Posts Tagged ‘ empathy

The Unprincipled Nature of Political Violence

A few thoughts on the attempted murder of Gabrielle Giffords.

Firstly, I want to express massive sympathy to the friends and families of the victims. The lack of empathy towards those who have had loved ones irrevocably ripped from their lives by human violence is a foundational reason that we live on a planet overflowing with needless sorrow.

That said, everyone in the political class is projecting their world view onto this event with almost no sign of even basic circumspection. This event didn’t take place in a vaccuum, and the angry political speech that is, in some circles, being blamed as the cause didn’t spring from nowhere, and the notion that the solution to a problem is to kill it wasn’t invented by Jerrod Loughner.

We are surrounded by a society steeped in violent domination of the weak by the strong. The foundational premise of human political institutions is that one group should use weapons, cages and confiscation to impose it’s will on another group. The foundational premise of our nation is that the non-ruling group can justly kill and replace the ruling group if, for example, taxes get too high, or the court system is deemed unjust.

The entire structure of our ruling institutions comes down to us from a barbaric and superstitious past. In this one unique thread of human endeavor, no hint of modernity has been allowed to permeate for 2,500 years.

The gun is always on the table in politics. Nearly every American supports both the use of state violence against undesirable people *and* the use of anti-state violence against oppressive government[1]

The credibility of the grievances varies (surely the weakest claim of oppression was that of the colonial americans in the 18th century), but there’s no political principle about when anti-state violence is good and when it’s bad–it’s entirely subjective[2]

There’s also no principle governing the appropriate use of state violence. Some people prefer guns be waved at those who farm certain plants or cross invisible lines. Others want to threaten those that have sex with forbidden persons (or in forbidden ways) or drop trash on unowned land.

This lack of principle, the lack of any basis for rational discourse, is precisely what leads to angry screechy shouting, jumping up and down, waving of arms, gnashing of teeth, and when those impressive displays repeatedly fail to convince: the threat of and use of violence.

We live in a domination system, a patriarchy, a rape culture in which the predominant belief is that physical control of one group of humans by another is necessary for our continued existence. As long as this is the case, violence will be used by individuals who feel that it’s a reasonable way to solve a particular problem. Most of the time, the victims will be the poor and politically powerless, but on occasion, the victim of violence will be a member of the ruling class or their enforcers.

The only way to avoid violence against the ruling class is to refuse to legitimize violence as a means of human interaction. Of course, it’s the ruling class that monopolizes the institutional use of violence against the rest of humanity, so to some degree the ball is in their court.

I imagine that we’ll know that we’ve reached the dawning of a new day when every murder around this planet is treated with equal horror. Since this killing is the first of the thousand-or-so politically related murders of the last year that has made the news in anything but a passing manner, I know that dawn is not yet come.

Update: The always amazing IOZ hits my note (but funnier) in paragraph 4.

Update: See for yourself has a nice round-up of other quality online publications that are presenting what I believe to be largely the same sentiment in a number of ways. Here’s a nice summary sourced by one of the linked posts:

Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.
— Derrick Jesen, Endgame vol. 1

  1. [1] The right-wing rhetoric that’s got everybody in a tizzy currently was used by the left in the 1960s. It was used by third world nationalists in the 40s and 50s and by anti-colonialists for 100 years before that. It was considered a sign of hope in post-soviet eastern europe and still is in the nuclear boogieman-of-the-day, Iran.
  2. [2] If one concedes the use of revolutionary violence, it certainly seems most appropriate against the regime that holds 1/4 of the worlds prisoners, that is fighting a whole host of wars that are illegal by any international agreement or treaty regarding national conflict back to 1648, that is responsible for 10s of millions of deaths in the third world since the mid 20th century, that claims the right to detain or assassinate anyone on the planet–including its own “citizens” without any process other than a go-ahead from the supreme leader.

The Bikecast Episode #21: Once and Future Anarchistic Societies

Another nice setup from a previous correspondence:

Is there any example of a stateless, non-hierarchical society? Or are these purely thought experiments and hoped-for utopias?

Download this episode of the bikecast

This is a classic shut-the-fuck-up argument that one runs into frequently when talking about statelessness. Like most STFU arguments, it’s entirely vacuous.  The limits of human vision do not a convincing argument make.  An analogous human living at the time would, no doubt, deny the possibility of agriculture without slavery in the 17th century, or marriage without ownership in the 18th, or inquiry into nature without the supernatural in the 14th. 

It’s not as though anarchists are proposing a world in which humans inhabit the oceans breathing through their newly evolved gills.  Human societies instantiating circumstances as mundane as non-ownership of people or reliance on the physical reality for explaining natural phenomenon didn’t exist at some point in the primitive past. The idea of society not organized around the brutal and archaic principle of might-makes-right will, in the future, be judged as natural as a universe without deities or the moral equality of races and genders is today*.

More scholarly advocates of statelessness have compiled lists of anarchistic societies in human history. I’ve created a Sqworl page that I will add to as I come across resources related to this argument. The one I heard about most recently are the Zomia. Frankly, while I think the historical examples are interesting, and they do provide examples of non-hierarchical societies, anarchism of the future will not resemble any of these past societies.

Statelessness based on a superstitious cultural system can be overturned by the introduction of a new religion. Statelessness based on tribalism can be overturned by contact with the “outside” world, or by increased population or industrialization. The stateless society of the future will be one growing from the humane treatment of children and the corresponding abandonment of sadistic religious ideologies and willing subjugation to a violent, privileged elite.

Anarchism will grow around each person who refuses to use violence, emotional manipulation and bullying in their relations with other humans and refuses to associate with those that do. Already, most of us go about our day almost every day without using violence to navigate the social realm. We work, date, play, socialize, and engage in any number of activities with any number of people in a peaceful yet organized manner. On the flip side, we, to varying degrees, accept as legitimate the use of violence by parents, police, husbands, and soldiers against their victims–some of these are increasingly seen for the barbarity they are, others are still honored and protected from scrutiny. Once this paradox is seen for what it is, and we demand the extension of the principle by which we wish to live our lives to include the victims of violence, anarchy will be at hand.

Children that develop in loving environments, free from violence, in which their material needs are met empathize with victims of violence. Without the fairy-tale narratives of God’s just vengeance and the wisdom and nobility of governments, they see violence for what it is, a breaching of the one principle that absolutely must not be breached in a civilized society.

I don’t believe we have any notion, as the children of a broken world, of what is possible in a world in which violence is no longer held up as a just and moral way of dealing with other humans. Humanity has witnessed changes that were unimaginable to our ancestors, changes that were warned against as portending the end of civilization societal collapse and a return to barbarism. I find it exceedingly small minded to retreat behind the same warnings of calamity and chaos to defend against the idea that society can be organized around a principle other than violence. It’s parochial, magical thinking to believe that a non-hierarchical society will somehow spell humanity’s doom. As reason and justice gain ground, the justifications for the protection of wealth and privilege behind a line of guns and prisons will cease to find purchase in the minds of an evolving society.

* I realize that some of the human race longs for a return to human ownership, the subjugation of women. I’m still confident that these primitive types are increasingly irrelevant socially and economically. There is no place in the modern world for such barbarism. We have already a society that shuns such people–of course, they’re still able to achieve their ends politically, providing another argument for the end to legitimized social violence.

The Bikecast Episode #20: Human Nature Expansion Pack

I’ve gone a long time without saying it–in fact, I’m not sure I ever said it in a podcast that ended up surviving–thanks for the comments and the feedback. I received a couple comments related to episode #17: Human Nature vs. Human behavior and related material.

Download this episode of the bikecast

It’s heartening that I don’t get push-back when I point out the monstrous war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by government. I didn’t get alot of static from my comparison of communism and fascism and my pairing of the two as very similar forms of totalitarianism. Nobody disagreed substantially with the idea that the Purpose Of a System Is What It Does. People have some very strong beliefs, however, that violence, obedience, and animal response to base instincts are immutable aspects of human nature.

I’ve found this attitude fairly prevalent within the social circles I travel. Nobody vouches for the virtue of the state, nobody supports the military or the neo-colonial policies of the corporate ruling class. Nobody thinks that justice is being served in the court system or the the prison system is anything but a racist racket for those who build, provision, and staff prisons. The one trait that separates these people from the anarchists I’ve met is their fear of other humans. Take the following email correspondence for example:

I’m not convinced of your points about human nature. I don’t think human nature is some monolithic entity, of course there is a large amount of variation. Some small percentage of people seem to lack empathy (sociopaths), and there seems to be a genetic component (that is, sociopaths are not necessarily created by their environment).

Humans are capable of horrible, unspeakable things. My point in episode #17 was that those are the result of mental and physical trauma during early development. The science around this topic is, as far as I’m aware, entirely conclusive. Sociopaths suffered some subset of a very well understood suite of supremely sub-optimal developmental conditions. This isn’t to say that no genetic pre-disposition exists, but it won’t be expressed without a traumatic developmental environment. I think the next bikecast will elaborate on this a bit further.

Hobbes famously described life in his hypothetical state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short”, which is why we come together to create society.

The social “we.” It’s awfully convenient for the wealthy and privileged that “we” came together to subsidize their industries, fight to maintain control of minerals and supply lines, and replenish their riches when they suffer losses. Hobbes and the other enlightenment political thinkers depended for their very lives on the ruling class. From the enlightenment onward, it became increasingly clear that decreases the power of the aristocracy and the lessening of the oppression of the peasant and merchant classes lead to far less bloodshed and even the beginnings of prosperity. Because of their situation, they were in no position to follow their logic to its conclusion.

This isn’t to discount the novelty or value of their thinking, but Hobbes, for example, existed in a time in which the scientific method was in its infancy. He had no understanding of anthropology, sociology, psychology or child development. He and his intellectual peers provide an interesting look at the modes of belief in their day, but their opinions as to the necessity of Leviathan based on human nature, I feel safe discounting in the face of modern discoveries and understanding.

I think you are a bit quick to dismiss any dissenting evidence. For one thing you seem to focus on individual human nature – but as we know, individuals in groups behave differently than individuals alone. There was a famous case of a brutal rape in NYC in the 80’s in which at least 50 neighbors heard what was going on but nobody intervened or called the police – they all assumed that someone else would help.

I am interested in dissenting evidence, but I think this is another non-example of said evidence. I agree that people behave differently in groups–that’s been clearly demonstrated in both the laboratory and in history. I maintain however that this instance and many similar instances in which even more thoroughly evil activities are participated in by otherwise “normal” people are examples of broken people with broken minds acting in groups. The group may amplify the individual lack of human connection to a person being raped and beaten in earshot, but it’s fairly far fetched to imagine that happening in a crowd of self-aware, empathetic and emotionally healthy human beings.

In a related facebook post of this video,

I got the following comment:

I have to question this idealistic principle of global empathy. I find it difficult to empathize with the Haitians and I attribute that kind of phenomenon to the fact that I can only manage care for a limited set of other individuals at one time. I read in some book years ago that the average group size of primates (don’t remember if it was bonobo or chimp) is around 200. And to me it seems likely that it hasn’t been that long since 200 was a large number of contacts for humans as well. However, within a few hundred years, we are expecting ourselves to be able to really grasp caring for 6.8 billion people? Maybe I am just being contrary, but I think it’s asking a bit much.

Then again, it’s not people like me who care for a small group that is the main problem–it’s those who regardless of their environment tend toward narcissistic, materialistic, aggressive behaviors, right? Or perhaps this man is implying that those traits are completely a response to our societal structure??

Here’s my reply:

. . . I think that understanding that it sucks to lose one’s family to aerial carpet bombing, or to be so poor that one lives in a plywood shack on a hill on a seismic fault line is really all that’s necessary. We *should*, if we are mentally healthy, be able to understand that those things are painful and to be avoided–even if we don’t experience it at the same level that we would experience *our* family being murdered or *our* hovel falling to an earthquake.

The speaker sort of skips that part and pretends like people generally do feel that level of empathy. I don’t think that they do. He wants to expand people’s empathy, I think that the issue is developing that empathy in the first place.

The narcissistic, materialistic, aggressive people among us are damaged humans, not examples of human nature. I think that’s the most important part of the piece . . .

I’m entirely convinced, after considerable, albeit amateur, research that it is the case that the damaged sociopaths among us are products of horrific childhoods. The contrapositive, of which I’m also convinced, is that loving, nurturing developmental conditions leads to healthy, social adults.

Even if I’m wrong, the anarchist position on the optimal social structure still stands. I’m straw-manning a bit here, since neither commenter outright claimed that their views of human nature necessitate a state. If sociopathy is an immutable aspect of human nature, then the very worst mechanism on which to found societal organization is violence. Sociopaths can dispense violence without concern for the victims or lingering regret. They are natural authoritarians, both as physical enforcers and as social engineers who can indulge their intellects by experimenting on human societies.

It makes intuitive sense and is amply borne out by the facts that social structures based on violence select against empathy, cooperation, and participants seeking win-win solutions to problems. It selects for narcissism, materialism, aggression, and a disregard for the health and well-being of others.

Instead of shielding society from the activities of sociopaths, the current system gives them weapons, badges, uniforms, legislative power, armies, prisons, and nuclear arsenals.

In either case regarding the nature of humanity, statelessness is optimal. In the one case, it’s inevitable, without a culture of violence, the state is impossible. In the other, it is essential: if violence is an inevitable aspect of the human condition regardless of upbringing, then the state must not exist if the species is to have any hope of long term survival.


I make reference to The Project for a New American Century in the bikecast as an example of policy promotion that assumes the necessity of a violent management structure for all of humanity. It may not be the best example, but it’s what I thought of at the time, so here’s the link.


I bumped into this disturbing gem of mental sickness via a pandagon post.  To summarize briefly: torturing people by simulating drowning can’t be bad because swimmers immerse themselves in water and have people yelling at them, and they’re fine.  My initial thought was to provide the teeny, tiny, bit of critical thought required to dismantle this argument.   Somebody beat me to it (also linked to in the pandagon post), and had come up with a half-dozen more and better examples than what I was thinking of.

Oddly, not a single person I know is compelled by the water-boarding = swimming-team = not-that-bad argument*.  We understand a very simple and, I think, ironclad truth: when it comes to physically interacting with, controlling, manipulating, modifying or destroying another a human’s body, if consent is not given, a crime is being committed.

I started thinking along these lines with the intention of hitting-the-broad-side-of-the-barn with a commentary on the moral bankruptcy of the right-wing position–hey, sometimes I don’t want to think too hard before posting.  Talking it over with my better half lead me to an insight that I had previously lacked.  The red state author wasn’t glossing over the consent vs. non-consent distinction as a rhetorical ploy–he couldn’t face the reality that being in a consensual vs. non-consensual context changes the subjective human experience.

With morality put aside, why is it that so many people equate, say, standing at a music festival for six hours with standing blindfolded in a prison for six hours?  This seemingly absurd position can only be maintained in the mind through a stunning lack of empathy.  Immediately condemning this blindness as backwards and evil, as I did and tend regularly to do, also demonstrates a lack of empathy**.

Only two*** possibilities exist that could lead someone to be so callous to the reality of the human experience.  First, he might have lived a life devoid of non-consensual relationships.  Having no experiences in which his will is overridden by an asymmetrical power relationship, he has no understanding of being in such a position.  Because he was always treated with respect and dignity, he cannot conceive of the alternate subjective experience that results from surrender and obedience .

I believe that, while possible, a human experience devoid of dominance is extremely rare.  The most severe and, often, the longest lasting power disparity is between a child and its parents.  I imagine that a childhood free of dominance, while not providing much experience with non-consensual actions, would probably result in a tremendous ability to empathize with suffering.  I believe that this is the case because asymmetrical power relationships tend first and foremost to remove from the victim empathy for their own situation.

Let’s examine the other possibility that explains our red state author’s amazing inability to empathize.  The second possibility is that he was immersed for his entire life in non-consensual action, in an environment of violent dominance.  To avoid physical and emotional attack, he had to constantly surrender and obey.  As an adult, he lives in a world in which he perceives asymmetrical power relationships as moral necessities that provide order and structure in an otherwise chaotic world.

If this is the case, any glimmer of empathy for a beaten, sleep deprived prisoner is coupled to empathy for his own historical relationship with those who held absolute power over him.  This glimmer, should it ever occur, must be ruthlessly crushed within himself because he probably is still in close contact with his former captors and is, very likely, exercising similar dominance now over his own spouse and children.

I’m not attempting to justify the author’s advocacy of brutality.  It is impossible to compare subjective experiences.  We may dismiss empathetic feelings for any hypothetical suffering experienced by a white male political pundit.  Clearly, there are others who spend their entire lives subject to the violent dominance of others: women foremost among them.  It can be challenging to empathize with those who spend 18 years in prison when others linger there for their entire lives.

Rather, I am interested in the social mechanisms that disallow us from coming, collectively, to understand something as simple as “torture is always wrong.”  Is it possible to make rational arguments that undo the damage done by a lifetime of dominance?  Can we heap the evidence high enough that someone will concede that violent domination of another human being’s will is everywhere and always evil?

Empirically, the answer is “no”.  Rational arguments have been made, the pile of evidence eclipses the sun, and yet the brutality proceeds apace.  I’m not proposing a solution–I don’t have any.  If there is a direction that will lead to a saner world, it involves a radical increase in empathy.  Eventually, this implies empathy one human for another–currently difficult for the best of us, and impossible for most.  It must begin initially where all change begins–we need greater empathy, first and foremost, for ourselves.

* I use the not-a-single-person-I-know argument alot.  I am aware that plenty of people are not people-I-know.  I would like to recommend a policy of not knowing people for whom this argument makes sense after any amount of consideration.

** Meta-empathy?

*** That I can think of.