I’m curious about how we lose empathy – in self or as a whole culture – toward people, or life, or land. How we lose that sense that we are all connected, that we belong to each other. How do we lose the perspective of life as interdependent. I’m curious because Mother Teresa is right that without that sense of belonging we can have no peace. We fight a war with ourselves.
I like peace. I like people having hope. I like the idea that our children will have them both as well. We need to know we belong, and for that we need empathy; to see from the shoes and through the eyes of others; to feel how it would feel if it was we on the other end of heartlessness.
I’m curious because that battle between the gain and loss of empathy – of belonging and ‘othering’ – is so much part of our history. We have created and shifted the borders of empathy behind which we feel a belonging – on that other side are the outsiders – the others. We have created and then dissolved boundaries based on empire, nation, province, race, gender and class, corporate and public, one generation before and another yet to come, even humanity as distinct from the rest of life and land. “Us versus them,” “it’s either one thing or the other,” often wrapped up in the rhetoric of competition, exploitation, dominion and threat.
We have presumed that our relative position is a reflection of merit and our particular god’s favour. We think exploitation is gain because we do not measure the losses that count, because we do not have the empathy to even know what counts, nor to realise the risks to our own demise. Things bite back …. because we are interdependent. We who ravage the fisheries and the communities for personal gain think we do not belong to these people, or this planet …. even though we do. We justify the sin of abuse of power from within a bubble of ignorance and bigotry. We are better. We are right. We deserve. They do not.
It makes the vice of exploitation a sweet virtue, measured in dollars.
And we keep changing our gods to suit our rationalisations of what is …. wrong. Our current god is money and the market. The weak suffer because they ought. The poor suffer because they so choose. The suffering are here because the market dictates.
I’m curious because when I read Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax the witch saying that evil begins when we start to treat people as ‘things’, it rings true. I’m curious because I was trained to think and analyse as a technocrat of ‘resources’: the ultimate ‘things’ outside ourselves.
Think about what that involves. You hone in on measured projections instead of out to the wider whole and what it is to live and be. You create artificial boundaries in your own mind; monocultures of the mind.
We were also told of that risk of siloed thought, “Think broad, not too narrow.” But to the younger mind the measured projections have the illusion of being tangible – “misplaced concreteness!” said Whitehead – and at least have the appearance of being defendable and grounded (numbers give that mythical whiff of ‘objectivity’), while the whole is a nebulous promise for those artistic ‘others’. And some people, and some disciplines, will never grow up. They will for ever fail to see that they mistake what is an abstract – a number framed by subjective choosing they cannot even imagine – as the real world.
When you are older and wise enough to read Terry Pratchett, it makes you reflect on your own attraction to technocracy. I’m curious because I know enough of history to recall horrifying stories of the narrowly justified rendering of two-legged ‘resources’ into soap, train scheduling, and of strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Just things. Will our future generations look back on our treatment of our land and communities with the same judgment we now reserve for the slavers of yesterday?
I’m curious because is it not the most perennial of philosophies, of all the religions, to treat others as you would yourself? That is a creed of belonging to each other. I’m curious because while many will put their hands on heart and call themselves committed to this religion or that – all of which have at their core the Golden Rule of “do unto others …” – when it comes to acting, we apply the Rule within our own convenient boundaries of belonging. If they are considered inside the border, then of course. If they are outside, then of course not. Never mind the parable of the good Samaritan (the point being that he was an other, so empathise with others). When it comes to how we apply the Golden Rule, we like to make exceptions. We like to call some people infidel; unbelievers; other. AKA things. It gives us an excuse to abuse and still feel we have right and are right.
And if we cannot care for people, why should we care for the land? How can you ‘abuse’ a mere measured commodity, a mere thing? A thing is not a moral patient; we need not be concerned. And if we get to the point of treating people as things … well, what hope has the land?
Industrialise, commoditise, otherise – pick your synonym.
All this waxing and waning of the boundaries where belonging ends and things begin is confusing. We are not – however much we would hope – on some inevitable progression of a more inclusive sense of belonging. I think we are going backwards on the journey with the rise of pernicious and power-concentrating commercial fetish.
Aldo Leopold writes (optimistically) in his Land Ethic of a broadening empathy of that family of belonging from Odysseus (who on return from his odyssey,
hanged his young slave girls – mere property – on suspicion) through to the emancipation of our “Enlightened” age. He is an optimist. We began back in the depths of slavery and some bizarre hierarchy of being; but look how far we have come!
Have we? Oh that it was that simple; that one day we would progress upon Leopold’s single premise of each of us as a member of a community of interdependent parts – with a land ethic as simply an enlargement of that boundary of belonging. Lie back and watch as we extend emancipation and belonging to all of humanity, and then bring in the land.
But Modernity gave us new ways to set ourselves as individuals apart as ‘man alone’, to distance ourselves, to place some of us above and others below; new hierarchies of beings. Rationality hasn’t hindered the development of a new elite who consider themselves entitled and above. If anything the new Dogmas of the day have encouraged it. Let us worship the dollar and anything else we can multiply and divide. Modernity gave us technocracy, and then the more insane versions of economics where abstracts substitute for what is real.
We have glorified independence, silos and competition; factions and fractions and disintegrations; reductions and rejections of anything that does not sit still long enough to be measured. Our current fetish is for seeing the world even more as silos of us and other with all the incumbent blinkers of within the box thinking.
We have regressed by turning Aristotle on his head and placing wisdom and questions of “what ought we to do?” and “what is good?” far beneath what he considered mere facts and techniques. We have let the tools drive our humanity, rather than humanity decide where and when we apply the tools. Because we can exploit the land – in a measured, monetised, industrialised, commoditised and wonderfully technological way of course – then ought we?
Utter fallacy. Naturally.
Our once indigenous ways of seeing the broadest interdependencies of land and people are now treated as superstition before the gods worshipped by the technocrats. They see no irony there. The wisdom of the Humanities and the Arts that seek truth in ways other than through numbers are treated as infidel by the STEM technocracies. Do a STEM subject, the policy makers say, get paid more relative to those unbelievers. We are so much in competition that we feel the need to label ourselves, so that we can position, again. I’m frankly sick of spreadsheets and models. I know how often they are misapplied, what contexts they deride, in whose status quo interests they lie, and what crap they hide.
And now the defining of people and land by some abstract dollar measure has come along to break up the sense of belonging even more. Now we are all things, ‘resources’, ‘consumers’, ‘customers’, ‘clients’ in the marketplace that they try to tell us defines what it is to live. Class is re-emerging; winners and losers. The recolonising of land and communities by the new powerful corporate elite whose own definition of merit – great commercial power over the ‘worker/peasants’ – justifies much the same abuse in their minds as colonisation was justified in the past by greater military power over the ‘natives’.
I’m curious about how we lose empathy for those with whom we in reality coexist – to whom we belong – because the diminishing of land and people and communities to things is not just a deeply unethical way of seeing; it is also a completely unsustainable way of being.
And I’m curious because I don’t really know how it is going to stop, or when it will turn around. Though I know it will. Because we won’t be here for many more generations if it doesn’t.