forcefully remaking the world. Rather than inducing moral clarity in Burke’s mind, the only thing moral imagination made easy was moral rationalization.

Kirk had an idiosyncratic take on conservatism, and such idiosyncrasy is common among conservatives because of the underlying reactionary impulse. Kirk’s conservatism wasn’t easily defined. It was a mindset, temperament, attitude, tendency, or even just a mood. He sometimes spoke in Catholic terms of a canon which simply means an argument made, one argument among many and so not conclusive. This conservatism was a supposed “negation of ideology,” a claim that is never convincing for anyone who has given much thought to the topic. The real issue, as I describe with symbolic conflation, is that the power of conservative ideology is precisely dependent on it being hidden. This is the purpose of obfuscation to which Burke applied moral imagination and Kirk found it likewise useful. Burkean moral imagination uses the mental wardrobe to veil the tender naked skin of truth, to keep it from the prurient eyes of the conscious mind and the harsh glare of Enlightenment thought. This is political ideology transformed into a vague and shifting theology of mysticification.

Right-wing ideologues, interestingly, are always attacking ideology because only other people’s beliefs and values (and not their own) are ideological — this kind of anti-ideological ideology goes at least back to the 1800s, such as the defense slaveholders used against the -isms of the North: abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, etc (and yes Lincoln was friends with all kinds of radicals such as free labor advocates and there was a Marxist in Lincoln’s administration). Moral imagination when cut off from ideological worldview (in Louis Althusser’s sense) becomes an ideological realism that closes down the mind, as the eyes are drawn to the shadows cast on the cave wall.

Related to this, Kirk wrote that “a conservative impulse, if denied intelligent leadership and moral imagination, may be diverted banefully into ideological fanaticism.” Not quite right. Moral imagination is never denied for it is always present, if typically below the threshold of consciousness. Between Burke and Paine, the disagreement wasn’t over being for or against moral imagination but about what kind of moral imagination and to what end. Paine’s complaint was that Burke’s horror fantasies were abstractions of suffering disconnected from the real world experience of living humans. Kirk was less guilty of this, so it seems to me. Being a professional politician muddied Burke’s thinking, a problem Kirk tried to avoid in maintaining a more philosophical position.

Some have talked about moral imagination and more generally about the mind in terms of closed vs open, constrained vs unconstrained, thick boundary vs thin boundary, and similar categorizations that loosely correlate to conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Both serve purposes for the survival of the species and the functioning of society, but to be trapped in either one is problematic. Flexibility is the key, although this is a biased position for flexibility is a trait of the latter and not the former.

I’ve made the argument that the liberal mind can only operate during times of peace and tolerance. And this relates to how the liberal mind can allow space for the conservative mind in a way that is not possible the other way around, which is why liberalism can only operate under optimal conditions. And maybe liberal-mindedness is more common among tribal people with their low stress lifestyles, indicated by relaxed attitudes about sexuality among most hunter-gatherers. Consider my favorite example the Piraha who are extremely laid back and anti-authoritarian, disregarding hierarchical authority altogether.

This has to do with the circle of concern and the capacity to empathize. We can only empathize with those we perceive as moral beings, as humans like us. This is determined by our moral imagination. It is unsurprising that Edmund Burke, a professional politician operating in fear during a revolutionary era when his beloved British Empire was under threat, had a severely constrained attitude that did not only disallowed him to experience more openness toward others but made it hard for him to even imagine that such openness could be a part of human nature. His conservative-minded imagination excluded liberal-mindedness from his conception of moral imagination. We never know moral imagination in general for we can never step outside of our own moral imagination which typically is shared by those immediately around us.

What has changed over time is the expansion of moral imagination. Even those who identify as conservatives today are more liberal-minded than those who identified as liberals in the early 1800s, a time when liberals were divided over issues such as slavery. Much of what Burke complained about as dangerously radical has since become mainstream thought, even among conservatives today. Thomas Paine’s moral imagination won the struggle over hearts and minds, even as the struggle over Paine’s politics lags behind.

That is how it always happens, the revolution of mind preceding the revolution of society and politics, sometimes the one preceding the other by centuries. Heck, it took the Axial Age revolution of mind a couple of millennia to more fully take hold. And I might add that moral imagination in how we understand it as part of an intentional civilizational project (as opposed to an implicit experience of social reality) began with the Axial Age, as it was in the late Axial Age that religion and politics began to be thought about in explicit terms and as distinct categories, coinciding with the invention of rhetoric proper. Burke’s openly philosophizing about  and questioning the modern moral imagination demonstrated how far that millennia old revolution of mind had gone.

In explaining this phenomenon, Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that the arguments for something being right, true, or necessary become common knowledge long before public opinion and political will emerges to cause change to happen (such that most of the arguments against slavery used during the Civil War were widespread and well known prior to the American Revolution). It can take a long time for a society to assimilate new ideas and implement new ways of thinking, but eventually a change is triggered and the once unimaginable quickly becomes the new reality. Then as memory fades, the altered status quo dominates the collective moral imagination, as if it had always been that way.

We project our moral imagination onto reality without giving it much if any thought. No matter how philosophical we get about it, moral imagination can’t be disentangled from our experience of being in the world and being in relation with others. It is the substructure of our entire sense of reality. Our ideas about moral imagination are as likely to delude us as to enlighten us about how our moral imagination actually operates. That is because moral imagination is the territory of rhetoric and rationalization. It’s the stories we tell so often that we no longer realize they are stories, making us ripe for indoctrination and propaganda. But there is nothing inherently sinister about it, as this is simply the process of enculturation that is the basis of every society that has ever existed.

An early philosopher on moral imagination was Blaise Pascal. I don’t know that he ever specifically spoke of ‘moral imagination’, but he wrote extensively about morality and imagination. He appears to have been ahead of his time in many ways, having been born more than a century before Burke (some conservatives claim the both of them as ideological ancestors). Maybe his writings influenced Burke for it is highly probable that Pascal’s writings would have been familiar to many well educated English-speaking individuals in the 18th century. Pascal was one of the earliest thinkers to take seriously the impact of modernity, Jack Sherefkin claiming that he was “the first to face and express the experience of living in this new universe without center or limits.”

Sherefkin goes on to say that, “Most pre-modern societies identified with and felt a part of an orderly, purposeful universe. That is no longer believable. We now find ourselves lost in an infinite universe.” The ancient experience of reality was unraveling and so moral imagination was let loose. Pascal lived during the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution because of the radical ideas (e.g., socialism) that emerged at the time. I’ve often thought that what Burke most feared wasn’t the foreign threat of the French Revolution but the homegrown tradition of British radicalism. It was the English, not the French, who first had the idea of beheading a king in order to establish a revolutionary ideal of social and political order. What Burke couldn’t admit was that, long before his birth, revolution and regicide had become established as part of the British moral imagination.

There is an interesting anecdote about the power of moral imagination. “During his final illness,” Mark Malvasi writes, “Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.” He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.” It’s similar to Burke’s view of the British Empire and monarchy for, though he could imagine reforming it, he couldn’t imagine a world without it. To Burke, imperialism and monarchism was the natural state of the British; despite the fact that both were foreign systems imported by the French Normans.

There is what has been called the banality of evil. It’s what blinds us to evil in normalizing it, often by way of the slow boiling frog effect. Describing his own experience and observations as a German during the Nazi rise to power, Milton Mayer shows how moral imagination operates:

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.”

What is so shocking about the Nazi regime is how normal life continued to be for the average German, right up to the point when war began. Nazism slowly became apart of the German moral imagination. This was only possible because there had been a long history that had already embedded authoritarian tendencies, anti-semitism, and such within the German psyche. The veneer of a free, democratic society kept obscure this dark underbelly. There was never a right moment for a German like Milton Mayer to revolt against German Nazism, as there never was a right moment for a British subject like Edmund Burke to revolt against the British Empire.

The same goes for Americans today with the American Empire. It has become inseparably a part of American identity, largely because American culture emerged from the British Empire with its moral imagination of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. It doesn’t matter that most Americans find it impossible to imagine their society as an empire. The relationship between collective imagination and objective reality tends to be tenuous at best, specifically in such a vast society that requires a vast meta-narrative.

Moral imagination is as much or more about what it denies than what it affirms. This includes how the moral imagination denies the claims of any competing moral imagination. As such, American conservatives deny the moral imagination of Native Americans and Hispanics whose traditional relationship to the land is far older than the ideological abstractions drawn and written on paper that American conservatives are mesmerized by. Most Mexicans are a mix of Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. With a long history of traveling ranch workers and migrant farm workers, the moral imagination of Latinos in North America is rooted in a profound living memory that can’t be erased by legal and ideological abstractions. Well into the 20th century, Mexicans continued to freely cross the ‘border’ as their ancestors had been doing for centuries or millennia before there was any border. This demonstrates the absolute polarized conflict and contradiction between conservatism and traditionalism. The conservative mind is enthralled by imagined abstractions such as lines drawn on maps, no matter what is asserted by traditional authority of local organic communities.

Consider an even more contentious issue. Abortion has become a defining feature of modern American conservatism. But abortion wasn’t a central concern, even for Christians, until quite recently. In fact, abortions used to be quite common. Not that long ago, any American woman could find a local doctor who would perform an abortion (my great great grandfather was a rural abortion doctor). Even when there were some laws about abortion, they were rarely enforced and everyone in communities knew doctors performed abortions. Abortion is a practice that has early origins in Anglo-American and English society. One can go back even further in reading about how common was not only abortion but infanticide and exposure in much of the ancient world. Sickly and unwanted babies were a potentially dangerous liability prior to modern medicine and the modern welfare state.

If conservative moral imagination is supposed to be about tradition, there is no ancient established social norm about abortion. So, what is the moral imagination about for an issue like abortion? Conservatives often say it is about the sanctity of life. But that is obviously bullshit. Countries that ban abortions have higher rates of abortions, albeit illegal, than do countries that don’t ban them. This is because liberal policies effectively decrease unwanted pregnancies and so eliminate much of the need for abortions. As often is the case, there is a severe disconnect between moral imagination and moral realities. In the end, moral imagination is about social control in enforcing a particular moral order. It’s not that babies shouldn’t die but that loose women who get pregnant should be punished as sinners for that is the divine decree within the moral imagination of contemporary conservatives — such a god-tyrant still haunting the imaginations for many on the political right even after their formal religious faith is lost or weakened.

This fundamentalist deity, as with all of fundamentalism, is a modern invention. As with conservatism in general, fundamentalism didn’t exist prior to modernity. The reactionary mind that provokes this re-imagining only comes into being once the traditional power and authority of the ancien regime was in decline, and that ancien regime experienced its fatal blow centuries before the modern American culture warriors decided to obsess over sexuality. Burke had more of an insight into this. He clearly demarcated moral imagination and natural law, not mistaking the one for the other, as he didn’t believe in natural law. What Burke admitted that many modern conservatives won’t is that moral imagination is built on human customs accruing over time, not on divine commandment decreed at the beginning of time. Burke was a devout Christian but at a time when fundamentalism hadn’t yet fully formed.

Moral imagination isn’t about the world itself, rather about our place in the world. As the world shifts, so does our moral imagination and the entire context for what we are able to imagine. It is a constant process of forgetting about what came before. Living memory is a flame in the darkness and imagination is the shadows on the cave wall. The most radical act of imagination may not be in imagining something entirely new but remembering something forgotten in order to see what was unseen, which happens when moral imagination turns back toward the source of light. It is only in emerging awareness that we can challenge the stories that possess our minds and then tell a different story that speaks more honestly about our shared origins. How we imagine the past determines how we imagine all else.

* * *

Hume’s Theory of Moral Imagination
by Mark Collier

David Hume endorses three statements that are difficult to reconcile: (1) sympathy with those in distress is sufficient to produce compassion toward their plight, (2) adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathize with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, but (3) our care and concern is limited to those in our close circle. Hume manages to resolve this tension, however, by distinguishing two types of sympathy. We feel compassion toward those we perceive to be in distress because associative sympathy leads us to mirror their emotions, but our ability to enter into the afflictions of distant strangers involves cognitive sympathy and merely requires us to reflect on how we would feel in their shoes. This hybrid theory of sympathy receives a good deal of support from recent work on affective mirroring and cognitive pretense. Hume’s account should appeal to contemporary researchers, therefore, who are interested in the nature of moral imagination

Why We Think They Hate Us: Moral Imagination and the Possibility of Peace
by Robert Wright

It’s about “the moral imagination”—a term that has been used in various ways but, in my usage, refers to the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially people in circumstances very different from our own. I argue that the moral imagination naturally tends to expand when we perceive our relations with other people as non-zero-sum and to contract when we perceive those relations as zero-sum. […]

In general, when a religious groups sees its relations with another religious group as non-zero-sum, it is more likely to evince tolerance of that group’s religion. When the perception is instead of a zero-sum dynamic, tolerance is less likely to ensue. (For an essay-length version of the argument, see this article, based on the book, that I wrote for Time magazine.) The moral imagination, I contend, is involved in this adaptive process. […]

Moral Imagination

The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our “moral imagination,” our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural. Indeed, the tendency of the moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We’re naturally pretty good at putting ourselves in the shoes of close relatives and good friends (people who tend to have non-zero-sum links with us), and naturally bad at putting ourselves in the shoes of rivals and enemies (where zero-sumness is more common). We can’t understand these people from the inside. […]

[T]he point is just that the ability to intimately comprehend someone’s motivation—to share their experience virtually, and know it from the inside—depends on a moral imagination that naturally contracts in the case of people we consider rivals or enemies.

In other words, we have trouble achieving comprehension without achieving sympathy. And this puts us in a fix because, as we’ve seen, some people it is in our profound interest to comprehend—terrorists, for example—are people we’re understandably reluctant to sympathize with. Enmity’s natural impediment to understanding is, in a way, public enemy number one.

It’s easy to explain the origins of this impediment in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.

In dealing with allies, on the other hand, a more expansive moral imagination makes sense. Since their fortunes are tied to yours—since you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship—lending your support to their cause can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause). So on some occasions, at least, we’re pretty good at seeing the perspective of friends or relatives. It helps us argue for their interests—which, after all, overlap with our interests—and helps us bond with them by voicing sympathy for their plight.

In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games—to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we’ve seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum.

And now we see one curious residue of this machinery: our “understanding” of the motivations of others tends to come with a prepackaged moral judgment. Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately—relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently—or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by.

It might be nice if we could sever this link between comprehension and judgment, if we could understand people’s behavior in more clinical terms—just see things from their point of view without attaching a verdict to their grievances. That might more closely approach the perspective of God and might also, to boot, allow us to better pursue our interests. We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness. But those of us who fail to attain Buddhahood will spend much of our lives locked into a more human perspective: we extend moral imagination to people to the extent that we see win-win possibilities with them.

Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other—toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside.

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality
Brain Pickings

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth
Brain Pickings

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall
by William Wood
pp. 137-139

The Imagination Bestows Value

The preceding analysis raises an important question. If the heart produces immediate moral sentiments, and if those sentiments are both true and compelling, then why does anyone ever act immorally? Why do we not always act in accordance with our sentiments? Pascal’s response to this question leads back to his famous critique of the imagination. Even though our moral sentiments have the felt sense of truth, according to Pascal, we are also strongly motivated to believe that our imaginative fantasies are true. If it is the heart that responds to the perceived value of moral goods, it is the imagination that bestows value on them in the first place. As a result, even though we do respond immediately to moral goods, we typically perceive those goods only after they have already been filtered through a haze of imaginative fantasy. Without repeating the discussion of the imagination in Chapter 2, recall that, according to Pascal, the imagination can “fix the price of things” and so invest moral goods with value. Moreover, “Imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice and happiness which is the world’s supreme good” (L44/S78).

Pascal’s account of the socially constructed imagination reveals that he is not just an ethical intuitionist but a social intuitionist. A social intuitionist recognizes that people are “intensely social creatures whose moral judgments are strongly shaped by the judgments of those around them.” While moral intuitions may be innate to everyone, social intuitionists claim that people acquire most of their particular moral intuitions through custom and habituation — that is, through their participation in thick cultural webs of moral practice. Once again, although social intuitionism currently enjoys pride of place among empirically oriented moral psychologists, there has been no recognition that Pascal is an early advocate of its key claims. Social intuitionists often look for inspiration from David Hume, or even Aristotle, without ever recognizing that Pascal is an even closer cousin to their own work. Moreover, Pascal is able to wed a social-intuitionist ethics to a full-blooded account of moral and axiological realism, something that contemporary social intuitionists often find themselves unwilling or unable to do.

Both the imagination and the heart are cognitive and affective faculties. The heart intuitively grasps moral and spiritual goods, and perceives moral beauty (L308/S339). Yet it is also an affective faculty associated with loving and desiring. Like the heart, the imagination also unites various cognitive and affective functions into a single faculty. In its cognitive aspect, the imagination allows us to form mental representations. These representations include theeveryday images by which we inwardly grasp the things that we perceive with our external senses. In its affective dimension, the imagination bestows value on goods. Although Pascal does not directly speculate about how the heart and the imagination would work if human beings had not fallen, it seems clear that the heart should perceive moral goods accurately, leading us to love and desire them according to their true value. Similarly, the imagination should also correspond to the world as it is, and supply us with accurate mental representations. In both cases, there should be no conflict between what is true and what we find beautiful. A moral agent that is not fallen would accurately perceive the beauty of spiritual goods and would love them as a result.

Instead, after the Fall, the imagination has become a “proud power” that oversteps its bounds and creates moral value independently, setting “the same mark on true and false alike” (L44/S78), and the heart has become “hollow and foul” (L139/S171). The sinner rejects the sentiments of the heart — the seat of conscience — and instead acts on the basis of the false, self-serving fantasies of the imagination.

Although Pascal usually focuses on the way we excessively magnify the value of our own selves, any object may be imaginatively invested with more value than it can bear: one may build up a fantasy about a commodity (a new car, for example), a specific self-understanding (of oneself as being just the kind of dashing person who would drive such a car), or some other pursued goal (making enough money to buy the car). The possibilities are endless. In each case, however, the perceived value of the object sought is a function of how it is imaginatively construed.

Although Pascal recognizes that the imagination is central to the moral life, his thought challenges the sometimes facile claims of contemporary narrative ethicists and those who would look to the “narrative imagination” for moral renewal. Pascal reminds us that the imagination is not just the locus of individual creative genius and speculative possibility. It is also a socially constructed repository for the (often immoral) dispositions and values of the wider world. Far from being the initial launching pad for moral critique, the imagination is often itself the faculty most in need of such critique. Furthermore, Pascal would remind us that reorienting the moral imagination is no simple matter. Certainly it is not just a matter of reading the right novels or passages from scripture, imaginatively identifying with the right moral exemplars, or trying to dream up new possibilities for moral community. Because the imagination is socially constructed, reorienting the imagination requires something like a massive program of counter-habituation, comparable to becoming a native member of a wholly new society. In short, reorienting the imagination would require something that looks quite a lot like an ongoing program of religious conversion. Pascal therefore sounds an important note of caution about the moral possibilities of imagination.

* * *

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
Poised on a Knife Edge
The Haunted Moral Imagination
A Phantom of the Mind
The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals
Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Orderliness and Animals
On Rodents and Conservatives
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Lock Without a Key
On Truth and Bullshit
Sincere Bullshit
Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs
Race & Racism: Reality & Imagination, Fear & Hope
Racial Reality Tunnel
Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds
Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation
Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination
Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination
Foundations and Frameworks
The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart
A Conflict of the Conservative Vision
Avatar: Imagination & Culture
Our Shared Imagination
The Way of Radical Imagination
Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With
Vision and Transformation
The Master’s Tools Are Those Closest At Hand
Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions
A Neverending Revolution of the Mind
The World that Inhabits Our Mind
Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Revolution and Apocalypse
To Imagine and Understand
Fantasyland, An American Tradition
Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia
Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers
The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel
The Elephant That Wasn’t There
Stories: Personal & Collective
The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Know
A Compelling Story
A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning
A Story of Walking Away
Conscious Dreaming, Conscious Self
Dark Matter of the Mind

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We Are Empathy

Recall how Ptolemy used epicycles to accurately predict the movements of objects in the sky, yet he had no clue about the actual nature of those movements. We’re still in the Ptolemaic phase of social science.

Paul Bloom had an article come out in the WSJ today, The Perils of Empathy. It’s on the limitations and problems of empathy, a topic he has been writing about for years (it’s not even his first WSJ article about it).

The above quote is from the comments section, a response posted by Anthony Cusano, and it captures my own basic thought. As others noted, Bloom’s understanding of empathy is limited and so it’s unsurprising he comes to the conclusion that is limited. So, the problem is Bloom’s own confusion, based on narrow research and simplistic analysis.

There isn’t much point in analyzing the article itself. But I realize that such articles have immense influence given the platform. I’m always surprised that someone like Bloom, a respected ivy league academic and professor, would have such a superficial grasp. I’d like to think that Bloom realizes it’s more complex and that he is using rhetoric to make a point, not that this generous interpretation makes it any better.

Even though I love social science, this demonstrates a constant danger of trying to make sense of the research produced. Evidence is only as good as the frame used to interpet it.

Bloom is mixing up the rhetoric, perception, and experience of empathy. He treats empathy as something rather simple, maybe confusing it with mere sympathy. And he does this by ignoring most of what empathy consists of, such as cognitive empathy. Along with many of his allies and critics, he never puts it into its largest context. Human civilization would never exist without human empathy. This is because humanity is inseparable from empathy, as we are inherently a social species and there is no sociality without empathy.

There isn’t any grand significance in my writing specifically about Bloom’s article. The main thing wasn’t what was in it but what was left out of it.

The last thing I wrote earlier in the week was about the hive mind in terms of entrainment. There would be no human families, groups, social identities, communities, nations, etc without empathy. None of this is solely or even primarily dependent on empathy as direct emotionality and personal sympathy. An army marching has a shared identity that doesn’t require any given soldier to empathize with any other individual soldier, much less every single soldier. The empathy is with a sense of group identity that transcends all individuality. The soldiers in marching form grok this collective identity as a muscular bonding that, in the moment, is as real as their own bodies.

Empathy is the foundation and essence of everything that is human. It precedes and encompasses every other aspect of our humanity, including rational compassion. Posing empathy as a choice is irrelevant. There is no choice. Empathy just is, whether or not we use it well. We can’t objectively study empathy because we can’t separate ourselves from it. There is no outside perspective.

Let me conclude with some words of wisdom, “We are Groot.”

* * *

I Could Say that Paul Bloom is a Callous Idiot, But I Empathize With Him…
by Nathan J. Robinson, The Navel Observatory

Thinkfluence Man Pretends To Think Empathy Is Bad
by Albert Burneko, The Concourse

Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy and Morality
by Denise Cummins, Psychology Today

The one thing that could save the world: Why we need empathy now more than ever
by Roman Krznaric, Salon

Welcome to the empathy wars
by Roman Krznaric, Transformation

Can You Run Out of Empathy?
by C. Daryl Cameron, Berkeley

Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy
by Jeremiah Stanghini, blog

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and (Empathic) Understanding
by John Payne, EPIC

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

I read an article the other day about the just-world hypothesis (or rather fallacy), Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person by Oliver Burkeman. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

The main point of the author is how the victimization of injustice leads to victim-blaming. That victim-blaming in turn rationalizes and encourages further victimization and injustice. It relates to the victimization cycle as well, where victims too often become victimizers, a topic I’ve written about endlessly.

It makes one want to throw one’s hands up in despair.

Another side of my personality kicks in, however. I wonder what are the exceptions to the rule (or better yet, the exceptions to who rules, to how they rule, to what ways we are ruled, which is to say the exceptions to the rules of the status quo). The author doesn’t explore that.

It is like the rat studies I recently discussed. There was a study done in the late 70s and published in 1980 that had quite an impact because it fit American beliefs about depraved humanity. The rats were put into horrific conditions of immense distress and then given the opportunity to consume drugs until they died, which unsurprisingly is what they did.

Around the same time, there were other researchers with other views on the issue. One researcher considered that, if he “were kept isolated in cramped metal cages, tethered to a self-injection apparatus”, he too might give into drug addiction until sweet death delivered him from the inescapable torment. He thought that maybe these were far from optimal conditions for rats or for humans. He designed research that, instead, would create the most optimal conditions. This was the rat park.

Mainstream science and academia were resistant to his questioning of the status quo. He couldn’t get published and lost funding. Americans didn’t want to know the truth… or rather the American ruling elite didn’t want Americans to know the truth. The truth was that if conditions change so do the responses, even with something so compelling as physical addiction.

The just-world hypothesis research shows that in an a society based on injustice people act according to and rationalize that injustice. That is unsurprising, as it fits our preconceptions, which maybe ought to make us suspicious for what if the research was designed and the conclusions developed to fit our preconceptions. If we look a bit deeper, we can see this research also implies that in a society based on justice people would act according to and rationalize justice (consider intolerance, which research shows does decrease when children are raised in diverse communities, neighborhoods, and schools). The author missed that implication because it didn’t fit into the cynical and fatalist American mainstream view of social reality.

This brings me to thoughts I’ve had about the morality-punishment link. Conservatism is utterly dependent on tis link. But I doubt this link is as inevitable as it seems. It can be broken and often is broken, every time a problem is solved, a sickness cured, etc.

It isn’t hard to imagine a world where justice prevails. Some of the best science fiction is about that very possibility (e.g., Star Trek: The Next Generation). We create what we imagine. This might give us pause in our collective obsession with imagining dystopian futures, but it also offers hope as we are free to imagine the future in any way we so choose. Our visions of the future can justify the status quo or they can challenge it. It is time we enter a new era of the radical imagination.

 

* * * *

Here are two videos and then some writings about the just-world hypothesis:

Shailene’s Hair, Unfair Monopoly, and the Just World Fallacy
by vlogbrothers

Social Psychology: Stereotype, Prejudice, Discrimination, and Just World Hypothesis/Belief
by Chris Dula (East Tennessee State University)

Vulnerability, Victim Blaming, and The Just World Fallacy
by Daniel Fincke

That Shouldn’t Happen: The Just World Fallacy and Autism
By Kim Wombles

White Privilege, Republicans, and the ‘Just World’ Fallacy
by Chauncey DeVega

Fatal Hypothesis: How Belief In A Just World Is Killing Us
by Katherine Cross

Poverty and the “Just World hypothesis”
by Nathan Pensky

The Just-World Fallacy
by David McRaney

The UNjust world
by Every Topic In The Universe(s?)

Modern American Libertarianism and the Just-World Fallacy
by Nolen

* * * *

Here are some of my previous posts on the issues of empathy, imagination, realism, and society:

Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With

Alternative Visions, Radical Imagination

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

Vision and Transformation

Culture of Paranoia, Culture of Trust

Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism

Social Order and Symbolic Conflation

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Studies That Offer Hope

For the new year, here are some positive perspectives based on recent studies.

I’ll offer an excerpt about how racial bias can be lessened, but the article also discusses other issues such as empathy and altruism. This goes against what cynics and determinists are always arguing. We aren’t naturally racists. Like so many other attitudes and behaviors, racial bias or its opposite are dependent on many factors, both factors we control individually and factors we control as a society.

We aren’t fated to ignorance and mindlessness. We aren’t mere puppets of genetics and culture. We always have a choice. We always have the opportunity to learn and improve. Being realistic can mean being optimistic, depending on the reality we choose to create.

Can Empathy for Birds Make Us Happier? Ten Breakthroughs in the Science of a Meaningful Life
by Jeremy Adam Smith, Bianca Lorenz, Kira M. Newman, Lauren Klein, Lisa Bennett, Jason Marsh, Jill Suttie

Racial bias in policing is at the forefront of our national news. So it was heartening this year to see a study that found bias could be reduced through training in mindfulness—the nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and surroundings.

Adam Lueke and Brian Gibson of Central Michigan University looked at how instructing white college students in mindfulness would affect their “implicit bias”—or unconscious negative reactions—to black faces and faces of older people. After listening to a 10-minute mindfulness audiotape, students were significantly less likely to automatically pair negative descriptive words with black and elderly faces than were those in a control group—a finding that could be important for policing, which often involves split-second assessments of people.

Why the connection between mindfulness and bias? Mindfulness has the power to interrupt the link between past experience and impulsive responding, the authors speculate. This ability to be more discerning may explain why another study this year found that people who were high in mindfulness were less likely to sink into depression following experiences of discrimination.

As we reported back in 2009, numerous programs have successfully helped officers become aware of their own unconscious biases. But by specifically looking at the effects of mindfulness training—even just 10 minutes’ worth—these new studies point to innovative techniques that might help prevent fatal mistakes from being made in the future.

Black Feminism and Epistemology of Ignorance

I have some thoughts that have been simmering on the back burner for a while now. It is specifically relates to black feminism. That isn’t something I normally read about, but I came across a quote by Angela Davis and started reading one of her books, The Meaning of Freedom (Kindle Locations 170-174):

“More than once I have heard people say, “If only a new Black Panther Party could be organized, then we could seriously deal with The Man, you know?” But suppose we were to say: “There is no Man anymore.” There is suffering. There is oppression. There is terrifying racism. But this racism does not come from the mythical “Man.” Moreover, it is laced with sexism and homophobia and unprecedented class exploitation associated with a dangerously globalized capitalism. We need new ideas and new strategies that will take us into the twenty-first century.”

This quote was on my mind when the “Not All Men” meme went viral. It really put things in contrast. Davis’ reference to the mythical “Man” refers as much to feminist issues as to racial issues. There literally is no “All Men”. It isn’t fundamentally about blame or evasion of responsibility, as the “Not All Men” argument was framed.

The grand insight of black feminism has been that there is no singular vantage point for all women, no universal set of truths for all feminism. Black feminists saw middle class white feminists as part of the same racial and class hierarchy. Identity politics can create a kind of blindness to important distinctions and inconvenient knowledge.

As a basic example, a middle class white woman in America has more privilege and experiences less violence and oppression than a poor black man in post-colonial Africa (or even most poor black men in America). Or, as another example, consider the issue of women and violence. Most rape and abuse happens to poor minority women, not middle class white women. As far as that goes, a black man in prison is probably more likely to be raped and abused than a middle class white woman.

It isn’t just about being a man or woman. It isn’t just about being black or white. It isn’t just about being rich or poor. It isn’t about any single thing. It is how these factors and issues combine in the lived experiences of particular people and populations.

Generalizations can be misleading and dangerous. They can be used to ignore the real issues. This is how race becomes a proxy for class and in many ways so does gender, for women make less money than men. If class is the most major issue, then all the rest of identity politics can be problematic when they don’t take this into account.

It was from there that I began looking more into intersectionality (where identities and disadvantages intersect), which is related to the larger fields of feminist epistemology and philosophy of science. Intersectionality as a basic understanding has been developing for a long time, across many fields. A major connection goes back to Marxism and its influence on feminist thought through standpoint theory:

“Standpoint theory supports what feminist theorist Sandra Harding calls strong objectivity, or the notion that the perspectives of marginalized and/or oppressed individuals can help to create more objective accounts of the world. Through the outsider-within phenomenon, these individuals are placed in a unique position to point to patterns of behavior that those immersed in the dominant group culture are unable to recognize.[2] Standpoint theory gives voice to the marginalized groups by allowing them to challenge the status quo as the outsider within. The status quo representing the dominant white male position of privilege.[3]

“The predominant culture in which all groups exist is not experienced in the same way by all persons or groups. The views of those who belong to groups with more social power are validated more than those in marginalized groups. Those in marginalized groups must learn to be bicultural, or to “pass” in the dominant culture to survive, even though that perspective is not their own.[4] For persons of color, in an effort to help organizations achieve their diversity initiatives, there is an expectation that they will check their color at the door in order to assimilate into the existing culture and discursive practices.[5]

One’s viewpoint depends on one’s social identities and one’s social position. This isn’t just a philosophical debate, for it has real world consequences. Studies show that environment has a strong influence on individual development and behavior.

Recent studies on the upper class and lower class makes this abundantly clear. Wealthier people have less empathic accuracy in that they are less able to read the emotional experience of others, to understand and appreciate the persepctive of others. They don’t listen to and pay attention to others as much. They also express fewer pro-social behaviors such as being more rude and aggressive (e.g., driving behavior) along with being less generous.

This goes straight to the class issue. Blacks and women, most especially black women, are among the poorest people in America and in the world. Being poor, in some ways, makes them more likely to act in ways that are considered caring and humane. To be on the bottom of society, an individual is more dependent on and interdependent with others.

This could explain why middle and upper class people, both black and white, don’t understand the family structures and support systems of the poor. All they see are marriages under stressful conditions, calling the families weak or broken, but they don’t see the strength of communities surviving under almost impossible conditions.. The ignorance of this judgment from privilege hit home for me when I read the following passage from Stephen Steinberg’s “Poor Culture”:

“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””

Those rich in wealth are poor in so many other ways. And those poor in wealth are rich in so many ways. It depends on what you value. People can’t value what they don’t see and understand.

The issue of knowledge and ignorance has been perplexing me for most of my adult life. My perplexity has been caught between the rocks of despair and the riptide of outrage.  I have thought about and written about this endlessly. It is what anchors me in place. It is the mystery around which everything else revolves.

I was glad to come across the book Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, a collection of papers by various authors. In the Introduction, Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana state that “ignorance results from humans’ situatedness as knowers. Because we are located, partial beings, we cannot know everything” (Kindle Locations 64-65). This line of thought is continued in Chapter 2 with “Epistemologies of Ignorance: Three Types” by Linda Martin Alcoff. In that essay, Alcoff explains that both knowledge and ignorance are situated (Kindle Locations 607-611):

“Thus from the fact of our general situatedness it follows that ignorance should be understood as contextual, since it does not accrue to me simply as an individual outside of a particular situation. I may be a trained linguist with the ability to communicate in eight languages, or an excellent seamstress capable of making my own designs from scratch, but insofar as I am attending a medical operation, I am ignorant of the skills needed to fully assess the health of the patient. What is determinative of ignorance is the interplay between my individual epistemic situatedness- my location, experience, perceptual abilities, and so forth, not all of which will be relevant in any given case-and what is called for in reaching conclusions about this particular object of inquiry.”

The author then connects this situatedness to race (Kindle Locations 698-699):

“most whites in the United States seem to believe that the United States is a form of society based mostly on individual merit, while most nonwhites seem to believe that the United States is a form of society based on a racial contract.”

That caught my attention because it relates to the studies on socioeconomic class. The studies found that wealthier people tend to take individual credit for their wealth, for their position and privilege. Poor people tend to emphasize the importance of their environment.

This seems to directly correlate to the differences in seeing families as nuclear versus as extended networks of support. For the wealthier, even families are seen as individualistic and isolated, and of course they see that as normal despite how unusual it has been throughout history and continues to be for most families throughout the world. Nuclear families are a fairly recent invention and hardly the sign of a healthy society.

Upper class white Westerners are truly weird (and WEIRD–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and they don’t even know it. However, some might argue that the ‘D’ for democracy isn’t entirely accurate, considering forms of imperialism still remain dominant in the West, for democratic rhetoric is too often simply used to rationalize power. White Westerners have the privilege to be ignorant of how racism, classism, and other forms of oppression continues in their own countries and are enforced on other countries.

This is a major point made by Alcoff (Kindle Locations 700-706):

“Mills suggests that “whiteness,” which he carefully defines as a political construct rather than simply an ethnic category, brings with it a “cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of all social realities,” that it ensures that whites will live in a “racial fantasyland, [or] a `consensual hallucination,”‘ and that the root of all this is the “cognitive and moral economy psychically required for conquest, colonization, and enslavement” (Mills 1997, 18-19). If it is true that most people prefer to think of themselves as moral or at least excusable in their actions, then in unjust societies those in dominant and privileged positions must be able to construct representations of themselves and others to support a fantasyland of moral approbation. Thus such whites might believe that the academy is a meritocracy, that modernity began in Europe and then spread outward, and that global poverty is disconnected from Western wealth. The persistence of such myths in spite of increasing empirical and theoretical counterevidence certainly suggests that the cognitive dysfunctions responsible for myth maintenance are more than a matter of differences in group experiences or expertise.”

This is what we face with the overwhelming injustice and suffering in the world today. This is why so many people remain ignorant and remain ignorant of their ignorance. This is how people simultaneously know and don’t know.

As Angela Davis suggests, “We need new ideas and new strategies”. We need to get past our conceptual blindness, our cultural biases, our vested interests. We need to get past all of that toward a broader view, toward a greater sense of shared vision and common cause.

I want to add a caveat as part of my conclusion.

In this endeavor, we should especially listen to those who are in a position to know what we don’t know or don’t fully understand. This isn’t about being allies to the disadvantaged, but about expanding our sense of humanity. It is also to realize every position has its own sets of knowledge and sets of ignorance.

We all have disadvantages, including the wealthy, as the studies show. As for the rest of us not so disadvantaged with wealth, we are the majority of people in the world. Even most white men lack much power and influence in a wealthy country like the U.S. We also shouldn’t forget that most poor people in this country are white. One of the most ignored and silenced groups in America are poor rural whites. They have a position of knowledge on our society that gets heard less often than that of poor urban blacks.

Identity politics can be self-destructive when it divides us. This is where intersectionality is so important. What intersectionality speaks to is what connects, what crosses the artificial boundaries we create. That is the potential we need to find a new language to communicate.

* * * *

If you’re interested in learning about the studies on economic class, here are some videos and articles that go into the details:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business-jan-june13-makingsense_06-21/

http://blog.ted.com/2013/12/20/6-studies-of-money-and-the-mind/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-wealth-reduces-compassion/

http://nymag.com/news/features/money-brain-2012-7/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/under-the-influence/201208/how-the-rich-are-different-the-poor-ii-empathy

http://www.livescience.com/8978-read-emotions-helps-poor.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/07/03/money-may-make-you-mean-but-can-you-buy-a-heart/

http://www.inc.com/laura-montini/how-the-mind-makes-sense-of-advantage.html

http://bigthink.com/Mind-Matters/study-more-privilege-means-less-empathy

http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/rich-really-poor-in-generosity-empathy-and-altruism-study/830627/

http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/21/opinion/marsh-wealth-happiness-romney/

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/08/social-status-empathy-philanthropy

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/10/08/do_the_rich_care_less_power_imbalances_can_lead_to_empathy_inequality_between.html

To Not Feel, To Not Care, To Not Know

This relationship of racism and lack of empathy is sad beyond comprehension. Talk about empathy isn’t just a philosophical debate or an academic exercise. White privilege is a very real thing with real impact on real people in the real world.

One of the benefits for whites of white privilege is that people, both whites and blacks, not only take your pain more seriously but they perceive it as being greater and more real than the pain felt by blacks. Racial prejudice is internalized and becomes unconscious. It’s just there, hidden and below the surface, but the effects are real and the consequences are great

This probably relates to why jurors, both white and black, punish blacks more harshly than whites for the exact same crimes. To say someone doesn’t feel pain strongly is to imply that they are less human, less worthy. Scientists used to do dissect living and conscious animals because they believed animals didn’t feel pain.

Empathy and the lack thereof is the core issue upon which so much else pivots.

Here is the article that brought so much sadness to my thoughts:

I Don’t Feel Your Pain
A failure of empathy perpetuates racial disparities.
By Jason Silverstein
From Slate.com

Read that article and then read a post I wrote last year:

Republicans: Party of Despair

Considering conservatives have been shown to have a less inclusive sense of empathy, is it surprising what results from when they gain political power? Or to return to the issue of white privilege, which party in recent generations has fought against civil rights and racial equality? Also, might empathy inequality be at the core of economic inequality?

It reminds me of something said by Tim Wise (see the video at the end of my post, Knowledge Doesn’t Matter). What white privilege ultimately allows is for one to be ignorant of privilege itself. It isn’t just about not feeling and not caring. It is about not even knowing, ignorance of even one’s ignorance. Complete blindness and numbness, no voice to be heard, as if the uncomfortable reality didn’t exist. Like the three monkeys with hands over ears, eyes and mouth.

What Is Empathy? And What Good Is It?

Empathy has been a central concern of mine for most of my life.

Many conservatives talk about empathy being limited or somehow weak and unworthy, maybe even dangerous such as the allegation of sympathizing with terrorists. I’ve never understood this.

Maybe conservatives have issues with their own ability to empathize, but my empathy is often on overdrive and my entire sense of identity, my entire sense of morality and humanity is rooted in it. If anything, my problem is too much empathy or too strongly felt empathy. This isn’t to say it is about empathy making me a better person. It’s simply doesn’t fit what conservatives describe in their own vision of human nature driven by naked self-interest and ruthless Social Darwinism or else driven by a sinful fallen nature.

To be fair, most average conservatives genuinely want more emphasis to be put on family, religion, community and civic duty (also, ethnic culture for some). But even these average conservatives seem to be motivated by the same basic belief of having little faith in a greater capacity for empathy beyond the narrow confines of group identity (however the in-group and out-group are defined).

I would make a clarification to which conservatives aren’t likely to admit. Conservatives seem to recognize that liberal-minded empathy doesn’t have the narrowness, xenophobia and parochial quality that is more common to the conservative-minded expression of empathy. If they didn’t understand this, they wouldn’t wouldn’t worry so much about liberals sympathizing too strongly with the enemies, foreigners, diverse cultures, criminals, drug addicts, the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the disenfranchised and the downtrodden, along with others deemed to be social inferiors and social unworthies.

So, it’s more that conservatives think people should willingly choose to limit their empathy or have society, specifically the political and economic system, intentionally constrain the effect of empathy to the small-scale, especially families and churches or private individual interests such as charity. In the place of empathy, they think we should prioritize something better to guide the moral order: principles, faith, rules, merit, etc. It’s not that they dislike empathy, but they can’t imagine a morally good world that is centered on a broader vision of empathy (i.e., a morally good world centered on a core liberal value).

I wouldn’t argue that there are no problems with empathy. It is apparent, to grossly understate the problem, that the human race on the large-scale has yet to get the knack for fundamentally caring about and for all people or even most people, as true in wealthy countries as poor, as true in oppressive states as in capitalist countries. It is the reason why civilization is failing and probably will continue to fail for sometime, assuming it will ever succeed.

My main disagreement with conservatives is that they believe civilization is better off without worrying about all that namby-pamby stuff of peace, love and understanding. From their perspective, the problem is too much emotional concern, too much softness, too much forgiveness. From my perspective, such obvious cynicism (and the realpolitik that goes with it) is mind-blowing, heart-wrenching and soul-despairing.

By the way, I hope it is obvious that liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness aren’t equivalent too or necessarily even strongly correlated to the two party system. I suppose it’s likely that most Republican political activists and elites would measure strongly on conservative-minded traits, but I honestly doubt that many Democratic political activists and elites would measure strongly on liberal-minded traits.

I’m not sure that liberal-minded traits are more rare. It might be something about liberal-minded traits not being as effective for seeking and gaining positions of power and authority, wealth and prestige. The regimented power structure of hierarchical big government (like big business) is fundamentally unattractive and contrary to liberal-mindedness, not to say it is impossible for a liberal-minded person to succeed under such circumstances, just difficult and less probable. Besides, to the degree they succeeded was most likely to the degree they sacrificed and undermined their liberal-mindedness.

In a conservative social system, even when some liberal values and/or rhetoric has been incorporated, it is a lose/lose scenario for the liberal-minded. To win according to conservatism automatically means to lose according to liberalism, although I’m not sure the opposite is true in the same way or to the same extent (since liberalism on principle is about accepting and allowing to the greatest degree possible for what is different, including conservatism), but I’d love to test my hypothesis one day if we ever finally create a liberal social system.

I was looking at research on empathy, motivated by my speculations on empathetic imagination. This combination of empathy and imagination is key to understanding liberal-mindedness. But it isn’t as simple as conservatives lacking empathy

The research does show a correlation between the abilities of empathy and imagination. Seeing this kind of research is what originally led me to coining the term empathetic imagination. Other research shows that empathy is negatively correlated to analytical thinking. It is difficult to empathize and analyze at the same time. As a side note, this makes me wonder about the possible negative correlation between imagination and analysis (which might be related to the opposing traits of optimism and pessimism, the research showing the former having greater capacity for change and the latter having greater capacity for accurate present assessment; just a side thought).

Leaving it at that is unsatisfying because this generalizes too much about all people. What makes psychology interesting to me is how much difference and diversity exists within human nature. So, are these kinds of attributes fully and always opposing and contradictory? Do they inevitably suppress the activity of the other?

Yes, it is no doubt challenging to simultaneously empathize and analyze (or imagine and analyze). But, I’d have to offer strong doubt to it being impossible. Based on still other research, one would presume that some people might be better at it than others.

On a personal level, I notice how closely linked are my own abilities to empathize and analyze (and imagine). I don’t know that I do them precisely at the same time and in concert, but I find it easy to quickly and smoothly switch back and forth so as to feel seamless. I couldn’t say whether this is an inborn ability or learned. It does seem to me that I was less analytical when young. I’ve become more analytical without, as far as I can tell, sacrificing my empathic tendencies. The two are closely tied together for me, at least in my own experience according to my own self-observations for whatever that is worth.

I feel my way into ideas in the way I feel my way into the experience of others. This intuition doesn’t seem inherently irrational, although it is or has an element of the non-rational. My intuition is one of the main tools I use in ascertaining rationality. With it, I sense the connections and compare them with alternative possibilities and interpretations. I don’t see how analysis would be possible without some minimal basic functioning of intuition. Something has to be perceived first before it can be analyzed (indeed Myers-Briggs theorizes intuition as one of two perceiving functions — sensation being the other — which offers the information to the judging functions, and also Myers-Briggs research has shown intuition to be strongly and positively correlated to intellectuality and IQ).

To complicate things, all of these factors (intellectuality, imagination, intuition, empathy) share the common positive correlation to certain well-researched traits. The specific trait I have in mind is the thin boundary type which I will discuss further after looking at some intriguing examples of how empathy can play out in diverse ways.

I was reading about how empathy manifests or not among those with different psychiatric disorders (read here for a summary).

For example, it has been theorized that psychopaths and autistics are mirror opposites. Psychopaths have impaired affective/emotional empathy, but may have unimpaired cognitive empathy. Even if they perfectly understand people (their beliefs, thoughts, motivations, etc) on an intellectual level, they won’t express much sympathy or compassion (especially to distress). Autistics have impaired cognitive empathy, but may have unimpaired affective/emotional empathy. They are strongly affected by the psychological state of others (especially distress), even though they have a hard time of understanding others. So, a psychopath can relate better to others than an autistic and also more likely to harm others, a dangerous combination.

My mom has suggested that I might have aspergers. I don’t know if that is true, but the empathy aspect fits.

I’ve always been extremely socially sensitive while, when younger, I was nearly a lost cause in terms of being socially oblivious and clueless. As a child, I was just as happy playing by myself as playing with other kids. I also had a language learning disability which is common for autistics and less so for aspergers, usually just a delay that can be remedied with therapy as was the case with me. My learning disability caused me to have delayed reading and permanent memory issues, specifically word recall, but I’m above average IQ. My above average IQ particularly related to high level of visuospatial skills which is a common trait of autistics.

This is interesting to consider as I see myself as extremely empathetic. Since childhood, I’ve overcompensated in many ways. I’ve become obsessed with communicating and with understanding human behavior. I still have social awkwardness and shyness, but it for damn sure ain’t because of a lack of raw empathy. My emotional empathy is always keen. As for my cognitive empathy, it has caught up at this point and now is, at least in some ways, far above average.

I haven’t thought of myself as having aspergers. I have developed a strongly intuitive sense of what makes people tick. If I have aspergers, I must have massively developed my cognitive empathy. I’ve had social issues, but the subjective sense takes no effort whatsoever. It is easy for me to read people these days, although the fact that I’m so self-consciously obsessed about it is probably a clue. Assuming I have aspergers, it must be mild which gives me immense empathy for those with severe autism. My mom worked with many severe autistics in public schools and her descriptions are very sad in some cases.

My brothers have told my mom that they suspect something like aspergers in themselves. My oldest brother had learning difficulties, although not with language, and my second oldest brother was diagnosed with anxiety disorder which might have been a misdiagnosis since aspergers don’t deal well with social stress (I’ve seen one of his anxiety attacks and I immediately recognized it as something I had experienced as well). All three of us have been socially challenged and have been on anti-depressants which could be a secondary result of the other issues.

Autistics have strong empathic distress with weak empathic concern (as a result of the impaired cognitive empathy) which causes social awkwardness and dysfunction. People are more likely to irritate or stress out an autistic than draw out a response of sympathy and compassion or even normal sociability and friendliness. This social distress is exacerbated with observing other people in pain which causes them to want to avoid the situation rather than offer help. However, when they understand someone’s state of mind, empathic concern is expressed normally.

Autistics lack a strong sense of Theory of Mind and can’t easily identify emotions even in themselves, much less in others, despite feeling emotions strongly. Empathizing is relational and so there is a close connection between self-awareness and social-awareness. Some theorize that autism may be an extreme male profile of neural functioning. What differentiates the genders is that men tend to have a smaller corpus callosum and so fewer connections between the two hemispheres. So, one might expect that men and autistics would have more difficulty than average with empathizing while analyzing or using both in concert by easily and quickly switching back and forth… or something like that.

This then brings me to the aforementioned boundary types, originally articulated by Ernest Hartmann.

Conservatives and men (also masculine women) have on average thicker boundaries than liberals and women (also effeminate men). This is the basis of calling the Republicans the daddy party and the Democrats the mommy party, and it is a fact that the two parties respectively have disproportionate numbers of men and women. I’m not sure about what research might have been done on autism and Hartmann’s boundary types, but I do know that most diagnosed autistics are male.

Also, there has been a long debate about whether women have greater empathy than men or rather whether the differences observed are inborn or learned. I’d see this as related to the debate about whether liberals (i.e., self-identified liberals and the liberal-minded) have greater empathy than conservatives (i.e., self-identified conservatives and the conservative-minded). Is it a matter of the degree or the kind of empathy?

The research I’ve seen is that there is a difference in when and how empathy is used. It is significant that more men are conservatives than liberals and more conservatives are men than women, and likewise with conservatives and thick boundaries. To be something like a surgeon or a judge requires one to clearly demarcate empathy from analysis, something thick boundary types are good at doing and something conservatives idealize. Not just demarcate, though; also, be able to shut off. A surgeon doesn’t want empathy to be within consciousness at all while slicing into someone.

To completely or even partly shut empathy off at will is not a strong talent for liberals and thin boundary types. On the other side, when a conservative or thick boundary type is in empathy mode, the very opposite probably happens and if so they’d have less access than liberals to analysis. Everyone to some degree suppresses analysis while empathizing and suppresses empathy while analyzing, but not everyone does it equally nor does everyone value it equally and seek to develop it further.

That is my own hypothesis. It is supported by the data I’ve seen so far, but it is too early to declare exactly what the difference is being shown.

The complicating factor for me is first and foremost personal.

As someone possibly with aspergers, my empathy may be far from the norm. Then again, those diagnosed with aspergers and autism have been increasing which either means the condition is increasing or the diagnosis is increasing. Maybe aspergers is on a continuum of normalcy, human nature normally containing a range of potential traits, behaviors and psychological profiles.

The angle of aspergers and autism confuses my thinking.  I suspect thin boundary is more closely related to affective empathy for that is the actual component of empathy that allows one to feel what another is feeling, to viscerally know another’s experience. Thin boundary types have a harder time distinguishing their own experience and identity from those they are around, especially in close relationships. Autistics and aspergers includes this affective empathy, above average in fact. On the other hand, these conditions also includes underdeveloped cognitive empathy which causes dysfunction in the affective empathy.

I’m not sure what any of that means. Are such people thin boundary types or thick boundary types? Is autism an extreme male psychological profile? Is this just an oddity that is irrelevant in trying to understand how empathy normally operates?

To continue with the personal, I’ll use the example of my dad to clarify the conservative mindset.

He is one of the most morally genuine people I know. He sits around worrying about being a good person. He is no fundy. He doesn’t take the Bible literally. But he takes his religion very seriously. He does his best to walk the talk. Minus the religiosity, my own nature is close to his. One of the biggest differences is that he is much more social than I. He is more outwardly good and successful, according to the standards of society. He loves to have a role to play, especially the role of authority figure, and he plays that role well; but he is also more willing to submit to authority without question or irritation. He has little problem with sticking to the rules and conforming to expectations.

My dad might win the prize for being the least socially dysfunctional person in my immediate family. And I probably could win the prize for being the most socially dysfunctional. So much for the greatness of my valuing empathy; empathy plus dysfunction just creates dysfunctional empathy, well damn. Unlike his liberal children, he never had any major social issues at any point in his life. He says he is shy, but he has even overcome that and it is entirely unnoticeable to an outside observer. He has held many leadership positions, including in various churches.

Despite his arguing for empathy being limited, he uses what empathy he has in a socially beneficial way, although his empathy has much less of an emotional quality than my own, maybe more of a sense of moral rule-following that an uncertain relationship to empathy as emotional concern. His empathy is probably average, at least for a conservative, maybe more cognitive empathy than affective empathy. He even is fairly humble which helps his empathy express relatively well, considering how confident he is able to act when needed. He is proof that basic levels of empathy are all that are required for being a generally good person, good citizen, and good Christian; at least according to conservative social norms.

It’s true that he doesn’t spend as much time imagining the lives of and identifying with those who have fallen on hard times. And it’s true that he is more likely to blame people for the hard times they find themselves in. He has never experienced bad times to any great extent and so it’s not part of his personal sense of reality. Nonetheless, he’ll volunteer at the local soup kitchen and he’ll donate large amounts of money to organizations that help those in need. I’d put it this way. Empathy for him is more of a luxury than a necessity. It’s a good thing to have for charity, but it’s useless for the real work of life: business, leadership, etc. It’s just something to contemplate in one’s free time after a hard day’s work or in retirement after a life of hard work and success

He is a standard conservative in prizing pragmatism or rather the rhetoric of pragmatism, the question being pragmatism to what end. Whatever empathy he might lack relative to bleeding heart liberals, he makes up for it with practical action toward his conservative-minded goals. He is a man of action and authority, the ideal of conservatives. If all or just most conservatives were like my dad, the world probably would be a decent place, although the problems would still exist if in more mild form.

I was having a discussion with my dad about religion.

My dad is in a Bible group. Because he is now living here in this liberal college town, he has been forced to deal with more liberals, including in his Bible group, than he has become accustomed to from having spent 20 years in South Carolina. There is one particular liberal view with which he has been struggling: the value of giving freely without limiting one’s charity to moralizing judgment and expectation.

He is coming around to awakening to how truly radical is Jesus’ message. It can’t be limited to conservative morality. Jesus didn’t demand people be good conservatives, good Christians or good anything before he offered help and healing. This is mind-blowing to him. I’ve been pointing out to him this fact about Jesus’ teachings for years, but he just didn’t get it. The idea of a radical Jesus didn’t fit into his conservative Christian worldview. Conservative Christians believe Jesus is good and radicals are bad. So, how can Jesus be both good and radical?

Jesus wasn’t interested in saving the social order, promoting family values, punishing wrongdoers, and forcing the troubled to be responsible citizens. My dad’s sense of honesty disallows him from dismissing this realization. So, he has to put it into terms he can understand.

He spoke of first-order effects and second-order effects. I suppose he is using terminology from business management, his area of primary expertise, or maybe from economics, an area of secondary expertise.

I’m not sure how this might relate to conservatism and liberalism, but I immediately saw a connection to the distinction between Confucianism and Taoism. Jesus is infinitely closer to being a Taoist than to being a Confucian. There are two quotes from the Tao Te Ching that reminded me of this first order idea:

If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.

In this first quote, what is described is the person embodying the first order principle. Jesus didn’t seek to enforce his own beliefs, values and worldview. Jesus, whether or not he was the Christ, was not a Christian and wasn’t seeking to advocate for a Christian moral order, much less a conservative social order. And the second quote:

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

This describes the first order type as opposed to the second order type.

A Confucian is a particular type of conservative which is why Chinese Communism being based on Confucianism always has had a conservative hierarchical social order with a conservative moral order. The Chinese Communists, like the Soviet Union Communists, were illiberal and anti-liberal to the extreme in being against free thought and freedom of choice, against intellectuals and artists, against homosexuals and other perceived deviants. I don’t know that the Taoist position was the polar opposite of liberalism, but it certainly wasn’t against liberalism. Taoists believed that order didn’t need to be enforced.

This could be fit into one aspect of conservatism and liberalism. Conservatives believe individuals will fail if not for external social order. Liberals believe individuals are inherently good or otherwise have great potential, although not necessarily the utopian perfectionism that conservatives fear in their worst nightmares.

I was struggling to fit all these ideas together. I intuit a resonance among them, but I’m far from certain. I sense there is a very powerful reason for why the conservative mind can so easily overlook this first order way of thinking. The powerful reason I suspect ties into empathy somehow. A larger sense of empathy is not necessary for Confucianism. Like American conservatives, Confucians limited empathy to the group, especially in terms of basing the social order on the family. Also, American and Confucian conservatives love ritual as symbolic expression and public enactment of social order.

Empathy, specifically in its fullest manifestation, is like a solvent to thick boundaries. It loosens the bonds and lets loose what was bounded. Taoism is about flow. But Taoism doesn’t oppose Confucianism in the way I hypothesize liberalism doesn’t oppose conservatism. Taoists understand that, even in flowing, boundaries are necessary. Taoists want balance, similar to how liberals want inclusion. It’s BOTH Yin AND Yang, not EITHER Yin OR Yang.

Empathy is a strange thing. I don’t fully understand it and I’m sure I never will. Nonetheless, I value it and aspire toward it.

That is the important part, in my mind and heart. Just to care, to know it all matters, that each and every person matters. Empathy is the very thing that allows us to, in the end, see us all as humans and as equals. We ultimately aren’t liberals and conservatives. We are immense, if not infinite, potential.

Despite my dysfunction, despite the dysfunction of others, despite the dysfunction of all of society, there is something fundamentally worthy and good within humanity and within the world. That is what I’d like to believe. that is what I choose to believe.

That is my moral vision.

Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination

I feel the impulse to take stock of my thinking, he says with a heavy sigh.

I’m going to attempt the amazing feat of connecting together various strains of thought that have been mulling in my braincase these past few years. This is my way of warning you that the following is going to be a doozy, in which I will discuss: conservatism and liberalism (in the psychological sense), symbolic conflation and empathetic imagination, literalism and imagination, social order and its lynchpin, ideology and analysis, and we’ll just have to see what else gets thrown into the stew.

Bear with me, if you will; or if not, be off with you.

I’ll begin with symbolic conflation, as that is the originating point of my present contemplations.

In explaining symbolic conflation, the example I usually bring up is that of abortion. I just as easily could use sex education or something similar, issues of sex and gender getting at the tasty marrow of conservative values, but any culture war issues would do. These are hot button topics where symbolic conflation gets exaggerated which makes it easier to observe and analyze.

Symbolic conflation, however, isn’t limited to these kinds of issues. Also, it isn’t limited to just conservatives. Nonetheless, my theory proposes that it is more central to conservative psychology and specifically more central to highly emotional issues.

As a side note, my theory of symbolic conflation might be correlated with and supported by certain psychological studies of ideological differences.

Numerous research shows that conservatives on average have higher rates of such cognitive behaviors as confirmation bias and smart idiot effect. Furthermore, conservatism is somewhat correlated with authoritarianism, although no direct causal link has been ascertained, just partial overlap of factors or a loose affinity of interests under some conditions. What this means is that there is a distinct subset of people who consistently measure high on both conservatism and authoritarianism.

Relevant to my discussion here, authoritarian types are predisposed to being drawn into hierarchical relationships with social dominance orientation types.

The most basic definition — or the most basic element in my theory — of symbolic conflation is this:

A particular type of person is prone to a particular style of thought process that conflates symbolism with reality.

This conflation is inherent to the thought process itself and not merely an end result or side effect. Hence, it isn’t observable by those manifesting this cognitive pattern. Symbolic conflation is only effective when and to the degree it operates below the threshold of awareness.

In communicating shared values and beliefs, rhetoric (usually political rhetoric) can employ specific issues or talking points as symbols for something deeper or larger such that the explicit terms and phrases become codewords for something else, either an unstated meaning or context. To an outside observer, that something else may seem entirely unrelated or not directly related to the overt topic. None of this is necessarily intentional and certainly not conscious. It isn’t an attempt to deceive or manipulate by the person under the sway of the thought process, although it would be used this way by social dominance orientation types when they are seeking to shape the collective identity, perception, and behavior of a specific group or demographic.

For most people, they use symbolic language because that seems to be the easiest (simplest and most useful) way to express the (fuller and deeper) meanings that are otherwise difficult or maybe even impossible to communicate in a more direct and analytical manner. The problem is that symbolism plays a powerful role in the imagination, especially at an unconscious level. This is what makes conflation possible and (for certain types of people and certain types of thinking) probable, even if not inevitable.

One could say, to put it simply:

People don’t always say what they mean… or mean what they say.

However, it might be unfair to explain it with what can be interpreted as dismissive over-simplification. Maybe such people can be taken at face value or maybe not, but either way there is a subtext that is more important and I would add more interesting.

Let me use one of the examples I mentioned earlier.

Sex education and sex-related issues, like abortion, has been put under the scrutiny of those doing scientific research and gathering public data. Using such objective knowledge, this issue can be attacked from numerous angles.

Studies show that abstinence-only sex education fails to decrease sexual activity and ends up, for lack of focus on contraceptives, increasing the rate of both unwanted pregnancies and STDs (the unwanted pregnancies relates to the correlation to increased abortions in countries with abortion bans since such countries also tend to promote abstinence-only sex education and decrease access to contraceptives along with decreasing access to family planning and women’s health clinics). These results are predictable based on what is known about biology, psychology, sociology and anthropology. Humans living in pre-industrial and pre-agricultural societies have very different lifestyles and diets that include reaching puberty years later than modern humans and not delaying sexual activity and marriage like modern humans — thus demonstrating how conservative beliefs/values are divergent from and contradictory to the environmental conditions according to which human nature evolved.

This sex issue is what I first gnashed my teeth on in my coming to terms with the conservative mind. I brought up this info with conservatives, but it was all for naught.

I slowly came to realize that it wasn’t about the practical results of decreasing STDs, unwanted pregnancies and abortions. The issue was about culture and morality. Conservatives see society as morally corrupt and human nature as sinful. Conservative beliefs and values aren’t seen as having failed according to actual people and actual society, but the other way around. So, conservative methods not achieving practical results shouldn’t be blamed on conservatism, if anything it is taken as proof that conservative efforts need to be redoubled.

It should be clarified that it isn’t about conservatives not deigning to make their pure ideals filthy with practical results.

From the conservative viewpoint, there are more important results that have nothing to do with the worldly or lowly concerns of a society ruled by progressivism/socialism (i.e., social democracy), secular humanism, and politically correct multiculturalism. What they seek to achieve is the creating, maintaining and defending of the conservative social order along with its underlying vision of conservative moral order.

Sure, people will inevitably fail to live up to the high standards of conservatism. Most people will fail most of the time and all people will fail at least some of the time, but two important results are hoped for:

1) High standards will filter out the unworthy through punishment and enforced accountability while allowing the worthy to rise to the top into positions of hierarchical authority and in other ways be rewarded for their merit.
2) Punishment, as a threat and an enforcement, will cause people to fearfully cleave closely to the conservative rule and order, thus creating dutiful conformity and social stability.

In the ideal conservative world, premarital/extramarital sex would lead to chastisement, humiliation, ostracism or even banishment and premarital/extramarital pregnancy would lead to the same or else get one forced into marriage, not that any man would want to marry a loose woman in such a society unless he too was forced. Put this in economic terms and you’ll get the ideal world of fiscal conservatism with its austere meritocracy of the haves and have-nots.

This ideal world, of course, will rarely if ever be stated so openly and directly, so starkly and explicitly. Its power resides with the symbolic issues taking center stage like puppets on a string. As the melodrama plays out in public view, the conservative narrative takes hold of the rapt audience.

Symbolic conflation is a very specific way of thinking and communicating symbolically, not to be confused with symbolic cognition in general.

It is tricky trying to grasp at symbolism that seeks to remain hidden, but that just makes it all the more enticing. In my present ponderings, this hidden quality turns my mind toward thoughts of art and the imagination. In considering the liberal/conservative angle, I’m reminded of a similar difference I’ve observed with how art is framed and to what purpose it is used:

With liberals, ideology is expanded through imagination. With conservatives, imagination is constrained by ideology. Both may start with ideology, but go in different directions. The liberal impulse wants to escape or transform ideology into something greater. It’s not that conservatives don’t have a sense of something greater. It’s just that to conservatives ideology itself is an expression of that sense of something greater. Maybe it’s a difference between ideology as means vs ends.

The conservative mind treats art or any other creation of imagination in the way it treats religion. Its natural response is literalism. So, imagination is seen as having no truth in itself. In this way, there is no art for art’s sake, no creative play just for the joy of it, no envisioning of possibility just because one can. Literalism has a literalist purpose and a lieralist end. Literalism is the ur-ideology of conservatism. There is one truth, one reality, one interpretation, one solution (to rule them all).

That constraining of imagination to the ideological seems to be related to the conflating of symbolism with reality. In both cases, imagination or symbolism for the conservative plays an obfuscatory role. In analyzing the conservative worldview, it falls apart because what holds the conservative worldview together is the resistance to analysis. To speak openly and directly about ideology, to factually discuss objective reality, is to reveal the lynchpin of the conservative social order.

As I’ve noted many times before, a core element of liberalism is empathetic imagination. For liberals, imagination is personally and interpersonally real for the liberal imagination is about relating, connecting, merging, crossing boundaries, transgressing the taboo. It’s not that liberals care not about the social order but that they put the emphasis on the social part. Liberals see order serving the social while conservatives see it the other way around.

An inverse relation exists between symbolic conflation and empathetic imagination. Let me explain by summarizing.

What symbolic conflation does is to focus on the symbolic by sacrificing the apparently practical results and real world implications. Nonetheless, the person under the sway of such thinking sees themselves as being perfectly practical. They are indeed being practical, although their practicality is being applied to the covert issue rather than the overt issue. Conservatives’ relative indifference to practical solutions for overt issues would be strengthened or exaggerated by their weak sense of empathic imagination. They are less able to imaginatively empathize with the victims of conservative policies and less able to empathetically imagine it being any other way, even when objective data of other societies proves and demonstrates another way works better in avoiding or solving some problem.

In the conservative worldview, instead of being freed by imagination, empathy is constrained by ideological literalism. Humans are seen as being constrained by their own fallen or selfish nature. As such, human failure and suffering is assumed to be unavoidable, inevitable, simply the way the world works. To imagine otherwise is idealistic utopianism and so imagination gets blamed for this state of affairs for it is seen as offering false hope. Hence, false hope is assumed to exacerbate suffering by creating dissatisfaction with the status quo and, worst still, false hope on the political level is assumed to lead to oppression when the ‘impossible’ is sought to be enforced on the ‘real’.

Conservatives assume the conservative predisposition represents all of human nature. So, they assume the limits of the conservative worldview are the same as the limits of human reality, maybe even all of reality. As a liberal’s imagination is the liberal’s reality, a conservative’s literalist belief is theirs.

My criticisms of the conservative mindset may be related to my wariness to the ideological mindset.

There is a correlation between conservatism and dogmatism, especially as it relates to authoritarianism (maybe dogmatism being the main or one of the main factors where conservatism and authoritarianism overlap). This probably connects to conservatism being negatively correlated to the openness trait and the thin boundary type. A set of ideas only becomes truly ideological when it is strictly systematized and that is precisely what the conservative mindset is good at doing. Conservatives excel or at least are disproportionately represented in careers where systems of rules, beliefs or ideas are central, such as in the legal system.

I’m wary about generalizing ideology too much and extending it beyond that which it most directly and usefully applies. Ideology etymologically originates from ‘idea’. An ideology is a set of ideas, a thought system. Ideologies are involved in or included within but not identical to governments, political parties, cultures, religions, mythologies, worldviews, lifeways, reality tunnels, etc.

It is unhelpful, maybe even dangerous, to think of ideology as representing all (or most) of human reality or, to put it another way, constraining human reality to the limits of ideology. However, to the person who becomes entirely committed to and identified with an ideology, it is experienced as if it were their entire reality. Even though though reality tunnels necessitate more than ideologies, it is an ideology that can play a central role in justifying a reality tunnel and keeping one trapped within it.

In thinking about this, I was doing many websearches and looking through my old posts here on this blog. Here is some of what I came across that was rumbling around in my head as I wrote all of the above:

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10803-004-2553-x?LI=true

http://www.cog.psy.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/papers/2007/Rogers%282007%29_JAutismDevDisord.pdf

http://life-with-aspergers.blogspot.com/2007/10/aspie-and-empathy.html

http://www.autismandempathy.com/?p=1476

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/aspergers-diary/200910/perspectives-aspergers-and-empathy

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-007-0486-x#page-1

http://www.alessioavenanti.com/pdf_library/minio-paluello_2009biolpsychiatry.pdf

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811905006853

http://journals.lww.com/neuroreport/Abstract/2001/08080/Investigating_the_functional_anatomy_of_empathy.29.aspx

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1093/neucas/8.3.245

http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ090909&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ090909

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178109000936

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-5914.2009.00402.x/abstract;jsessionid=D58D9FC0B8BFE453E7F846A690C2889D.d04t02?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9450.2011.00913.x/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10803-009-0799-z?LI=true

http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=8k6yVdL-fiQC&oi=fnd&pg=PA149&dq=empathy+AND+aspergers&ots=Hq9yqrjlz8&sig=rjbTa-pPALsEi_vUe7RkJCDDfUU#v=onepage&q=empathy%20AND%20aspergers&f=false

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100426182002.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110125103825.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110628094835.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100427091723.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100127085550.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121024175240.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120426143856.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100409093405.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090623120837.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090128074929.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121030161416.htm

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/03/what-rob-portman-learned/63166/

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/04/why-the-rich-dont-give/309254/

http://www.salon.com/2013/02/22/are_republican_brains_different_partner/

http://www.wevotedforkodos.com/2013/02/05/genetic-predisposition-and-political-affiliation/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/giving-the-real-a-voice/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/liberal-mindedness-empathetic-imagination-and-capitalist-realism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/the-iron-lady-the-view-of-a-bleeding-heart/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/do-rightwingers-love-war/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/the-enlightenment-project-a-defense/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/conservative-mistrust-ideological-certainty-part-2/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/12/25/interesting-stuff-on-the-web-122509/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/haidt-mooney-moral-foundations-spiral-dynamics/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/violence-vs-empathy-indifference-vs-unhappiness/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/why-did-i-become-a-leftist/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/ideology-and-empathy/

Ideology and Empathy

My relationship with my parents has been stressed. It’s not just this past campaign season and the elections, but it does have to do with politics in general. I’ve seen this coming for years (by which I mean the larger social trends beyond just my parents), even if I couldn’t predict the personal impact it would have on my parents.

Back in the Bush presidency, I began to more fully understand the trends that were shaping the future. Conservatives thought they were on top of the world. Their narrative had dominated national politics since Reagan, even finding ways to capitalize during Clinton’s presidency. They had been angry and righteous for a long time, and it made them feel powerful, almost untouchable. They knew that they were the Real Americans. They knew they were the moral majority. The problem was that their knowledge was incomplete and not perfectly correlated to certain social realities.

George W. Bush was the culmination of the entire Southern Strategy: white Texan good ol’ boy (at least in persona), born-again Evangelical who spoke in grand religious terms (of America as a Christian nation and of good vs evil), social conservative who gave up alcohol and funded abstinence-only sex education, fiscal conservative who pushed tax breaks (especially for the “job-creators”) and trickle-down economics, and on and on. But it all ended in failure. It turned out to not be all that they dreamed of. They were lost and confused, and then they were defeated.

Along came Obama. He had vision and narrative, just like they once had. He pointed out the failures of conservative rule. The anger and righteousness of conservatives was magnified a thousandfold, verging on bitterness and cynicism. Out of this, the Tea Party formed and swayed the entire Republican Party along with the entire right-wing media.

Now, conservatives like my parents claim that Bush never was a real conservative and that they never cared about him, but they sure didn’t feel that way at the time. Anyone who questioned the Great, Wise Leader (particularly in his first term) was considered un-American and possibly a terrorist or at least a terrorist sympathizer, definitely someone of questionable morality and allegiances. I find it odd that my dad in the past often reacted with sensitivity to any criticism of Bush as if it had been a personal insult, yet now doesn’t even consider Bush a conservative. If it’s fine for “real conservatives” to criticize Bush, why isn’t it fine for everyone else to do so?

I’m not blaming my parents for changing their minds. I wouldn’t like a conservative call it flip-flopping for as a liberal I highly value the ability to change one’s mind. It would just be nice for them to acknowledge how much they once praised Bush and how they didn’t at the time argue that Bush wasn’t a real conservative.

I spend a lot of time with my parents. I care about them. Even as I judge conservatives, I all too well understand there is a personal side that goes beyond mere politics. My parents feel hurt and attacked, as if people like them no longer matter. From their perspective, they’re just trying to be good people, just trying to be responsible citizens. They’ve always played by the rules. They’ve worked hard. They don’t understand how everything went so wrong. They just don’t understand and they don’t feel understood.

What I wish they understood is that everyone wants to be understood. It seems to me that they want something that they haven’t always been willing to offer to others.

Yes, my parents have worked hard. But so have many others. There are hundreds of millions of people in America and billions of people in the world who have lived more difficult lives than my parents. Most of these people have suffered and struggled for no fault of their own, just circumstances of their birth. They get less understanding than my parents have received. They get less benefit of the doubt. They get fewer opportunities and fewer second chances. My parents have never known the lowest depths of poverty, extended unemployment and welfare (or, worse, depending on welfare despite being employed, never being able to make ends meet with minimum wage), having to choose between paying the bills or feeding one’s children, a life of homelessness with few if any prospects of escaping the streets, being treated with negative prejudice by the police and courts because of their skin color, etc. Relatively speaking, my parents have lived a life of privilege (and so have I, although my generation fared worse than did theirs).

Conservatives like my parents often feel very little empathy and compassion towards those deemed different or other. It’s not that conservatives are intentionally trying to be mean-spirited. They just don’t feel it on a gut-level. It’s not a part of who they are, not part of their life experience. The undocumented immigrant seeking to escape the violence and poverty of Mexico (that Americans have helped to cause), well too bad for them, they are foreigners, not ‘us’. The poor who have known generations of poverty along with oppression and prejudice, well too bad for them, it’s their own fault, they should quit complaining and work harder. Obviously, this isn’t the response Jesus would give, but that doesn’t seem to bother many conservatives, if they ever think about it. That said, my parents are more likely to think about it than some conservatives, but I’m not sure it often causes them to deeply question their own privilege.

In the end, I want to understand conservatives, even if many conservatives are unwilling or unable to return the favor to others. The reason I want to understand is that I have that basic liberal/leftist sense of all of us being products of our circumstances. My parents didn’t choose to be the way they are and I didn’t choose to be the way I am. There is no credit to be taken or blame to be given. People are just people, doing the best they can for the situation they find themselves in. Sometimes understanding is the best thing we can offer to others.

What frustrates me the most is knowing that my parents genuinely are good people. I’m sure most conservatives, like most people, are good people. It’s not that my parents lack the ability to empathize, but it’s just not their first response when dealing with people they don’t personally know or identify with, especially when it comes to groups that have been made into political scapegoats.

Let me return to the example of undocumented migrants from Mexico.

Mexican immigrants aren’t coming here for the fun of it or even for the free goodies (e.g., welfare). They are coming out of desperation. They risk their very lives to cross the border. They could die of heat, be murdered, kidnapped, sold into slavery, or any number of horrible ends… yet they come anyways, risking everything, many of them putting their entire faith in God to protect them and their families. They are that desperate, but most conservatives still wouldn’t naturally think to first compassionately empathize or to consider how American policies contribute to their misery. The US War on Drugs has created a thriving black market. American money funds Mexican drug cartels, criminals and corrupt politicians. American guns go across the border to help fuel the endless violence (and then Americans complain when a tiny fraction of that violence spills back over). All of us Americans are part of the problem for our government is part of the problem, but it never occurs to most conservatives to accept responsibility for being a part of the problem; instead, they blame the victims who are just trying to escape the misery.

I could present all of this to my parents. If I pushed the case hard enough, I might be able to get them to give a more empathetic response. However, they wouldn’t likely come to such a response on their own, at least not about such issues as undocumented immigrants. I don’t want to twist someone’s arm just to try to get some empathy. I’d like to live in a world where most people respond with empathy as their default position, idealist that I am.

I was just now reminded of the quote conservatives like to repeat: “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before.” There is some truth to it. Fear will make even liberals more conservative-minded, even if only temporarily. But the underlying worldview is questionable, that fear represents the norm of reality and mugging represents the norm of human behavior. I wouldn’t claim that the conservative response is always wrong, but it is problematic if one is stuck within a worldview of fear. When fear closes down the normal human response of empathy, that is when people act without compassion such as mugging others. A lack of empathy sadly too often leads to a lack of empathy, fear to fear, violence to violence to even more violence; a vicious cycle of crime leading to desperation and desperation leading to crime, ever escalating (as seen with the War on Drugs which has led to an increase of drug use, drug sales and drug-related incarcerations; and similar to what is seen with abstinence-only education and abortion bans which lead to an increase of teen pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies, abortions and STDs).

In considering the conservative response, I see something even more fundamental going on. It’s not just an issue of ideologically moralizing about empathy and compassion. It goes to a deeper level of how we view the world and experience reality, a level of the psyche that isn’t easily accessed by the conscious mind for our fundamental worldview is formed prior to even our sense of self being fully formed. This has to do with how one is raised or rather the environment in which one is raised. I keep coming back to the research that showed kids who grew up in multicultural environments tended to become socially liberal as adults (and vice versa for kids who grew up with monocultural environments).

That is essentially what differentiates my parents and I. A simple, yet crucial difference. More importantly, a difference that neither my parents nor I chose for ourselves, like everyone else simply a given of the social world we were born into.

This is why it’s so frustrating. After reaching adulthood, people rarely change. My parents experienced plenty of multiculturalism as adults, but they didn’t experience it during the key formative periods of youth. They can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a multicultural world, just as I can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a monocultural world. Morality and ideology fails us in this conundrum.

I can’t say my parents are objectively wrong for putting their principles before empathy. All I can do is argue that principles not based on and instead contrary to empathy aren’t worthy principles… but that is an opinion that is only persuasive to those who already agree with me.

Is there a way to frame the discussion so that conservatives would understand the central value of compassionate empathy? I know my parents would like to be empathetically understood by others. Such a desire is a potential beginning point for developing an ability and willingness to offer this to others. But why does the plea for mutual understanding almost always end up being characterized as a liberal agenda? Doesn’t mutual understanding benefit all, conservatives included? Is there a reason conservatives don’t want mutual understanding? Do they think some people don’t deserve it because they didn’t morally earn it? Do they see understanding offered freely as a moral danger, both to the person receiving and the person giving?

As always, I wish I understood.

My Bumper Car Philosophy of Life

I sometimes find myself complaining about a particular person or group or criticizing a type of person. It’s amusing. Everyone feels this way sometimes. In being who we are, we inevitably can’t fully understand (emotionally or cognitively) others who are very different from us. It’s perfectly normal, but most often we don’t think about how odd this is.

None of us really knows why we are the way we are or even exactly how we became that way. We all have our own stories that explain our lives, but these really are just rationalizations to explain away the uncomfortable fact that we are mostly shaped by and motivated by things of which we are unaware. The factors that go into making a human are infinite, beyond comprehension. Maybe what bothers us about not understanding others is that we ultimately don’t even understand ourselves.

In life, we are driving blind. We learn of the world by running into things. This is my bumper car philosophy of life.