On our sameness

Watching the humanitarian crises unfold in China and Myanmar over the last couple of weeks – the tens of thousands dead, the millions displaced, the masks of anger and despondency on refugees’ faces – we are troubled and deeply saddened. Some of us even weep over the more emotional reports about Chinese schoolchildren buried beneath the rubble of shoddy, Maoist-era construction.

We receive access to these tragedies via news organizations with reporters careening to-and-fro in China or surreptitiously whispering into satellite phones in Myanmar. Some of us speculate with friends and colleagues whether or not the cyclone and its aftermath will topple the military junta in Myanmar or whether the earthquake will affect this summer’s Beijing Olympics. The answer: probably “no” on both counts.

We listen to the stories of grief and terror, the narrative of tearing social-fabric: a recent report airing on NPR mentioned the image of a toddler floating down a river with its feet tied to a broken branch. The reporter speculated that binding the child high up in a tree was likely a last-ditch effort by his parents to keep him from getting washed away by the rising storm surge. How could one not be affected by this image? For the Burmese, however, these vignettes are now commonplace.

One way many of us respond to such reports is by personalizing them: could you imagine similar tragedies visiting your community or befalling your loved ones? I can’t.

The fact that I feel so secure is strange considering my proximity to two major earthquake faults and my understanding of the increased likelihood of global-warming-induced catastrophes. Though I know these threats to be real, I just can’t peel myself away from my daily distractions: one last exam, the NBA playoffs, my summer plans, and so forth.

Still, I read the reports; I listen to the stories; I see the pictures. I wonder how I can feel so detached and so connected at the same time. I wonder if it’s a personal flaw that I am at one moment moved to tears and at the next emotionally removed from the tragedies that, after all, don’t directly affect me.

I also cannot help but reflect upon the billions of people in the world who live with similar – if less dramatic – horrors daily. The truth is that a majority of the world’s population is at risk of starvation, deadly (though easily curable) water-borne illness, and violence through civil war or genocide. And given global warming, the threat of these and other crises increase exponentially.

Yet, this post is not about the hopelessness of our future or the failure of the US to act in humanitarian causes; it is about our connection as a species and our general failure to understand this basic reality.

In plainer terms, I respectfully disagree with people who believe that an American life, for example, is any more or less valuable than a non-American life. (To clarify, you could replace “American” with any other social delineation.) As I see it, a morality that dictates that it’s okay for a ________ baby to die, but not a ________ one, is not morality at all; it is morality’s failure.

Universally speaking, we are not blameworthy for our inability to see our sameness in others. Some extremely powerful historical forces have created the illusions of difference that keep us separated: nationalism, culture, society, religion, and so forth. However, except for some extremely insignificant differences – in biological terms – we are all the same.

And, (for better or worse) given the expanding reach of globalization we affect one and another in ways that may well be described in communal terms. In some very real ways (like the speed at which disease is spread from one side of the globe to the other), we are all in this together.

Those of us who are Americans, moreover, are behooved to understand the ways in which the world is interconnected because many of the mechanisms that led us down this path were designed by our government. Whether we like it or not, due to the American tangle in the world, many of our internal decisions have global ramifications.

For example, the price of American corn adversely affects the lives of billions of people around the world. However, we don’t take other nations’ farming infrastructures into account when we subsidize our agribusiness – legislators behave as if it’s our business and no one else’s. Worse, taking other nations’ needs into consideration can prove detrimental for state representatives on the campaign trail; it’s just not the American way. “The rest of the world is not our problem,” seems to be the mantra de jure.

As a rule of thumb, our country tends to take credit for positive change in the world, and avoid responsibility regarding the problems it causes. We have the self-imposed luxury of having it both ways. (Of course, this image only extends from our own eyes to the mirror and back; most of the rest of the world sees our policies for what they are: ranging from self-serving to imperialist.)

Reflecting back on China and Myanmar: perhaps we have something to learn from the tears we shed when reading stories about people who seem to have little to nothing in common with us, and maybe our self-centered desire to imagine ourselves in place of these sad souls is an internal mechanism that aids in our circumvention of the social chains that normally keep us boxed into separate structures.

It doesn’t seem like too big of a stretch to consider that maybe we feel empathy simply because we are connected through our humanity. If more of us understood the power in this simple reality, we might more readily dissolve the imaginary borders that more often than not keep us at odds.

A man can dream anyway.

35 responses to “On our sameness”

  1. swells says:

    Beieve me, last week when Raushcenberg died and I was all broken to pieces about it, the next morning I snatched up the paper when I saw his photo on the bottom half of the front page and eagerly read every word of the tribute. As I was folding the paper back up I noticed that on the top half of the front page was a photo of a Chines child trapped in rubble for the last few days, looking pleadingly at the camera. But all my tears were for a happy, privileged man who lived comfortably and famously to the age of 82. I had a little crisis about what a jerk I am.

  2. Dave says:

    This is a problem that a lot of contemporary ethicists have worked on. On the one hand, it seems like a good thing that we care deeply about those closest to us. In fact, we’d say that someone who has more compassion for someone halfway around the world than for his own family members is really failing at an important duty. On the other hand, it seems that there is no important moral difference between, say, our fellow citizens and the citizens of Burma. But we don’t care as much about people further from us on various measures, and at the extreme end of the scale it seems that humans have an easy time thinking of members of some out-group or other as the enemy, even as not-even-human. Reacting against the horrors of what is often genocidal ethnocentrism, we want a universalist ethics. But that gets us back to the problem of squaring universalist ethics with the particular structures of care in our own lives.

  3. Iosif Dzhugashvili says:

    The death of one is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.

  4. S. Godfree says:

    Mr. Stalin (If I may), This type of reasoning looks great on a tee shirt, but it is also why your state ultimately failed. That said, your quip also shows your more human side: one can shed only so many tears.

  5. Jeremy says:

    I’m wondering, at this point, with the 24-hour news cycle being what it is, if it would even be possible to function if we really, truly felt as connected to these daily tragedies as maybe we should… on some level, it seems like a necessary defense mechanism to be able to turn to the sports page and comfortably read about how the Celtics beat the Pistons; but this is also deeply disturbing as well, of course. Should I care more? I certainly know I should do more, at least about the things I have some control over. I often think about Peter Singer’s “Solution to World Poverty” in which he posits, through several rather provocative analogies, that if we can help those in need (by sending money, volunteering, whatever) and we don’t, then we are, in effect, at fault. We could’ve done something… But it’s easier to stay disconnected.

    Sigh. I hate you, Scotty, for making me feel so bad about myself. But I love you for it, too.

  6. swells says:

    I’ve taught a unit about that in freshman comp, about “compassion fatigue.” on some level there’s only so much you can feel. not that that’s a valid excuse.

  7. S. Godfree says:

    I hate you, Scotty, for making me feel so bad about myself. But I love you for it, too.

    The funny thing is that I meant this post to be positive. The point you make, J, about doing or caring more is not the one I hoped to make in this post. I was simply hoping to demonstrate that we are connected as a species, and that there are forces (to our determent) actively preventing us from seeing this.

    This is a post about hope — I swear! I guess I’m just not a concise enough writer.

  8. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I know, Scotty. But that’s what makes me feel bad, too–that this post is about how we’re connected, how many of us do feel connected… But, ultimately, I think we’re much less connected than your post hopes we are or can be…

  9. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Maybe I should substitute “I” for “we” in the above comment.

  10. swells says:

    Uh-oh, I think I see where this is going.

  11. Rogan says:

    I too feel torn up by the shameful inadequacy of my empathy. I am reminded of a little-known play by Arthur Miller, Broken Glass, in which the lead protagonist, an American Jew, reads about Kristallnacht and is subsequently paralyzed. She can’t understand how millions of Jews are being murdered in Europe yet everyone seems to be going about their business as if it weren’t so. To me, her paralysis represents the near universal powerlessness of the individual in the face of catastrophe at this scale, but it is also the only real gesture to acknowledge the gravity of human suffering.

    Today I have written a couple of posts here, I will then go buy tickets to the new Indiana Jones film for my son’s B-Day party this weekend, and then I will spend the better part of the day researching and preparing lecture notes for classes next semester. I can’t help but feel like I am fiddling while the world is burning up. Just as I eventually confronted my own parents about their racism, I can imagine a future where I will stand equally condemned by my child/children… Dad, what did YOU do to alleviate extreme poverty and unnecessary human suffering?

  12. lane says:

    wow swells . . . that rauchenberg moment . . . i actually wrote a GW post about him and then deleted it. he did well enough, he wouldn’t want our tears.

    #5 – the sigh – how intriguing, the spirit of Sacher-Masoch creeping in?

    and oh yes, human suffering . . . i have no answers.

  13. rm says:

    is there a kind of imperialism of compassion going on here? is our anguish and guilt at not “doing more” just more evidence of our privilege? is there a hierarchy of deservedness? what should our goals be? saving one life? who? how?

    re: #11 extreme poverty and unnecessary suffering? as opposed to…

  14. swells says:

    I had a professor who used the term “a competition of victimization” (she was referring to the stupid politics of arguiing whether gender oppression trumps racial oppression, but the term applies here).

  15. Rogan says:

    13. I take your point. With extreme poverty I suppose I mean ‘as opposed to simply being poor, but not wanting for food, shelter, education, access to clean water, medicine, and having some arbitrary baseline of leisure. With unnecessary suffering, I suppose I mean ‘predictable and preventable suffering.’

  16. is our anguish and guilt at not “doing more” just more evidence of our privilege?

    Absolutely. This does not necessarily invalidate it or make it into something bad; but it could not exist without our privileged status.

  17. Godfree says:

    16: If that were true, would we feel more guilt with greater degrees of privilege?

    Does it forgive poor people for not feeling guilty?

  18. Dave says:

    Why should poor people feel guilty? They win the competition of victimization!

  19. 17: I don’t think so. It’s more like, you need to reach some absolute level of comfort C, before you can start feeling anguish and guilt at not “doing more”. Probably the magnitude of (anguish and guilt) increases over a short run to the right of C, but I don’t see why it should continue to increase more than very gradually.

  20. Sort of a logarithmic thing so to speak.

  21. a = { 0, c <= C; ln(c), C < c }

  22. Sorry, that was mis-stated. Sorry, my maths are rusty.

    a = { 0, c <= C; ln(c∕∕C), C < c } ( C > 0 )

  23. Dave says:

    Can you put that in C# notation please, TMK?

  24. Rogan says:

    With great power comes great responsibility == a = { 0, c <= C; ln(c∕∕C), C 0 ).

    Someone should write a comic book about the torment and anguish of guilt-ridden privileged classes. Some of the superheros might be: The Green Latte, The Incredible Sulk, Volvo-rene, and The Inferno Scenester.

  25. lane says:

    i’ll make a painting of the infernal scenester,

    that’s funny

  26. JKE says:

    (To clarify, you could replace “American” with any other social delineation.) As I see it, a morality that dictates that it’s okay for a ________ baby to die, but not a ________ one, is not morality at all; it is morality’s failure.

    You could put “born” and “unborn” in these blanks and then you’d have something. I know sophisticated secular liberals are not supposed to have these thoughts, but your discussion of our sameness prompts me to remember that a tiny fetus is what all of us once were.

  27. Rogan says:

    I was a huge fetus. A gigantic, distended, bulbous fetus.

  28. swells says:

    Well, if you put “born” and “unborn” in the blanks in that order, I think you’d be talking more about the death penalty than abortion, no?

  29. Dave says:

    We all indeed were once fetuses. This fact doesn’t get you very far, though.

  30. swells says:

    Dangit, Dave, I am trying so hard to grade all these finals, but thanks to you I am now back to back in bed with a famous unconscious violinist and I cannot unplug myself to go back to grading. I am hooked.

  31. Natasha says:

    Scotty, I loved your post. What is mind boggling to me though that there seems to be this constant harsh criticism of what America lacks and this perpetual sense of guilt that not only permeates your post but many people of this country. People seem to love to debate and conduct talks of the deficits, and the failures, and the incapabilities, and the solutions that no one will ever implement. While I respect that, I want to point out that this country has done more humanitarian work that any other country in this world, it rebuilt Europe after the WWII and gave Japan the ability to be the biggest steel producer in the world, it also has the most tolerant policies on immigration and the harshest laws against racism. It is not perfect, but nothing is, instances like this one have to be measured by comparison. With that said alone, the feelings of guilt must be replaced with pride and gratefulness, yet everyone is feeling guilty. In part, it is due to that concept of declining social capital and in part, to Turner’s individualism. Because people are so disconnected from each other, they do not take credit for what other fellow citizens and organizations from their country are doing abroad. On the other hand, the sense of individualism makes everyone think that they themselves must do something individually, no matter how impossible the notion or their circumstances. Instead of thinking that way think that you can be a part of the process. Donating blood for example can go straight to help the crisis as The American Red Cross is already assisting the cause over there.
    As far as “sameness” is concerned, a spiritual teacher, Ramtha, spoke about it best: “Virtue isn’t the abstinence of life. Any person that has lived in a cave all their life is not virtuous; they are ignorant. That is not the same definition. Virtuous is one who has lived everything in life–creates it, moves through it, owns it as wisdom, and goes on — because the more virtuous they are, the more compassionate they are about everyone…because you are so constrained from life, you don’t know what it is to be poor, and you don’t know what it is to be a whore, and you don’t know what it is to be a king, and you don’t know what it is to be a beggar…and you don’t know what it is to abandon your family, and you don’t know what it is to be abandoned. Compassion does not come from ignorance; it comes from virtue. Where does virtue come from? Being all of them.” I deeply took this principal to my heart: assimilation, casting off your primary and secondary associations is needed in order to understand everyone and experience everything to be connected. In other words, unless you are there, in China pulling people from the debris, you would be somewhat boxed in and occupied by other issues, yet the crisis experiences you have had in your life prompt your deep compassion and the desire to help.

  32. Scotty says:

    …there seems to be this constant harsh criticism of what America lacks and this perpetual sense of guilt that not only permeates your post but many people of this country.

    I tried to be clear in my post that this essay is not about American policies. For example, I wrote, “To clarify, you could replace “American” with any other social delineation,” in regards to the way we (as in all humans) are expected to understand the lives of our countrymen as more valuable than those of foreigners.

    Moreover, in reference to American responses to crises, I wrote: “…this post is not about the hopelessness of our future or the failure of the US to act in humanitarian causes; it is about our connection as a species and our general failure to understand this basic reality.”

    Also, regarding your suggestion that my post focuses on a sense of guilt that Americans tend to feel, I commented: “…I meant this post to be positive. The point you make, J, about doing or caring more is not the one I hoped to make in this post.”

    The truth is that I do not feel guilty about the way the United States conducts its foreign policy – I think that the current administration has made some tremendous mistakes, but I don’t feel guilt about them.

    The problem I was hoping to address in my post is the failure of most Americans to understand and/or embrace the idea that we are part of a larger system: the human species, and are thus interconnected.

    Concerning your reference to the Marshall Plan and the U.S. occupation and rebuilding of Japan, these policies – though beneficial to many people – should not be taken out of the larger post-war context: given the understanding of the economic causes of fascism and leftist revolutions, the U.S. saw it as beneficial to reassemble the world in a way that would foster economic and democratic stability.

    The point here isn’t that the U.S. was wrong for doing this. It is that states (by nature of their construction and the structure of the international system) tend to act in their own self-interests. If these interests, at times, benefit the citizens of other states, this is purely a bonus – a happy accident – for the intervening state because it adds to their international cachet, or soft power.

    I see this as neither good nor bad, just the way things are.

  33. Natasha says:

    Overall the post was positive…I read it carefully and clearly understood all of the points. The Marshall Plan was a very successful part of the American post-war foreign policy to halt the outward red flow which involved making and supporting allies as well as providing financial assistance. It was a political move, but what country has ever made a political move to support the most part of the world to protect democracy? I do understand that you are talking about the failure of the American people to feel like they are a part of the civilization, and yet it is the very point I disagree with because the people here are really one of the most naive, sweet, emotional, caring and giving people I know, in spite of all of their nervous break downs, shrinks, bills, law suits, and disconnectedness to one another. Have you ever traveled to another country and seen people reading newspapers, following up every day and writing well thought out posts on a crisis that does not concern them? Not the Turks (I’ve been there), not the Greeks, not the Russians, not the French, not the Chinese, not the Korean, not the Japanese( amazing people, by the way), not the Middle East and not many others. I did not necessary argue that you felt guilty about the issues you discussed, but according to many responses to your post as well as my daily interaction I drew my conclusion that it is essentially so for many of the American people. I also tried to analyze why it was that people felt that way, in my nation — we don’t — we are like many musketeers — all for one… I loved your post and understood what you said, you made it to be positive and raised issues you thought were necessary to raise, and I respect that, defense rests with no further arguments…

  34. Scotty says:

    defense rests with no further arguments…

    Sorry Natasha, you were actually the plaintiff in this one, so I get another turn.

    I have a hard time thinking that you understand my post — which was eluding to the idea of a post-nation-state world — because you put forth an argument that the people of country of X, Y, and Z are this way or that way. This is a fine argument, but I feel like we’re arguing two different points.

    So to clarify: Do you agree that nationality, religion, and culture have created the illusion of difference in humans? If so, you agree with me on the main point of my post. If you disagree with me on this, you disagree with the main point of my post.

    Either stance is fine, but I’d rather not get sidetracked discussing American neuroses or how Amazing Japanese people are — I’m sure they’re fabulous.

    A secondary point I raised in my post is that internal (not to be confused with international) American policy affects the rest of the world. However American legislators are discouraged from taking the rest of the world into account when making internal policy decisions. I brought this up as evidence of the interconnection the U.S. has with the rest of the world.

    I understand that a point of confusion may come from the way that people tend to blend the United States (the country, which is an entity unto itself) with the American people (those smiling caring individuals). These are two very different bodies. If you’d like me to clarify my position on this, I can post a paper on this subject, but it’s really long and I’m sure boring. (As I’m sure this argument is for anyone reading it.)

    Anyway, if you want to continue feel free.