Monday, April 28, 2008

The Vanishing Point
Empathy and Alienation in Popular Democracy

Across the wide plain came sweeping the storms,
their black clouds crushing down across a far horizon,
and pressing the earth, the rich and living earth, to shame.
The storm was a horseback, and carried the whirlwind as its seed.

But yet that seed, though sown with devastation,
was not without its fruit and harvest,
for that freedom fire of riding desire,
is sire to what we know.

Glenn Smith names what we have "elite democracy." He describes it this way:

Today, the elite democracy view is embodied in top-down political practices that diminish the franchise and excuse voter suppression, advantage the wealthy through legal fiat that makes wealth and speech equivalent, reduce citizenship to passive consumerism, and maintain a class of political consultants and pundit elites who believe themselves a cut or two above the people they pretend to represent.

We, that holy word, is the basis of all democracy. But who we are, is always the question. I don't know about why th past made the world as it did, I can only say that it doesn't work for me, and it does not work for many people. Not just in America, but through out the developed world. My view is as a person who sits at the bottom of the vast top down mountain that Glenn writes about, and sees the detritus raining down.

You see, the elites top down on their henchmen, the henchmen on theirs, and so on.But down at the bottom, are people who then have no one truly below them in the scale and they know only one kind of relationship. They are whores of the system they are part of,one which seems to have existed for ever. So they know only treating other people as whores in return. That's the engine of violence.

But what about the many people who do not participate in this engine of violence? What of them? Their fate, also one I know because they come to me, is an enfolding acceptance of the wonders and fantasies they have locked with in.

Second Life is a testimony to both, to the screaming need to grief and terrorize and inflict harm on others, and to the bubbling urge to create, and do, and join. It is this first which tells me the world I live in is very ill; it is the second that shows me in myriad ways that there is a brighter and more powerful world waiting for us.

When I write about the first part, the toxic urges to impose, I find something very simple. Men hate me for it. I get insulted, attacked. They only call you a whore, when you won't be their whore. It is the attack that comes from someone who has a secret addiction that gets him or her through the day. It's wrong, they know it is wrong, but they won't give it up. The worst people are people who are tempted to behave that way, but know it is wrong, and fight it with all their might. But they still need to have it remain shrouded and secret. And I am ordered, harangued, and pressured not to talk about them. Every time I write about how badly men can behave, it is my soul that is put on trial.

If it were out of a motivation for good people realizing that bad people can ruin the gossamer air in which intimacy can breath, or erode the rich soil from which love grows, they would not attack me, or my morality, or my perception. But, instead, they would agree. But they don't.

From this I draw a conclusion, and that is that while there are many people out there who bear under the pressure of the top down system, who maintain some sense of humanity, they also know they cannot live without touching at every point the inhumanity, and that for that inhumanity to go on, then the dehumanized behavior must be allowed to continue. It is like living in a slave society, but not being a slave owner: there is no way to do it. Sooner or later society must enforce all property, and to that extent, everything that a society says that one person owns, everyone must act like an owner in their stead for. Just as we must all be willing to act as parents to the children of others.

Thus the top down system that Glenn writes of, is a vast storm system, that rains down blood and pain, and that pain settles on those who cannot avoid it. On the poor of many nations, on the weak, on those who are too young, to helpless, or too harmed. It creates a waterfall of people who are searching for either a place to escape, or a target to vent, the crushing that they feel.

This is why his call for empathy as a crucial component of democracy, of any democracy, is one which needs to be heeded, and heeded quickly. Because the system as it is now is producing a bottomless sea of sadism. It is in drawing buckets of loathsomeness out of this sea of sadistic impulses that George W. Bush led us into a war we did not want or need. It is by harnessing this sea of sadism that developed countries willingly inflict the pain of their bad decisions on the hungry of the rest of the world. And like the brine of the ocean, it increases, rather than quenches, the thirst of people who drink it.

What I see is this. We thwart people from being happy, we place barriers to their getting even the most simple animal things that they need, and we stuff them instead with substitutes that we can produce. Instead of love, or even sex, we give titillation and pressure of frustrated chastity. Instead of food, we give calories, instead of home, we sell speculation, instead of politics, we present soap opera. The reason is that love, sex, food, home and politics all come from the play between people who are people, where as titillation, frustration, calories, and dra-ma are all things that can be provided out of a system. I know a creep who is being well paid to make sex bots for Second Life. Women who actually do cybersex? Not worth paying even a starving wage. Substitute for women to engage in cybersex? Brilliant!

This thirst for pain, and immediate gratification, are present because time is what can be most effectively sold. We frustrate people, and thwart their impulses, and block their quest for happiness, and then the few are allowed to charge for access to that paradise on earth which is a stable job, an orderly living space, and a passionate love life. We create a maze through which people must run, and a few people are allowed to be the guardians of the access.

This system isn't working, instead of rewarding people who are the best at making people happy and creating abundance, it rewards the people who are the most successful judges of how much pain they can inflict. Instead of empathy, anti-empathy.

Brain scientists like Antonio Damasio have shown that reason requires emotion. Emotions are rational. A person unable to experience emotion or recognize emotional states in others is unable to act rationally. Reason without emotion is inhuman. Torture, for instance, might be logically justifiable by unemotional reason. In the true human universe beneath our single sun, it is ghastly and insane.

The physical root of this is in a series of adaptations that human being shave. One is the ability to mirror. We see another, and our brains fire the same nerves, in the same order, as doing them. This allows cross-transference, we imagine, then, what the other individual must be feeling, what feedback their body must be sending to them.

Mirroring and cross-transference are as physically incorporated as reason is, they are as rigorous, as reproducible. They have all of the qualities that are used to argue for the superiority of rationality. They also have the danger, that of being able to run away from everything else.

One reason for the power of Second Life, is that we mirror our avatars. One can tell a person who has not reached this point of immersion, because they don't "get" dancing and cybersex. Their avatar is an email address, a squiggle, a screen saver attached to their chat. Second Life, by creating mirroring with an avatar, can then lead to cross-transference. However, as with first life, these traits can be as used to produce anti-empathy, the desire to know that we are inflicting pain and frustration, as empathy.

The roots of humanity lie then in this dual nature of this basic mechanism of producing a inner virtual reality, and an inner trans-humanity. Pain and pleasure are joined, and so to are torture and treatment.

What then distinguishes them? What distinguishes the military interrogation from the doctor's visit? It is the capacity to set distance. Glenn speaks about autonomy coming from the boundaries of bodies. But really autonomy is more clever than that, it is about the ability to manage that distance. To be far enough at sometimes, and close enough at others. To be able at some moments to be absolutely synchronized with another self, and at other times distant enough to know that their immediate sensation of pain or discomfort is not our own. We punish and teach, both activities which are uncomfortable for their object.

Top-down society creates only two modes, either the other person is so identified as to be indistinguishable, and thus denied agency, or the other person is completely an object, and therefore chattel to be controlled, or a danger to be destroyed.

The imposition is what leads to the hysteria of theocracy. In a theocracy other people's actions are no different from ones own. Marriage between members of the same sex becomes a literal danger, because it is no different from the individual having done it. Other selves are not autonomous in this instance, because the fingers are part of the hand. The alienation is what allows us to starve others so that we can continue to stack triple decker hamburgers without thinking about it. Other selves are not autonomous, any more than the scalpel or pencil is.

The top-down society embodies this metaphor. Either another person is the hand that holds the instrument, and thus not autonomous because wholly subordinate, or the other person is the object that the hand holds. Without the ability to create a spectrum of distance, there is no sense of autonomy. We must both mirror and cross-transfer, and we must envision an otherness.

This is the analog between two dimensional thinking, and three dimensional thinking. It is only by creating this third dimension of empathy, where other selves exist at in a richly textured world, that we can have autonomy.

Glenn writes that torture might be justified by reason without emotion, but, there is no such thing. A being that has no ability to engage in anti-empathy might be able to kill, but it cannot torture, because it cannot know what will produce pain, nor can it maintain the balance required of life. Only a being capable of knowing what pain and agony mean, can conceive of torture.

It is from this that I argue, then, that the difference between top-down society, and another kind of society, is not a conflict between reason and emotion. Reason would not have sent us to Iraq. Reason cannot torture by itself. Instead it is the conflict between oblate anti-empathy, which participates in empathy only with the intent of flattening other individuals down to basic drives and simple actions and reactions, and depth of perspective which produces empathy in its full nature.

The full form of empathy then has perspective. It is lack of perspective which allows people to see beyond the immediate need and immediate impulses. It is perspective however, that consumerism of the old form must lack, because it's economic and political theory require that people only react to what is in front of them right now. The consumer must buy, today, based on the prices that he or she sees today, and the want she has today.

I will argue in my next part that this is a contradiction, and cannot be resolved within the current world view.

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