Tag Archives: philosophy

The Need for Compassionate Law

As 2018 comes to an end and the world looks to an increasingly uncertain future, it is worthwhile to reflect on the importance of compassion in public life.  On the one hand, it seems it should not be necessary to remind ourselves of the need for compassion, while on the other hand, there has never been a time when it is more vital to think about it.

When I speak of compassion I consider it to be similar to the emotion of empathy, which means the ability to identify closely with the feelings of another.  However, empathy is an emotion, while compassion is emotion plus action.  Empathy is personal, individual, and private.  When one experiences empathy, it is not necessarily expressed.  Many of us feel empathy for the plight of refugees, but few of us take any action based on those feelings.  Compassion is both an expression and an action, something that is a unique responsibility of the powerful.  It is the world’s 1% who, due to their elite position, have the most ability to exercise compassion.  Consequently, the world’s 1% (and if you live in a relatively wealthy developed country, you are part of this elite) uniquely bear the moral responsibility to exercise compassion.  The exercise and practice of compassion as an action is much rarer than the feeling of empathy, partly because wealth and inequality suppress the expression of compassion.  As the world becomes wealthier and more unequal, generosity declines.

Even more unusual is the embedding of compassion into the practices of a society, in other words, through its laws and institutions.  Are institutions capable of compassion?  Indeed they must be, because if social structures can be violent and oppressive, then it stands to reason that the opposite must also be possible:  institutions and laws can be written in compassionate ways, with compassionate ends.  It is the public exercise of compassion with which I am most concerned with, because it raises the potential for people to write compassionate institutions and laws.  Compassionate laws are necessary because, as suggested, individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.

Compassionate laws make it possible for persons to express and act on their feelings of empathy, because they can see that those feelings are socially elevated.  The Dali Lama talks about something similar in the Education of the Heart. Compassionate law can help to educate and give permission for people to act on their empathy.  To say that law can be compassionate goes beyond a ‘minimalist’ vision of law – that law is only there to level the playing field and justice means equal treatment under the law.   Even if law were able to do this leveling, an element of compassion is also essential to the achievement of equal treatment, since law must be attentive to justice.  In this sense, human rights law is essentially compassionate in its purpose. Based on observation of the current state of law in the US, it is clearly not able to even achieve the minimal goal of equal treatment or fairness.  The gap between law and justice can be reduced with adequate attention to the need for compassionate law.

The kind of compassion I’m thinking about should also be distinguished from altruism, although compassion relies on altruism, they are not identical.  Altruism, which is a kind of selflessness, or non-self interested attitude of generosity and giving, is a vital component of compassion, because altruistic motives reduce the temptation to use demonstrations of compassion for self-promotion.  Compassionate law is one very effective way to express altruism.  Indeed, compassionate law resists self-interested motives by moving altruism from the private to the public sphere and thereby removing the personal motives that might affect compassionate and just outcomes.

The enactment of compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.

Recently, some thinking on giving and charity has been diverted from these concepts of compassion by a concern with effectiveness.  Rather than asking how can giving be more compassionate, the question becomes: how can giving be most effective?   As one proponent argues: “Instead of doing charity in a way that makes people feel good, effective altruists rely on rigorous, evidence-based analysis to decide how to donate money, where to donate, and which careers are most ethical.” I would argue that this is a diversion.  Effective altruists argue using a utilitarian measure:  what is good for the most number of people must be the best and most effective form of giving.  Using this algorithm, how might one decide between funding one individual’s education and funding a food program for thousands?  Probably many more people can be helped with the food program, but over the course of a lifetime what effect might a highly educated individual have, especially if they were able to achieve a position in which they could institute more compassionate laws?  The effort to reduce giving to an algorithm sacrifices the element of compassion and arguably undermines the goal of achieving more effective giving.  It’s not that effective altruism is wrong, it just kind of misses the point.  What is really changed, even if a larger number of people are helped by a given action?  There is a risk in reinforcing the status quo and ensuring that giving will continue to be necessary far into the future, violating the goal of achieving truly altruistic giving.

Compassionate laws are necessary because individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.

The enactment of compassionate law can, over time and with much learning, come closer to achieving lasting and effective results because it builds-in the principle of altruism by removing self-promotion from the equation.  In addition, compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.  The human tendency to self-aggrandizement and acquisitiveness is worsened by inequality.  Inequality erodes people’s ability to be altruistic and even their ability to empathize.  Compassion is needed in a highly unequal world because it is effective, and it is effective because it is authoritative and self-reflexive.  The exercise of compassion invites reflection upon one’s own position and relatively good fortune.  The proponents of effective altruism are right that relying on natural generosity and emotion is insufficient to make for effective giving, but they are wrong to abandon the idea of compassion, which is needed now more than at any other time of history.  This season of giving, consider ways that you might contribute to the establishment of compassionate law, or if this is too ambitious, think about how you can help others express and act on their feelings of empathy, working together with others.  For starters, you might consider sharing this post!

 

Mars is the Planet We Want

The atmosphere on Mars is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, with an average temperature of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Only 16 of the 39 total Mars missions have been successful.  Mars is about as far from habitable as we can imagine any environment.  Pretty inhospitable, right?  So what is it about Mars that captures the imagination of the public?

As our own planet degrades, are we simply casting around for any alternative, no matter how challenging or unlikely? Afloat on a sinking lifeboat, are we (and by ‘we’ I mean the world’s 2% who have any hope of escaping) planning on being castaways for generations into the future?   I think not.  I think Mars has appeal for other reasons, and these date back to the era of colonialism in the late 19th century.

Colonialism was the ultimate escape from the uncomfortable truths of home, it glorified a narrative of supremacy and heroism.

From the 1870s to the 1890s European powers fought, pillaged, destroyed, and exploited the peoples and territories variously under their control around the world.  Africa in particular was an object of focus, a field of colonial competition and experimentation.  Although the forces at work driving colonialism were at least partially strategic, they were also cultural, gaining importance due to broad social trends that gave meaning and legitimacy to an otherwise obviously violent project.  At least part of the drive to dominate was an awareness of the losses at home, the shortage of resources and the decline of life quality that had accompanied industrialism.  Colonialism was the ultimate escape from the uncomfortable truths of home, it glorified a narrative of supremacy and heroism.

The natural world played an important part in this project.  Colonialism was celebrated in the drawing rooms and smoking rooms of English nobility, adorned with the heads of hunting trophies, some beautiful, some made fearsome to elevate the social status of the hunter.   The larger and more dangerous the prey, the more remote and unforgiving the location, the more revered was the hunter who made the shot.  Check this piece by Maximilian Werner to see how this biosocial dynamic, including its gender dimension, still holds sway. The exercise of domination over nature embedded a narrative of triumph over adversity, struggle and reward, similar to the social Darwinist theories of racial superiority which were also gaining traction as more remote peoples and lands came under colonial control.

As England degraded physically and the environment became more and more polluted by coal smoke, with forests long since cut down and cities overrun with poor migrating for work in the industrial centres, a movement arose to preserve and protect the countryside and the rural way of life.  Romantics painted a rosy picture of the village, with quaint gardens and carefully tended homes, and mourned the loss of Hobbiton (OK, that came later, but you catch my drift).

20181109_130452For the colonial mindset, nature could be only two things:  it was either a garden, or a wilderness.  The garden metaphor viewed the colonies as representative of the quiet English countryside, well tended and cared for, planted and grown with care using the knowledge of scientific methods to regulate the relationships between species.  Ecological science, and particularly amateur collectors, made a strong impression by carefully gathering, cataloguing and classifying every new species and specimen ‘discovered’ in the remotest outposts of empire.  The endless frontiers would provide valuable information from which to garner wisdom about what had gone wrong in England, and the urge to recreate the Garden of Eden (to somehow earn a ‘do-over’) was strong.

The incorrigibility of Mars is no barrier, in fact it is the fuel for a profound sense of longing and loneliness.  Mars is the frontier we’ve already destroyed on Earth, the potential garden which we’ve already mismanaged.

On the other hand, the wilderness represented those areas yet to be tamed.  Large areas of Africa were virtually uninhabitable due to disease,  climatic hardships, wild animals, and dangerous and resentful local populations.   The causes of these hardships were unknown, but not unknowable.  Setbacks were common, and did incur some measure of humility and respect for the mystery of nature and the depth of the challenge of controlling what were essentially uncontrollable forces.  In the Western part of North America, wilderness was much less threatening, and its imminent loss inspired a sense of strong protection, even reverence, for the ‘natural cathedral’.  In Africa, the drive to protect wilderness took the form of hunting reserves where wild animals were protected and cultivated.  In North America, it took the form of the creation of national parks with mountain vistas which would be destinations for leisure and health as well as hunting.

peasants-in-herb-gardenSo how does the present-day vision of Mars come into this?  The colonial imagination of the garden or the wilderness is still present in Western, now in many senses, global culture.   Mars is the new canvas for the population to project its longings and dreams, and accuracy is still no part of the picture at all, just as it was with Africa.  The incorrigibility of Mars is no barrier, in fact it is the fuel for a profound sense of longing and loneliness.  Mars is the frontier we’ve already destroyed on Earth, the potential garden which we’ve already mismanaged.

In an Anthropocene epoch, when nothing on Earth is outside of human influence or touch, our own planet disappoints.  As the quintessential mysterious unknown, great status and wealth is to be gained by the race to conquer Mars, regardless of whether it turns out well.  Just as the drive to dominate ultimately undermined colonialism itself, so may the urge to colonize Mars destroy not only Mars, but also end up undermining efforts to protect what is left of the only home we’ve ever known.  One can argue this point, and perhaps I might be too pessimistic.  Might Mars end up being a wellspring of information that might be leveraged to save ourselves and our own planet?  Can we learn the real lessons of the wilderness and the garden?  I fear instead that we are not departing from the past but recreating it, not because poor Mars might end up being another junkyard (although it’s on the way already) but because we have yet to demonstrate the moral fortitude to be able to see ourselves in Mars.

Is the World Getting Better or Worse (Talk)?

This presentation takes a practical look at recent trends in the world and analyze whether the world is getting better or worse. We will look at trends in democracy, human rights and freedoms, economic growth and inequality, environmental degradation and climate change, human health, population, and governance, among others.

Governing from the Gut: Emotion in World Politics

Although often painted as problematic for rational decision making, emotion is a human trait that must be accounted for in analyses of real-world decision making processes.

Sometimes I find that classroom conversations from years ago have new relevance in the present period. I recall a classroom debate in the York University International Relations Core Course during my PhD program, over the strategic basis of nuclear deterrence. After reviewing the various claims and counter claims about the cold logic of mutually assured destruction, and inspired at least in part by Carol Cohn’s groundbreaking work “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals”,* I found myself questioning the rationalist foundations of nuclear strategy. “But (I said with all of the confidence of youth), don’t nuclear scientists and strategic game theorists care about their families and their fates? How can they be so dispassionate about contemplating total annihilation? How can they go to work and talk about clean bombs and counter value targeting (a euphemism for attacking cities) and then go home and hug and kiss their kids?”  The reason, I was told, is that they do what they do BECAUSE they care….they are dispassionate because that is how they, and we all, end up alive.  Their caring is what motivates their clear thinking.

This answer still strikes me as unsatisfying in many ways.  What precisely does it mean to ‘care’ in strategic decision making?  ‘Caring’ is an emotional response. Although often painted as problematic for rational decision making, emotion is a human trait that must be accounted for in analyses of real-world decision making processes.

There are many examples of ’emotions gone wrong’ in world politics.  George W. Bush’s strong desire to attack Iraq in 2003 was in part a personal and emotional reaction to how he perceived his father had been threatened by Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. The first attack on Iraq in 1991 was itself in part motivated by shock at widely-reported atrocities by Iraqi forces after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. These reports later turned out to be false, but the outraged reaction fed into the public’s willingness to support a new narrative of Iraq, and Hussein in particular, as a savage and villainous leader.

Before launching his invasion of Kuwait, Hussein had been considered a strategic ally, despite his use of chemical weapons against Iran and his own people. In a famous meeting between American diplomat April Glaspie and Saddam Hussein on the eve of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Glaspie said that the US had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait”. This, perhaps inadvertently, suggested a green light for Iraq to invade, a miscommunication with consequences still being felt years later.

“It is striking that people often preserve their images in the face of what seems in retrospect to have been clear evidence to the contrary” ~Robert Jervis

Analysts have approached the subject of emotion in decision making from a variety of different angles. To the extent that emotions result in misread signals and a tendency to rash action, these are viewed as highly problematic for peace, stability, and prosperity in 1426009world politics.

During the high stakes and high tensions of Cold War diplomacy, governments sought advice from experts who could help them better understand how emotions could impair rational decision making. One of those experts was Robert Jervis, whose master work Perception and Misperception in International Politics was first published in 1976.

Among the many insights in Jervis’s enduring work, the idea that cognitive dissonance, or an inability to cope with the tension between real experiences and beliefs, motivates people to misread the signals and intentions of others. As Jervis stated: “It is striking that people often preserve their images in the face of what seems in retrospect to have been clear evidence to the contrary (143).”  So true.

Jervis’s work was part of a larger conversation between realists and their critics over whether decision making could be truly rational. Realists and others argued that decision making could and should be prudent, deliberative, objective, and rigorous, if it was to be effective.  Critics, like Jervis, argued that ‘pure’ rationality was elusive, and at any rate not necessarily desirable since even the most ‘rational’ decisions can create irrational and suboptimal outcomes. The Prisoners’ Dilemma is the prime example of how ‘rational’ decision making can create less desirable outcomes than those that might come about with more trust, empathy, and communication between leaders.

One of the most important observations made by Jervis was that “perceptions of the world and of other actors diverge from reality in patterns that we can detect and for reasons that we can understand.” But is this still the case in the age of Trump?

Major policy decisions and international diplomacy now appear to be made virtually on the fly, with little deliberation, on the spur of emotional reaction that appears to have little pattern or reason. Emotion has moved to the centre of decision making, moving from the margins to be a primary driver of governance at elite and popular levels. Virtually no one sees ‘governing from the gut’ as a positive development, given the volatility of, for example, relations between the US and a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea.

sf_no_war
The Guinness Book of World Records said between 12 and 14 million people came out to protest the Iraq War on February 15th, 2003, the largest protest in the history of the world.

Is there an upside to recognizing the role of emotions in decision making? As well as being volatile, emotions can also lead people to identify and empathize with others, an important human capacity that leads to movements for peace, development assistance, and generosity during humanitarian disasters or suffering.  Just as hatred for Hussein led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, empathy and caring led hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks to protest that war in the largest demonstrations in history.  As I pointed out in class, caring is key and should be central to understanding motivations.

As well as being volatile, emotions can also lead people to identify and empathize with others, an important human capacity that leads to movements for peace, development assistance, and generosity during humanitarian disasters or suffering.

There is a marked erosion of empathy in the world today, whether caused by donor fatigue, news fatigue, or a rise in the general level of fear and threat. Anxiety ‘crowds out’ empathy.  In this context, the realist/rationalist effort to banish emotion from decision making, in both practical and theoretical terms, seems misguided.  What is needed is a reframing of the role of emotion.

Emotional reactions exist, but so do emotional connections. Empathy is needed to ‘temper’ tempers. In an ‘age of anger’ it is healthier to recognize, name and acknowledge the role of emotions in human decisions than it is to pursue an impossible goal of pure, cold, and clinical rationality. Deliberation, democracy and debate, whether on social media, in the Oval Office, or between negotiators, should be based on a mutual recognition of emotions as part of the discussion.

The point is not to exclude emotions from world politics in favour of an ideal of detached rationalism. The point is to avoid confusing emotional expressions with strategic decisionmaking.  To return to the original discussion about nuclear strategy, it is the caring that creates the strategy, the desire for self-preservation that motivates rational thinking.

The world’s history of miscommunication, misunderstanding and unintentional effects do not bode well. The key ingredients of nuclear deterrence are capability and credibility, and Trump is sorely lacking in the latter.  In the game of war, confusions of intent are, and have been, deadly: from 1914 to 2003, and up to today. To the extent that rationalist theory urges clear eyed thinking and deliberation, it can contribute to keeping cooler heads. But even rationalists should not seek to banish all emotion, since a lack of caring leads to less human decisions that ultimately may end up threatening all of us.

 

 

*I highly recommend Cohn’s piece, if only for her great lyrical analysis of gendered language in defense strategy, with terms like “vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted
versus spasm attacks” (page 693).

The Deep State or the Degraded State?

IMG_20161108_195542

Both the Left and the right have adopted the terminology of the Deep State to describe those hidden structures and relationships that permeate a state’s administrative apparatus and represent a set of semi-permanent structures that sit below the political level.  On both sides, the so-called Deep State has come to represent a fundamentally anti-democratic and secretive force operating out of public view and without accountability or transparency.   The argument from the left is that the revolving doors of Wall Street, the military and the bureaucracy have created a club of common interests that works towards favourable policies for the wealthy, including low taxes, de-regulation, militarism and regressive social and economic policies that penalize the poor. For the right, the deep state has become a force for endless bloat, overspending, over-regulation and failed global liberal projects of democratization and cosmopolitanism. In particular, the right has focused on the Obama administration’s expansion of healthcare services as a wedge to entrench even more state bureaucracies.

The polarized state of politics in the US means that there is a tendency on both sides to overstate the power, significance and uniformity of the Deep State.   In political science the term ‘deep state’ as it is presently used  does not have technical or analytical meaning.  However, political scientists sometimes made a distinction between 1. the state administrative apparatus; 2. the government, which changes frequently in response to democratic cycles; and 3. the semi-political institutions that are termed a ‘regime’, which melds the political and bureaucratic elements.  These three elements (the bureaucracy, the government, and the regime) form a larger, and much more permanent organization termed ‘the state’ which encompasses and supersedes all of these components by embodying a single legal entity from which the authority of all of the other parts flows.   The separation of institutional powers among the branches of government, and among the various bureaucracies, is permanently enshrined in the Constitution in order to prevent the abuse of power by any one of these components, all underpinned by the permanence of the rule of law.

The polarized state of politics in the US means that there is a tendency on both sides to overstate the power, significance and uniformity of the deep state.

The fact is, the directly ‘democratic’ components of the state are relatively shallow, since the temporary election of a government on top of a large permanent experienced bureaucratic apparatus cannot, of necessity, institute revolutionary changes in the short term which it is allotted.  This transience of the government is by design. Changes are always contingent on the maintenance of popular support., because any program of policies and institutions must be vetted by the people periodically. The permanence of the administration and the transience of government are complementary forces which maintain stability by the periodic checks and balances provided by democratic elections, which provide sufficient flexibility for the state to maintain relevance and responsiveness to the needs and wishes of the people. This is one key way in which a democratic state is distinguished from an authoritarian one, since in an authoritarian state like Pakistan or Turkey (as it is becoming) the Deep State acts wholly independently IMG_20161116_210123of the electoral process and has much greater power as a result.

Clearly, something has gone wrong with this careful balance.  As Eisenhower knew well, the ‘military-industrial complex’ was not made of and by the state, nor did it arise from state action, but was the main threat to the state.  When Eisenhower warned at the conclusion of his term about the creeping power of the ‘military-industrial complex’, he was referring to the entrenchment of relationships among the component parts that had become a semi-permanent structure of interests antithetical to democracy. Similarly, Mike Lofgren refers to the Deep State not as “a secret, conspiratorial cabal” but rather as “hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.” As he says “it is not a tight-knit group, and has no clear objective. Rather, it is a sprawling network, stretching across the government and into the private sector.”  This complex is composed of a loose network of relationships among ruling elites from the commercial, financial, military, scientific and governmental sectors.  In other words, it is both public and private in origin and nature.

So, what is going on? First of all, the transfer of power from one government to the next has fundamentally broken down, not only because of excessive partisanship, but also due to social divisions of interest within the ruling elites, whose ability to maintain a common interest has been compromised.

Second, this set of alliances threatens the state writ large, because it can potentially affect the more permanent institutions without reference to the vetting of the periodic democratic checks of elections.  The problem with these relationships is not that they are secret (they aren’t) nor that they are hostile to social, political and economic progress (because they have been and can be progressive) but because they have failed in their most important function: to create and maintain legitimacy.  Until recently, this admittedly problematic arrangement could be relied upon to organize and underpin (or at least, not obstruct) peaceful and orderly transitions of government that, if not democratic, at least could be said to command the legitimate support of sufficient numbers of the public to maintain the authority of the state itself.

Finally (and you can probably see where I’m going here) the system has been broken by an inability of the ruling elites to agree on the fundamental direction of the state.  The state itself is not broken, nor is the Constitution, nor (yet) is the democratic mechanism for transferring power between regimes.

What could once be a strategy for election, must now be a strategy of grasping for the broken pieces of the state that have been set adrift and unclaimed.

What is broken is the legitimacy of the state, its ability to rally support and meet demands, the most basic functions of statehood.  The problem is not that the Deep State is a monolithic and autonomous shadowy force acting against the democratic will, the biggest problem is that the state is being broken apart into its component parts due to the inability of the ruling elite to maintain legitimacy and enable a peaceful transition of power.

What could once be done in public must now increasingly be done behind closed doors. What could once be said openly must now be cloaked in distraction and lies. What could once be a strategy for election, must now be a strategy of grasping for the broken pieces of the state that have been set adrift and unclaimed.  The real threat is to the state, in its larger, wider meaning as a social, political and legal community of common interests and values.

 

 

 

 

6 Questions for the Social Academic Disciplines after the US Election

Its been a tough time for practitioners of what I’ll call the Social Arts & Sciences, and for analysts  of political affairs. For example, reputable pollsters were totally wrong in predicting the election of 2016, pretty much destroying any confidence in the utility of analytical methods like survey research. Of course, most consumers of polling data can’t be expected to know the difference between the use and interpretation of quantitative data for research, and the kinds of reckless extrapolation that posed as expert and authoritative analysis leading up to the election.  So, it seems that social scientists have some tasks to do. As a community of thinkers and teachers about social affairs, the Social Arts & Sciences have a unique set of tools for understanding world events that can shed light on important questions. Like any tool, the value of analytical methods is only as good as the use they are put to.

Illuminating who we are as social beings, and why we do what we do, can bring improvements to our shared experience by enabling changes in social behaviour through learning, but only if done carefully and deliberately, and with a great deal of humility and caution.  I’d suggest these following lines of inquiry, but what I can’t do is help sounding like a stuffy, elitist, out of touch intellectal to some.  This is an occupational hazard, but one I’ll have to live with. Sorry about that. Here are some lines of inquiry suggested by recent events:

1. Political Science

Ok this one’s mine.  Please, political scientists, explain clearly the difference between democracy and liberal democracy.  Liberal democracy is a paradox, since the rule of law and constitutional protection of human rights necessarily limits democratic rule. Another way to think about it is that minority protections make democracy possible by ensuring that the people do not abuse their power, and in the process, potentially vote themselves out of power.  Law needs democracy and democracy needs law. They are inextricably bound together.  The rights of minorities are integral to the maintenance of democracy, not an add-on that can be jettisoned in the name of the majority or for the sake of convenience. Protecting minority rights is what enables democracy to function, and to sustain itself. Compromising minority rights inevitably compromises democracy itself.  Protecting minority rights protects everyone.

While we’re at it, please explain what polls actually measure, what they don’t measure, and what their limitations are (and I don’t mean margin of error). Everyone: (yes that means you)…I’m sorry, but you have to take statistics.  We all did it, so you have to too. There.

I’m throwing questions about the Electoral College to the historians.  It makes no sense.

A bonus suggestion for Philosophy:  help everyone understand paradoxes better.

2. Gender and Womens’ Studies

I would like to understand better the dynamics of ‘alpha male’ social behaviour.  I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but it kind of looks like what we’ve been observing. If I’m wrong, can you please school me in another way of understanding why so many thinking, otherwise respectful people (men and women both) willfully compromise themselves and their values when faced with powerful but flawed male figures?  An extra job for sociologists: help us truly understand the centrality of identity to pretty much everything.

3. Psychology

Following the 2008 economic crisis, a new subfield of Economic Psychology flourished to help explain why otherwise rational actors made irrational decisions, even against their own interest, and under what circumstances.  I think we need more of that.  Can psychology help us understand  more about the dynamics of voter decision making,  the processes of skapegoating, and the emergence of in-group and out-group division?  What is the role of emotion as a motivation for decision making?   We know that strong emotion can interfere with rational decision making,  but how might this dynamic work at a community level?

4. History

Please keep telling analogous stories from the past to help give context to the problems of the day.  Each generation still generates its own version of problems and solutions, but if people saw their issues as common and not unique, they might be better able to think creatively about how to apply the wisdom of the past to the present.  Also, please focus as well on the peaceful, constructive periods of history where nothing much happened.   The boring bits are what we can learn from.   As well, can you please help us understand better what happens during times of accelerating and rapid change so societies can learn to be more adaptive?  I have a feeling we’re going to need that.

5. Communications

Ok so you’ve got lots of work ahead…..propaganda has gone viral, driven not by large organizations but by individual users.  Consumers are now transmitters.  Conversations are immediate and global.  Has the speed of communication outpaced democracy?   Please talk to the psychologists about the effects of this on thinking, can we know more about how our social lives and worlds create our  reality?

6. Artists and Writers

Please keep reminding us what it’s like to be someone else.  Touch our hearts with stories of people and places different from our own experiences, so that we can develop empathy and awareness, even for a minute.  Teach the teachers how to convey this effectively. Educate all of the social scientists about the importance of empathy to learning and growing and advancing knowledge about the world and ourselves.  Ultimately, this is the only way humans truly learn.

How Individualism Fails Young People

In contemplating the ‘crisis’ in youth voting and the abject failure of Canada’s political system to engage with young people, I’ve been drawn back to political philosophy and the ‘big questions’ of political life, freedom, and rights.  Remembering my own university days, I recall with fondness and even excitement the mass mobilization of workers, young people, and politicos against BC’s program of Restraint (we’d call it austerity today) in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement in the province took its cue from Polish workers’ unions’ resistance against communist domination, and the coalition formed in opposition to right-wing restructuring in BC culminated in a series of strikes and actions that potentially would have affected all sectors of the province.

Monuments in North Korea
Political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle.

It’s hard to imagine such a movement today.  The causes that appeal to young people today, including diversity and identity acceptance, marijuana, GMOs, and a free and open internet, are not trivial or unimportant, but they don’t lend themselves to mass action, and maybe that’s on purpose.

In Western liberal culture, people tend to be predisposed to individualism. Individualism is an idea or approach to political life in which each person is deemed to be rational and free to make their own choices. In taking on board issues like marriage equality and GMO labeling, young people are following this individualistic script.

The idea of the rational and free ‘masterless man’ (and to the extent that rationality was associated with masculinity, a man it most likely was) emerged as an icon during the European Enlightenment, where it was a revolutionary idea. Medieval thinking drew upon an organic and hierarchical vision of social life, in which the focus was on individual responsibilities to the social order.  Identities and consummate freedoms, both of nobility and commoners, were always circumscribed by the demands of prescribed social roles.

Since the Enlightenment, almost all political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle, with ‘freedom’ almost always associated with individual choices, and restrictions on freedom seen to emanate most centrally from the state.

The arguments of those on the side of the common or social good almost always had to concede that some (individual) freedoms had to be curtailed to be able to fulfill the larger social goals.  Rather than being able to make a positive case for the social good,claims for group rights had the onus of proving the necessity of deviating from the default of individualism.

Young woman sleeping on bed in student dorm, head resting on books
Group advocates have sounded like your Auntie’s voice chiding you to grow up and act responsibly.

Even worse has been the tendency to associate rationality with individuals, and irrationality, or emotion, with the mass and the group (or the mob).  People who follow groups, by extension, are irrational or driven by emotion. Our tendency is to re-imagine all social relationships in terms of the individual vs. group battle which shaped Western perceptions since the Enlightenment. But what if the individual vs. group tension is less of a battle of opposites and more of a continuum?

Today, young people emerge into Western culture with an elemental awareness of the importance of individualism in their lives. Parents prepare their children to be rational, self-governing individuals, conscious of their power and freedoms and willing to take on the group in the name of justice and individual freedom. It is necessary to equip young people with the words and ideas of individualism not just to protect them in an individualistic culture, but also to protect individualism as a value in and of itself.  Without the inculcation of individualism into young people, the fear is that freedom will be lost to future generations, and the oppression and irrationality of the group will win out. In Western culture, we believe that young people need individualism to understand themselves as free people.

But individualism fails to deliver the freedom it promises.  By understanding only the individual as the free unit, and not the group, we fail to protect and preserve freedoms for everyone.   Having been told all of their lives that their fates are their own, that responsible and committed people will be able to succeed, and that protecting one’s own freedom of choice is paramount, young people eventually discover that their lives are largely determined by hierarchies, that responsibility and commitment do not necessarily create success and may even be punished, and that exercising their own freedom of choice individually is a limited and essentially hollow way to find fulfillment.

Chairs and people seated
Individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty.

Psychologically isolating and materially disempowering, individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty.  It impoverishes democracy by discouraging social action, it reduces political life by disparaging the community, and it enables and empowers the abuses by the powerful by attributing success to individual rather than social factors. In addition to doing all of this, individualism also leaves young people vulnerable to attacks by the state.  The Harper government’s efforts to impose stricter penalties on young offenders, to impose mandatory minimums in criminal law, and provincial governments’ efforts to defund education have been met with almost no active resistance by the youth demographic.

The point is not to return to an organic and stable view of social order as the highest value, as it was practiced in the Medieval era, but to reject the false dichotomy of individuals vs. groups, and to recognize that communities are the source of both individual freedom and the pursuit of the common good.  To advance a notion of free societies, it is sometimes necessary to question the idea that individual choices are the only way in which freedom can be exercised.  Freedom is also exercised when communities choose together, deliberately, to pursue common goals and purposes. Indeed, similiar things have been said by many ancient philosophers to be the truest expression of freedom.