Spectators?

Is it possible we are becoming a society of spectators? Is it the case that we are so removed from the world that we have become passive observers of the scene around us as though we are watching a movie? I do wonder sometimes. I have gone on (and on) about the danger of the electronic toys we all seem to be addicted to and the damage they are doing to our collective brains. There is hard evidence that this is the case, but it doesn’t seem to deter anyone. We walk through life with our eyes down, fixed on the toys in our hands and checking social media to see if we have new friends — or if the old ones still “like” us. Meanwhile the real world around us becomes less and less real as the pictures we are fascinated by become true reality. This detachment from the real (REAL) world is a sign of mental imbalance, folks. Just ask Freud who talked a good bit about the “reality principle” that governs the gradual maturing of the young child as he or she grows and becomes an adult. The make-believe world of the child is supposed to be replaced by the (at times painful) world of things and people that the child slowly realizes is the real world. Things seem to have become turned upside-down. The real world is now for so many the world of make-believe: the world in our hands that we can control, not the world “out there.”  Worse yet, we have become emotionally detached, many of us, and see tragic events as simply another episode in a drama we are not really a part for. We have become a nation of spectators, it would appear.

A story in Yahoo news recently brought this possibility home in a rather graphic way:

Shocking surveillance video shows the moment a Pittsburgh woman was knocked out cold by a man on a busy sidewalk — but that’s not the worst of it. The footage also shows the woman being beaten and robbed by bystanders — who proceed to take pictures of her, including selfies — as she lay unconscious on the ground. “They don’t treat animals like that. They wouldn’t treat a dog that way,” the victim’s mother told KDKA on Thursday. “It’s disgusting. My daughter needs help.”

I suppose the woman being knocked down and robbed shows us a side of ourselves we have always known was there. Recall the Kew Garden incident in 1964 when thirty-seven or thirty-eight people ignored the cries of a Kitty Genovese being stabbed to death outside their bedroom windows. In a crowded world we tend to become a bit more callous and robbing and beating a helpless woman seems like yesterday’s news to a people who have become jaded and over-exposed to violence and mayhem. What is unique about the Yahoo story is the observation that people were taking photos, including “selfies,” as the woman lay there beaten and suffering on the sidewalk.

We need to keep our perspective here (speaking of the reality principle). This is not about all of us and it is only an anecdote. There are good people out there doing good things every day. But there are growing numbers of people who seem to have become inured to the suffering of others, as though it’s not real but something to watch and get their own emotional high from. We don’t experience the woman’s pain, only our own emotional reaction to the incident, “getting a rush.” This seems to be what it’s all about for many, indeed for an increasing number of people, in a world of detached spectators who “get off” by watching  rather than becoming truly emotionally and intellectually connected with the events taking place. Taking a photograph freezes the event and allows us to see it as something happening in our own little world where we are in control and sympathy and empathy are no longer part of the equation.

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Other Cultures

I have been rereading Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness and came across the following description which made me think. It comes early in the story about a middle-aged man, Oki Toshio, who has been sitting by the window reflecting on his first love from whom he separated 20 years since:

“He looked out of the small French window of his study. At the base of the hill behind the house a high mound of earth, dug out during the war in making an air raid shelter, was already hidden by weeds so modest one barely noticed them. Among the weeds bloomed a mass of flowers the color of lapis lazuli. The flowers too were extremely small, but they were a bright, strong blue. Except for the sweet daphne, these flowers bloomed earlier than any in their garden. And they stayed in bloom a long time. Whatever they were, they could hardly be familiar harbingers of spring, but they were so close to the window that he often thought he would like to take one in his hand and study it. He had never yet gone to pick one, but that only seemed to increase his love for these tiny lapis-blue flowers.”

This passage, like so many in this novel, reflect the main theme of beauty and sadness. The description of the beautiful flowers almost hides the reference to the air-raid shelter that harkens back to the Second World War and makes the reader recall the terrible effects of the fire bombings that destroyed an estimated 40% of the population of the 64 major cities in Japan toward the end of the war, coupled by the dropping of the Atom Bombs that killed another 129,000 men, women, and children. The end of the war was followed by a seven year allied occupation by 300,000 men that brought about the Westernization of Japan, with its sports, music, movies, clothing, fast-food restaurants, and love of money. The older Japanese, like Kawabata himself, struggled with the loss of pride coupled with transmogrification of their culture from the old ways to the faster, more frenetic new ways. His novels are filled with references to this struggle within himself and in the hearts of his countrymen.

But what struck me powerfully was the fact that we can read passages like this in a novel written by  a man in another culture and “relate” to it, because we share a common humanity. We have lost  sight of this fact in our preoccupation with  the differences in cultures stressed by anthropologists and social scientists like Margaret Mead who started the movement toward cultural relativism that lead us, wrongly I insist, to the conclusion that we are not in a position to judge what folks do in other cultures. From the undeniable truth that we can never fully understand what people in other cultures feel and think we draw the unwarranted conclusion that we can not sympathize with them at all. But this flies in the face of the human sympathy that the moral sense theorists in the eighteenth century brought to our attention that allows each of us to sympathize with other human beings, all other human beings. In stressing difference we have lost sight of our fundamental similarities.

We can read passages like that above, read poetry, hear the music, watch their dances, view their art, and we can feel many of the same things those people feel — not all, but many to be sure. We are not all that different. And, as a result, when we read about Suttee in India, or the stoning of adulteresses in the Middle East, or clitoridectomies forced upon young women in Africa, or the denial of fundamental rights to women around the world, we can judge these things to be wrong because we do know better. Values are relative to cultures to a point, but that point is reached when a violation of fundamental human rights are in question. We know this because we feel it deeply and because our reasoning capacity tells us that if it were us we would not stand for it.

In a word, there its such a thing as “human nature” and it is something we share with the world at large and which, even though many of those in power and those who posses great wealth seem to have denied, defines all of us as human. But why is this discussion significant? Or even of interest? I can do no better than end with a quote by one of the finest minds I have ever encountered, Hannah Arendt, who tells this in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“If the idea of humanity, of which the most conclusive symbol is the common origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then nothing is more plausible than a theory according to which brown, yellow, or black races are descended from some other species of apes than the white race, and all together they are predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth.”

Locke On Property

One of the more fascinating chapters in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government explains his position on property. He ties his view in with his doctrine of natural human rights which informed the thinking of our founders as well. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of Locke on his walls (one of two I am given to understand) and his “Declaration of Independence” is thoroughly Lockian, as is his Virginia Constitution. In any event, Locke thought that property was a natural right, along with life and liberty. Note that Jefferson borrowed Locke’s phrase which was later changed to “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.”

Property is a natural right because in a state of nature, before there are any civil laws to protect it, we have a right to as much property as we can take and use. Note that “use” is a key here. Locke  places a boundary on this type of acquisition–a person may only acquire as many things in this way as he or she can reasonably use to his advantage, making sure to leave some for the next person. If, for example, I chance upon apple trees in the state of nature I have a right to as many apples as I can reasonably consume before the next harvest. I ought not take more than I can eat or so many that others who might have a right to them as well cannot find enough to eat. That is, I should only take as many apples as I can eat before they go bad; if I take too many apples and some of them rot and go to waste, I have overextended my natural rights of acquisition. Others might have been able to eat those apples. One ought only take so much as one can use. Locke applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it–building house on it or farming on it–but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste.

 

The invention of money clouds the picture somewhat, but the principle remains the same. The value of money is merely symbolic: it stands for the labor extended in creating products. I have a right to collect more money than I actually need because money does not spoil. But, at the same time, I have no right to more than I could possibly need in my lifetime, especially if it means that others will have less than they need to live on. It’s a “zero-sum” game here — even in the case of money. There’s only so much to go around.

Even John Calvin writing a century before Locke and usually credited with formulating the Protestant Work Ethic, urges restraint — and bear in mind that this is the man who regarded great wealth as a sign of God’s favor:

“. . .many today look for an excuse for excessive self-indulgence in the use of material things. They take for granted that their liberty must not be restrained in any way, but that it should be left to every man’s conscience to do whatever he think is right.  . . but because Scripture has laid down general rules for the use of material possessions, we should keep within the limits laid down. . . . Many are so obsessed with marble, gold and pictures that they become marble-hearted, are changed into hard metal or become like painted figures.”

If we now alter our focus somewhat and think about our own society in which 1% of the people control the vast majority of wealth in the country and the numbers of poor and needy grow daily, thousands of whom have no place to sleep or sufficient food to eat, we can see where Locke might have some serious problems. He was convinced, as was Adam Smith (the father of free-market capitalist theory), that humans would be guided by a moral sensitivity to the needs of others and their natural tendencies towards acquisition would be tempered by that sensitivity, as was urged by such men as John Calvin. In other words, the concept of the “free market” was couched within an ethical framework which stressed human sympathy for those less fortunate than ourselves: people would care about one another out of a sense of shared humanity, as “laid down by Scripture.” The notion that some would accumulate billions of dollars while others around them starve was unheard of, not even considered. It clearly violates the fundamental Lockian principle about the natural right we all have to property. To quote Benjamin Disraeli,

“Riches, position, and power have only one duty — to secure the social welfare of the People.”

In sum, our present situation violates the fundamental moral principle — and Locke’s notion of natural rights was a moral precept, not an economic one — that we have a right only to that which we can reasonably use in our lifetime while making sure there is enough for others who might be in need. On its face it is abhorrent that so few control so much of the wealth in this country and so many of them seem to have no sense of shared humanity with others in need — though there are notable exceptions, such as Bill Gates and a handful of wealthy athletes who make an effort to help those on this earth who go hungry to bed (if they have one) each night. I would argue that those with great wealth have a moral obligation to help others who have less than they do. At the very least, they have no right to more than they require to live a healthy and happy life.

Culture Of Sharing

A good friend of mine who  is kind enough to read my blogs when he isn’t chasing whales and seals around the world has recently challenged me to write about the generosity that is exhibited by significant numbers of people — who stand in sharp contrast to the people like the Koch brothers who get all the attention and all the well-deserved criticism for being grasping and selfish. He’s right, of course, and I will attempt to rise to the challenge as set forth in these comments:

Now I want to hear your thoughts on the merits, joys, and feelings of worth experienced by practicing philanthropy. I am very impressed how many people give from their heart to accomplish so many varied, worthwhile and often important activities. Your piece today emphasizes that the miser never considers what might be done with his amassed resources. In my view, real joy comes as a result of hard work and then what folks do with their subsequent financial success. . . . [W]e have all seen folks of modest means practice a culture of sharing.

I like to think Dante was right to put those who love only money deep in Hell at the edge of a pit of fire with bags of gold hanging around their necks. While experiencing intense heat from the flames they are forced to stare at the bags through eternity, transfixed forever on what they have loved all their lives but which has little real importance. But I also agree that there are a great many people who get real joy from giving to others, as my friend suggests. Indeed, it has been shown that Americans are extremely generous when it comes to helping those in need — especially after natural disasters. But even during tranquil times, such as last year, such charities as “Feeding America” collected $1,510,622,608  to help feed many of those who go to bed hungry each night in this country. An astonishing figure! While we might be able to attribute the motives of the miser to a hardening of his heart to those in need, there are a great many more whose heart goes out immediately to those same people. Generosity is even more common than miserliness, though it is less spectacular and therefore ignored by smart-ass critics such as myself. In the end, I suspect, charitable giving comes down to a natural feeling of sympathy that can be found in most, if not all, human beings.

While some might insist that charity cannot be found in our secular age, one thinker who would disagree is professor Charles Taylor. His position is supported by figures like those noted above in the case of “Feeding America.” He has analyzed in great detail our age in an attempt to understand it better and is convinced that the roots of our charity toward others stems from the remnants of religion that can be found even among those who reject the very notion of religion and appear to be the most self-involved. As he put it in his book The Secular Age:

People still seek those moments of fusion, which wrench us out of the everyday, and put us in contact with something beyond ourselves. We see this in pilgrimages, mass assemblies like World Youth Days, in one-off gatherings of people moved by some highly resonating event, like the funeral of Princess Diana, as well as in rock concerts, raves, and the like. What has all this to do with religion? The relationship is complex. On the one hand, some of these events are unquestionably “religious,” in the [strict] sense that it is oriented to something putatively transcendent (a pilgrimage to Medjugorje or a World Youth Day). And what has perhaps not been sufficiently remarked is the way in which this dimension of religion, which goes back to its earliest forms, is still alive and well today, in spite of all attempts at Reforming élites over many centuries to render our religious and/or moral lives more personal and inward, to disenchant the universe and downplay the collective.

One of the great minds to address this situation was David Hume who, in the eighteenth century, takes another tack entirely: he analyzed the “virtues” that were much talked about in his day — though we hesitate to even use the word any more. Most of the virtues, according to Hume, come down to utility, or their benefit to society as a whole — such things as justice, veracity, and honor. He argued in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals that these virtues are valued entirely for their utility while there are others, such as benevolence, friendship, and charity that are partially valued for their utility but also for the feelings of sympathy they give rise to in the recipient or the virtuous persons themselves.

But a third class can be noted, according to Hume, and those virtues are entirely due to the fact that they express in themselves the natural sympathy that humans feel toward one another (though it can be stifled when other feelings become paramount, such as the love of money and power). Those virtues, due entirely to what we might call fellow-feeling, are such things as cheerfulness, modesty, and courtesy. These things have no utility whatever, according to Hume, but we admire them and approve of them when we witness them. And, he insists, we hope to bring up our children in such a way that they will exhibit these virtues along with the others that may be wholly or partially of benefit to society in general.

Thus, whether we take the approach of Hume and argue that humans generally  feel a natural sympathy toward one another or we agree with Taylor that there remain the remnants of religion that teaches us to love one another, we can agree that there are sound reasons why a great many people still care about one another enough to help them when they are in need and we know that, when acted upon,  such fellow-feeling does indeed make the giver feel a genuine sense of joy. Despite people like the Koch brothers and their ilk, ours remains to a large degree a “culture of sharing.”