The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Instant Empathy?

An odd and fascinating account of an experiment allowing (or forcing) human beings to experience reality from the perspective of another human being...or even a mannequin. Imagine using this to teach sexists or racists or criminals to experience life from the position of the "other," or their victims.

I clearly remember the day it finally occurred to me that insects, animals and the like had "inwardness"--that they felt pain and fear the same way I did. I was about six years old, and swinging a kitten around by the forepaws, and there was something so funny about the expression on its face, in its eyes. Almost as if it was scared. Which was impossible, of course. I mean, I'd been told that animals don't feel pain the way we do. If adults told me this, it must be true, right? But the kitten tried to scratch me, just as I would have tried to hurt someone who hurt me. And it meowed in a very different way than it did when I stroked its fur. And its eyes were wide, almost like mine might have been if I was...

And I put the kitten down, and started wondering about the snails I put salt on, and the butterflies I trapped in the summer heat inside our Studebaker, and the ants I burned with a magnifying glass...

It took a few more years to work it all out, but that was the beginning. Now, empathy alone doesn't create kind or humane behavior. After all...what if you don't like yourself? But it's a damned good start. The beginning of one entire family of evil is objectifying the "other" ("they don't X like we do..." My favorite of these recently is the "Muslims don't value life" trope aimed at suicide bombers. On the other hand, G.I.'s who jump on grenades are given posthumous medals, and lauded for their love of country and companions.)


I was asked recently to give my definition of "good." A tough one, and I thought it through for a moment before offering the following: "whatever increases the net amount of order in the world, and also makes the children safer." I'm sure there are lots of holes that can be poked in that, but it was the best I could come up with off the cuff.

Somehow, a member of the audience took my comments and started off on a Libertarian rant against taxes, as any taxes are the result of an illegitimate application of force, which increases the amount of violence (and disorder?) in the world. I asked my usual questions: how do you pay for schools? And his position was that individuals should pay for their own schooling. And that leaves the poor exactly where? Well, without taxes, there wouldn't be any poor people.

Hmm. And criminals? He felt there should be private police. And private prisons, each operated by a separate security company? Each with different rules and laws?

I would have a difficult time even writing a serious story about a world like that, unless I wanted to paint it a total dystopia. Thom Hartman calls Libertarians "Republicans who want to get laid and smoke dope" and I think that's too dismissive. But I'm still waiting for a conversation with one who can explain their perspective in a really useful way. I'm sure it's just the Libertarians I run into, and not the core of the movement, but far too often it seems that they're simply railing against the reciprocal obligations implicit in any society at all. Since birth, we are enmeshed in a web of rules and laws imposed by parents and schools and so forth. You can escape them by dying, or by getting completely off the grid. I'm not sure what the third option is.

Too often, I hear what SOUNDS like people saying that they want to take advantage of the infrastructure created by generations of those who DID contribute to the commons...but then not give back. Which sounds to me a lot like stealing. Really, it sounds a lot like the "Mine!" scream of a three-year-old who wants to take what you have, but keep whatever he thinks is his. The more reasonable Libertarians seem to say something similar to what everyone else says: "limit government, control waste, lower taxes..."

Who doesn't say something similar to that? They may disagree on which aspects of government to limit, or what constitutes waste, or whose taxes should be lowered. But I've never heard anyone campaign on "grow government, waste tons, and raise everyone's taxes." So I have to admit to being a bit confused here. I do feel that I have a grasp of the basic positions of Left and Right. But other than "survival of the fittest," I just can't figure Libertarianism out.


As the economy continues to nose-dive, I hope you guys are doing your damnedest to take care. All my writing life, I've been pretty good at making money, not so good at holding on to it. Trying to turn that around, which can be challenging given that my income is so damned irregular. If you feed a human being irregularly, it seems to encourage their brain to binge. I think that the same thing is true of an irregular income. If you've gone months without a check, and a BIG one comes in, logic says that that check really ain't so big--you have to spread it out over the months to really get a sense of what you're earning, and what you'll need. But emotionally, the brain can go "WOWSA!" and you start looking at all the neat toys you've previously denied yourself.

It's harder if two artists live with each other, so that there is no stable income at all. But I suppose that that's just part of the burden that accompanies the freedom of an artist's life. Yeah, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, but still, the suspense of waiting for that next check can curl your toes.

And the question of the day is: what is the greatest area of insecurity in your life right now?


Pagan Topologist said...

Greatest area of insecurity: Too much credit card debt.

Anonymous said...

:leaving the safety of the RSS feed to comment:

My greatest area of insecurity: Caring what other people think about me.

Anonymous said...

"Republicans who want to get laid and smoke dope"

I consider myself a Libertarian and, ummm...that's actually a pretty good definition :).

However, I think most Libertarians see the value in government. I wouldn't want a private police force or prisons or (shudder) a military. Those things are actually legitimate functions of government. I do question governmental redistribution of wealth though and wonder if it is actually Constitutional.


Unknown said...

On the "Muslims don't value life" trope, I'm reminded of that sequence in Hearts and Minds where Westmoreland's remarks about how
"The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner" was juxtaposed with the grieving family of a Vietnamese soldier.

On irregular income and artists: That's why, if I could, between myself and my husband, have one and only one of us make money from writing, I'd rather it were him. Better for the bipolar spouse to have the irregular work and income, while I hold down the steady job with benefits.

And the greatest area of insecurity in my life right now would be my husband's various chronic illnesses (bipolar disorder, diabetes, a heart condition, asthma, gout). (My own health, though, is probably better than average for my age. I got better health genes than he did.)

Bennett said...

Getting into grad school is an area of insecurity for me. All the others avenues of success in my life are more or less under my control. If I fail to train or practice or write, that's my own failing in discipline and time management. But the decision as to whether or not I get into a program lies in the hands of other people, and all I can do is hope to influence it. Not a great feeling to have one's future outside one's own sphere of control.

Josh Jasper said...

I'm reminded of Alan Greenspan, prime disciple of libertarian guru Ayn Rand admitting that there was a "fundamental flaw" in market self regulation.

I'm not a communist by any means, but neither am I in favor of a total free market society with no social spending.

Greatest area of insecurity - the economy. If it were something under my control, I could do something about it.

Menduir said...

Greatest area of insecurity right now: a friendship which might not survive into next year. All of the problems can be boiled down to one word: communication.

One other part of today's post got my attention: "Since birth, we are enmeshed in a web of rules and laws imposed by parents and schools and so forth. You can escape them by dying, or by getting completely off the grid. I'm not sure what the third option is."

Well, revolution is a third option: the wholesale destruction one society and replacement with another. I think the problem is that too many people don't realize that society is a compromise ... almost nobody gets their own way all the time. We reap the benefits, we suffer the obligations, and we work within the system to make things more acceptable to us. If the system is working (more or less), to choose revolution smacks of selfishness, at least to me. Of course, there are always those who will choose it. (And the fact that the American Revolution worked, and provided the U.S.A. with a set of wonderful ideals to reach for, doesn't change the fact that there were other possibilities.)

~ Jas. Marshall

Mark Jones said...

I think part of your confusion, Steve, is that you're mixing libertarians (generally believers in the minimal "caretaker" state) and anarchists (the private police and jails crowd). Ayn Rand, no proponent of large government, had no use for anarchists either.

I'd _like_ to be an anarchists. I'd _like_ to believe we could live together without giving _anyone_ power over anyone else. Alas, the history of the world suggests otherwise. A constitutional republic with strictly limited powers seems like the best of a bad lot of ways to handle that issue. Not ideal, certainly, but utopia is not an option.

Anonymous said...

On empathy: you can see this already without the high-grade VR apparatus, in Second Life. It's just pictures on a screen driven through a mouse and keyboard, but people often identify very closely with their avatars. It would be interesting to get a bunch of Second Lifers to put on a completely different avatar for a week and see what the experience is like.

Anonymous said...

An afterthought on empathy: knowing someone else's feelings, and caring, are two different things. Some people know exactly how much they are hurting other people. That is why they do it. From VR therapy they might just learn how to do it better.

Lester Spence said...

My greatest area of insecurity used to be fear of taking care of my children (my wife and i have five kids). My fear is no longer really that...but it's that I'm not quite good enough to be, and at 40 that I've already maxed out.

Shawn Scarber Deggans said...

Steve, I think your confusion on Libertarianism is well founded. Simply put, there is no easy definition for Libertarianism. However, I wouldn't call it survival of the fittest. There are two principles Libertarianism stresses that are worth appreciating: the non-aggression principle and the trader principle. If you understand these two things your well on your way to understanding the foundation of that particular philosophy.

Josh Jasper: Ayn Rand is not a Libertarian by any stretch of the imagination—Libertarianism picked apart her philosophy to use what they wanted, and pretty much ignored the actual Ethics. That's not exactly treating her like a guru. And Greenspan was the antithesis of what Rand stood for. What he did was quite the opposite of what the philosophy actually calls for. I'm sorry to see so many people now under the impression that somehow we've been following Ayn Rand advocated markets and this is what has led to our current economic situation—because we haven't, and they wouldn't have.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

My greatest area of insecurity is probably fear of feeling emotional intensity.

As for libertarianism, I'm somewhat of a libertarian, but am still figuring out what seems most likely to work well.

One plus for libertarian theory: it marks the war on drugs as obviously a bad idea, and I don't know of any other political philosophy which gets that one right.

Frank said...

Insecurity comes from expecting tomorrow to be pretty much the same as today.

I pretty much live my life as if everything could go to hell in an instant.

Because, well, it could.

Marty S said...

My greatest insecurity is my mind. My memory has gotten a lot worse in the past couple of years and I seem to be walking down the road of my mother. She suffered from dementia and did not know her own children by the time she passed. I am afraid that some time in the not too distant future I will become a walking shell that lives, but doesn't exist.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about
what my answer to this is
for several hours now

and since nothing definitive pops to mind
we can assume I'm heavy into denial
I am extremely laid back

I like to think it's the latter.

it's not economic
although certainly there are things
that could change in a downward direction
and if that happened I'd rely upon
some of my skills to make
what I'm currently living on

health anxieties?
nope I don't have any
as my body is functioning very well
and all in all I listen to it
and take care of it quite well

my mind
seems to be on
I think about
and write about
and wish to write about
and wish to explore further
many things

having watched a parent succumb
to TIA's which in the end
have the same effect as Alzheimer's
and having seen a parent ravaged
physically by rampant soft tissue tumors
I know I will not travel that far
down either of those roads

so I have no anxieties
about that

I have no anxieties
about being alone
and lonely

and not about being dead
though laaaaa but I love
being alive

I try to imagine
not the world continuing
for others after I'm Not
but imagine all this
that goes on within my skin
and the complexity of neuronal webs
woven in my Mind
imaging THAT not being
beggars my ability
to imagine

the fates have been exceptionally
kind to me
so I assume
getting from Being to
Not Being
will be a gentle process
I chose
not to be anxious
about that

I think perhaps
insecurity is
has come to be
not very large in my life

and I'm actually quite
delightfully surprised
that this is so
at this time in my life
(I'm soon to be a hot 69)

Reluctant Lawyer said...

On the empathy VR: interesting concept. Psychologists have said one thing criminals frequently lack is an empathy for those they harm. When I was a prosecutor in the juvenile courts in Chicago, they were using "Victim-offender conferences," where the defendants were required to attend panels with people who had been harmed by similar types of crimes.

Greatest insecurity: finances. Although the next year has a lot of potential.

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking about this and my bigest insecurity is not achieving my goals..

I have done well in the area of finace and if I get laid off, I am close to having all debt paid off and could live on unemployment.

Health: survived radiation and turned down a great job with the administation - need to be more balanced and drop the excess armour.

Spirit- love my relationships, I am well loved and love well.

So it is not making my goals...


Mike R said...

The whole "animals don't feel pain" never had much of scientific evidence behind it. Evolutionaryily speaking, all mammalian pain sensors developed off of an ur-mamal and are very similar in form and function, so it makes sense that they feel pain pretty much like we do.

Anonymous said...

"My favorite of these recently is the "Muslims don't value life" trope aimed at suicide bombers. On the other hand, G.I.'s who jump on grenades are given posthumous medals, and lauded for their love of country and companions.)

Analogy Fail.

Josh Jasper said...

Marty - Important medical advice - if you've got high blood pressure, do take it seriously. High blood pressure has been tied to neurological changes that might cause Alzheimer's. Talk to your doctor, and if you're worried, get a neuropsych consult.

Marty S said...

Josh: Thanks for the advise. I have my blood pressure under control with liptor and I have seen a neurologist. Apparently other than my brain having shrunk more than normal for my age he found nothing wrong, so I hope its really normal forgetfulness for my age and I won't follow my mother's road, but I can't stop worrying about it.
By the way he gave me a picture of my brain on cd which kept and think is pretty cool

Anonymous said...

A friend said that he though Libertarianism was a great idea- until he met his first Libertarian. Maybe it's just the ones I've met - young, healthy males, mostly - but I have this notion about why diehard Libertarians are Libertarians. It seems like they're very self-sufficient, have never incurred a challenge that wasn't the right size to make them stronger, never met one that was too large and crippled them. Then they just naturally assume that everyone else is the same way, that if someone just bucks up and makes the effort he can succeed, regardless of the situation. Maybe a less harsh attitude than the uncaring Darwinism and plain insensitivity that's often attributed to them...?

Boy, did you pick a good time to make the insecurity question easy to answer: Financial; debt and job both.

Some guy

Anonymous said...

P.S. To be entirely honest, I have to add something. My recent and dramatic insecurity really is financial. But my longer-term and deeper insecurity is about not having become anything. To misquote a favorite SF author: "He
was so weary of having POTENTIAL."

Steve Perry said...

Yep. When I was an Ayn Rand groupie, we thought the Libertarians were commie pinkos ...

Anonymous said...

Don't make the mistake of confusing "small-l" libertarians with "large-L" Libertarian Party hacks.

Like any political party, the necessity for group identity forces "winnowing" definitions. Like small political parties everywhere, the "L's" have taken this to levels of self-parody.

People's Front of Judea, anyone?

B the II said...

on consciousness of 'lower' organisms. . . I am a strange loop by Douglas Hofstader. Same author of Godel Escher and Bach writes a version for the other 99.956987% of humanity.

Lobo said...

I guess the biggest insecurity I have is of my health. I recently had my 35th birthday and I've had some existential anxiety due to the fact that it's half over for me. Probably less with my weight problem.

My experience with libertarian philosophy (big and little 'l') is that 99% of it would collapse with a comprehensive reading of the Constitution. They tend to hang their hat on what the Constitution ain't. It's very similar to the "Christian Nation" folks. Be wary of any libertarian proclamation that x behavior is unconstitutional.

Ayn Rand was an objectivist. Anyone who claims to be an objectivist should never be trusted.

Heathertaqa said...

P.S. To be entirely honest, I have to add something. My recent and dramatic insecurity really is financial. But my longer-term and deeper insecurity is about not having become anything. To misquote a favorite SF author: "He was so weary of having POTENTIAL."

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