Empathy and Politics

new_age

It’s Saturday. The sun is out. It’s early and my malaise hasn’t yet caught up with me, so I will try to post something. Ever since I “retired” from my active role as an academic researcher and teacher, I have been on a quest to discover what makes me and the world work the way they do. I put me first because I think I need to figure myself out before I can do the same for the world. Toward this end, I even taught a course on the history of the “self” at my life-long learning institute.

My last few posts signal that I have come upon a powerful story that goes a long way to answer that question. In part only, as it describes the engine that shapes who we are, the brain, but not the individual output, that is, my own self or identity. McGilchrist’s model (see the last several posts) of the divided brain is complex, but can be summarized in this relatively simple statement: “Each hemisphere of the brain constructs a distinct world, one connecting to the present; the other to the past. Our identity depends on which one tends to control our behavior.”

The right side presents the present world to us as a living system, rich in interconnections and unique objects. The left to a flattened world with some of the same objects, but taken out of the rich context as separate parts, appearing only as categorical abstractions. I, as a self, show up to others differently depending on which hemisphere is in charge. I am using self only in a metaphorical sense to help me continue today’s story. My body expresses whatever the brain wants me to do no matter which side is in charge, but the nature of that expression differs distinctly. So let me talk about a left-brain self (LBS) and a right-brain self (RBS) to describe the two different persons that will be observed by others. Any such assessment must be made over a long period because the source of any single event is difficult to ascertain, unless the actor is asked for an explanation.

The RBS’s actions are specific to the present scene, reflecting a connectedness to the objects it contains. They are empathetic, coming from an understanding of the objects in their contextual situatedness. People show up as live individuals, each with a set of feelings and beliefs, just as does the RBS. If asked later to explain the action, the RBS will point to herself as the source of the beliefs and strategies. Explanations will tend to be pragmatic, focusing of the possibility that the chosen action would work.

The LBS’s actions are also related to the present scene, but may lack contextual specificity that results in undesired outcomes. They are routine, coming from abstract knowledge acquired through past experience. People show up as bundles of abstract attributes. If asked later to explain the action, the LBS will point to a general other as the source of the beliefs and strategies. Explanations will tend to be analytic, focusing of the probability that the chosen action would work.

McGilchrist makes a connection between individual hemispheric dominance and the general character of the society comprised by the individuals, arguing that modern life today reflects left-brain dominance. A quick scan of the primary societal institutions leads to an affirmation. Capitalism is conceptually a machine in which certain categories—capital (money), labor (people) and resources (the Earth) interact to produce increasing amounts of material goods and more wealth (money). All the categories are commodities, simply material objects with certain attributes. The contextual reality of both people and the Earth has been removed from the concept and its manifestation in practice. The contextual reality of inequality, that is the effects on real people, simply is not present. Smith’s model of the invisible hand is another abstraction behind the right side of the political spectrum, ironically because it represents the LBS.

Education, beginning at an early age, is designed to beef up the LBS. STEM training (not education in a right-brain sense) is pushing out music and art, both located in the right. In my lifetime, employment has shifted from an empathetic basis where workers were recognized as individuals with a life outside of work to mere commodities to be hired and fired at will, based largely, if not entirely, on their economic value. Many politicians have become economic actors, responding to the wishes of those whose wealth controls the electoral process. More and more people get their “information” from the Internet and “communicate” through some form of “social” media. The quotes are deliberate to indicate that these processes remove context and present a diminished view of the world and other human beings.

Empathetic understanding and behavior have taken a big hit from these modern institutions and technologies. Without it, social coherence is all but impossible to create and maintain. The social capital of Robert Putnam depends on it. Trust disappears as it has, not only between individuals but between individuals and collective institutions, particularly government and media, but also others like public schools, CEO, big Pharma and so on. Trust between individuals is built on specific past experience, but, in general, arises out of an empathetic sense of the other as sharing your own beliefs and norms. As the left-brain grows in dominance, empathy declines and trust follows.

It is pretty clear that the US world is not working well by any standard except economic growth— the epitome of abstractions. More left-brain derived solutions from any place in the political spectrum are unlikely to provide relief. People will continue feel alienated, even as the dissatisfactions of everyday concern may be lessened. A job will surely help the unemployed, but the nature of the job does matter. Money is itself an abstraction that without the proper context cannot feed the whole person, only the stomach.

Lack of empathy, given the divided brain model, is a pretty good indicator of very strong left-brain dominance. LBS’s see others as mere objects with some kind of attributes, positive or negative depending on the viewer’s own set of values. Perhaps this is a route to try to understand mass murder. The victims of mass murderer’s are mere objects. This is true for isolated crimes such as occurred in Las Vegas and in organized murder by religious and political factions. Ideology is another name for particularly powerful abstractions residing in the left-brain.

I believe that there is a clue in this model for those dedicating all or a part of their lives to making the world a better place. New ideas might help, but not likely; most will simply reinforce the dominance of the left-brain. Change that begins to restore the dominance of the right-brain offers a better shot at solving the issues of alienations and distrust that pervade the social atmosphere today. Bring government back to the scale where real people are represented. Stop allowing business to grow at the expense of small enterprises that are built upon relationships. Yes, this means to drop left-brain concepts like efficiency that ignore the reality of individual lives. The New Agers of the 70’s had a lot right, but got diverted into the realm of religion.

Part of the malaise I mentioned at the beginning of this post comes from the sense of enormity that I get in thinking and writing about this topic. Changing beliefs is difficult but can be done through both argument and evidence, but deliberately changing the way our brain works has never been done on a large scale. I see the growth of mindfulness training as part of an incipient sense that all is not right in the home or the office. But this growth is largely fueled by left-brain concerns over effectiveness in the workplace or other instrumental objectives. This and other ways to strengthen the right-brain’s muscle are much more critical to keeping the world from blowing apart than all the firepower and ideological “solutions” being played with today.

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