Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Imagining the Future: Enforcement

It's easy to expect that the minimum conditions for my ideal society, stated in “Imagining the Future,” would be enforced by some agent of the society resembling today's governments. I'm not inclined to automatically assume such a thing, especially since centralized control of society (either by governments or by large businesses) has just as poor a record of success as individual autonomy (anarchy). Nor am I willing to assume that the best approach necessarily exists along the continuum between the two extremes, though at the outset that appears likely.

Part of the answer might lie in the way young children are reared. In the book “The Empathic Civilization,” Jeremy Rifkin presents evidence that empathy, which is critical to feeling responsible for how our actions affect others, depends on the amount of nurturing infants get. If we value each other (and other species) by, to some extent, experiencing their fate as our own, then it's conceivable that we will regulate our own behavior to at least minimize harm. If we couple this with a healthy curiosity, that itself is nurtured (or at least not shut down, as now seems to be common in the U.S.), then learning could possibly, over time, provide the basic knowledge for people to meet their needs – if someone doesn't already have it.

No matter what we do, there will likely always be some people who are far from empathic, willing to do whatever it takes to get what just they want, no matter who – or what – gets hurt. They will balk at any restrictions, and be willing to use force if necessary. Instead of recognizing them as victims of neglect and treating them accordingly, our (western) culture encourages and even promotes their behavior – especially in economics. In the workplace, we bow to leaders who are just as likely to fire us as hire us to meet their expectations for growth in their ability to consume more stuff. Our entertainment lionizes countless ultra-violent “heroes” protecting the rest of us “sheep” who would otherwise be prey to people very much like them (there is also a disturbing fascination with criminals, who are able to break rules without consequences). By example, we are trained to accept insane propositions, such as “you can only deal with force by using force,” and “life is a contest,” thus enabling the guiltless oppression, exploitation, or murder of anyone we deem a threat or a “loser.” Clearly, to create the ideal world, especially since our culture wields an enormous amount of power, this must change.

In the book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” Chip and Dan Heath provide a recipe for motivating people to make major (and lasting) changes in their lives and institutions based on research and using numerous case studies. It consists of what I interpret as a two step process involving both intellect and emotions: convincing them to want the change, and making it easy for them to take action. Unlike using force (which demonstrably doesn't work, except in a very limited short term), convincing a person's intellect and emotions requires understanding and identifying with them – effectively, empathy – to find out how they can embrace rather than fight the change. The familiar phrase “appealing to hearts and minds” summarizes this approach. If the amount of work needed to make the change is too great compared to the alternatives, a person may not take action even with the belief that the change can be good, so changing appropriate aspects of the environment (for example, social or physical) may be necessary.

For the purposes of creating and maintaining an ideal world (making a significant change from the one we live in now), nurturing our young and promoting emotionally and physically healthy relationships between adults and the rest of Nature could in general help create a psychological substrate for valuing others (easing the change). To use a food analogy, this would be like getting someone used to eating nutritious food so their body is naturally repelled by the “empty calories” represented by escalating pursuit of personal power. Convincing people to change might involve showing that the current system is on the path to killing us all, appealing to the intellect, while demonstrating the human and non-human suffering caused by it would appeal to the emotions of all but the most hardened sociopaths. A more positive approach would be to describe real and hypothetical examples of a healthy existence where we take care of each other without fear, and pursue the development of the best in ourselves and the natural world in a positive competition whose goal is the maximum amount of life reaching its full potential.

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