Saturday, March 18, 2017

Empathy and Space Travel: Third World Green Daddy 68

Last night I watched The Empire Strikes Back with my family.  Notwithstanding my prior writing about the proto-Fascist bent of the Jedi and the Rebel Alliance (and frankly of much fanboy culture, with its focus on orderly, imagined alternate realities, shallow characters grouped into neat tropes and categories, and reverence for what is ultimately just elaborately-branded consumer merchandise), we had a fun time watching it.  It was especially relevant because my kids both had a recent school assembly focusing on space travel and Star Wars. 

While we watched the movie, one of my sons kept referring to the Stormtroopers as robots, and I "corrected" him (as much as you can or should correct a child's insight with your "official" knowledge of a fictional universe) that they were in fact regular people, and the white getup was just their battle armor/uniform.  I reminded him of the first movie, when the heroes put on Stormtrooper outfits after knocking out their owners, but we saw that one so long ago that he didn't remember.  In all fairness, I think that when I first became aware of the Star Wars universe (which I imagine was through its ubiquitous spinoff merchandise since I was exposed to that long before I ever saw one of the actual movies all the way through), I too assumed the Stormtroopers were robots.  They looked like robots, indeed like a white-clad version of Darth Vader, whose breathing and voice are clearly made to sound robotic or at least robot-assisted.  I don't think there is any part of the original three movies when you see a Stormtrooper's real face, without his armor.

When I explained to my son that the Stormtroopers were in fact normal people, soldiers in the service of the Empire, he clarified that he had assumed they were robots made by Darth Vader, in Vader's image.  Because why would normal people be on the side of the bad guys?  Why would they follow Vader's orders?

I thought this was a profound reflection, and I told my son so.  I was so proud of him for clearly evincing that people, thinking people, must always side with what's good and true and correct.  I responded to my son that maybe the Stormtroopers thought that the Empire was good, or maybe they felt obligated to join the military for some reason, or maybe they just hadn't thought much about it one way or the other.  I reminded him of the gangs that plague Central America and Chicago, and told him that those are made up of normal people who for whatever reason do bad things, whether out of conviction or compulsion or apathy or antipathy.  (I did not get into how the President of the United States is currently targeting immigrants and people of color, and doing bad things to them just for the hell of it.  We talk enough about this in our prayers and in other conversations, and it is easier with a kid to understand at the ground level of what motivates the Stormtroopers as opposed to what motivates the Emperor, which starts to be Hannah Arendt territory).  I reminded my son that, unlike in the movies, real people aren't all good or all bad.  We all do bad things sometimes, and sometimes we do good things, and hopefully we're all striving to do more good than ill.

Anyway, I was impressed by this conversation at my child's basic moral compass, underlain by common decency and empathy.  He could not fathom how a thinking, caring, flesh-and-blood human being could possibly do ill to another, without his inborn empathy quickly turning him away from this course.  For my son, only a robot could consistently and willfully do evil.

Ever since my older son became more or less articulate and explicitly conscious of the world around him, we've tried to instill a sense of morality in him, and now we do the same with his younger brother.  Of particular importance in our particular time and place, especially when we lived in the US, was talking about racism.  My understanding is that most white parents don't have many explicit discussions about race with their kids, other than a few vague injunctions that "everybody is the same", usually totally counterweighted by the parents' day-to-day demonstrations that they don't in fact see everyone as being the same.  Conversely, I think that many parents of color have a talk with their kids, maybe around the age of three or five, where they try to tell their kid about the injustices of the world, counsel caution and safety in this world, and still somehow not totally destroy their faith in humanity.

Our situation with my boys is even more complicated on this note.  They are both white and not white, from the US and foreign, with recent ancestors from Africa, Europe, and native America.  In some situations they can and will be on the butt end of a racist interaction, and sometimes they will be the winners in the racist calculus.  I have long struggled to prepare them for these things, trying to teach them both to defend themselves from abuse by others, but also to defend others from abuse.  I haven't managed to explain it all very well in more abstract terms of justice, of morality, so I've had to resort to reminding them that one grandmother is black, and half their family is Latino and mestizo, and there's another big chunk of European blood in their veins, so it would be totally incoherent for them to side with one side against any other in a racial conflict.  In this case their mixed ancestry has been a boon for putting these complex issues into concrete terms.  "Don't say someone is bad for being black, because part of you is black," "Don't let anyone hurt a Latino, because you're Latino," "Fight back if someone attacks you for who you are."

But what about the parent in an all-white town in Wisconsin or Nebraska who wants to teach their kids that it's never okay to hurt or marginalize or even to solely define another person by the color of their skin, or the language they speak, or the religion they practice?  How do you get beyond the abstract, weak language of "Everyone is equal," without having many concrete examples in daily life to drive home the point to your kid?  Conversely, how do you keep your kid from coming to think that other groups of people (with whom they have little direct contact) are defined only by their suffering or their oppression by others?  Of course you can be open to having friends of different backgrounds, or even actively seek out interaction and learning from people who are different from you, but the opportunities for this are limited in many parts of the US. 

I don't have an easy response to these questions.  I guess you can be up-front with your children about both the problems faced by and the grand contributions made by all the different cultures within the US.  This doesn't require going out of your way to create an artificial, politically-correct narrative that doesn't have much application in your surroundings.  No, it is as simple as pointing out that the corn and green beans and squash and tomatoes and potatoes you eat come from native American farmers, both in North America and farther afield.  That the watermelon and black-eyed peas and even the rice you eat were first brought over by slaves (what is slavery, you ask?  Well, child, that's another entire lesson on our shared history in the US).  Chili con carne and nachos and even cowboys are imports from Mexico and Spain that are now emblematic of the American West.  You can talk about the country and rock-and-roll music you listen to and their roots in the black Mississippi Delta.  You can talk about the rap music that arose when blacks fled the oppression and economic deprivation of the South for the industrial North.  You can talk about the protests going on in the news when police forget that their mandate to serve and protect extends to communities of color, or when the President forgets that he needs to look out for the interests not just of those who look like your all-white neighbors, but for everyone in the country.  You can even talk about how the algebra and alcohol and astronomical azimuths and nadirs and chess and countless other aspects of our daily lives came to your town via European settlers who'd inherited it from Muslim Arab medieval scholars, who learned many of these concepts from India by way of Persia. 

So maybe it's not so difficult, because even in an all-white context in the US, we are a melting pot of many influences, both homegrown and imported from afar.  You can talk about race and difference and harmony and oppression without going beyond your own small, homogenous town.  Some of these may seem like alien things (that are nevertheless good to learn about), just as you might teach your kids about an interesting custom from East Africa or a type of music from Oceania.  But most of them are as American as apple pie, and it may be easiest (and most truthful) to simply teach your kids, even your all-white kids in an all-white town, that we are all part of the American story, that both the suffering and the grand contributions of blacks, or Latinos, or the poor, or Ashkenasi immigrants, or Chinese coolies, or Lakota dwellers of the Pine Ridge Reservation, are part of us, and so it would be ludicrous to mistreat or deny the relevance or rights or belonging of any group to our great nation, to our sense of who we are.  Just in the same way that it would be ludicrous for my multi-racial, multicultural kids to speak ill or mistreat any of the groups that comprise their ancestry.  As an American, regardless of the color of your skin, you're already multicultural.  It's just a question of recognizing it.

There has always been a major opposing current to this way of thinking, certainly in the US but I'm sure in any group of humans, that seems to believe that the only humans worthy of my empathy are those I have had direct contact with.  I wrote last year that Donald Trump seems to epitomize this tendency.  If he has direct experience with something, even if it is totally atypical or contradicts the experience of the vast majority of humanity, then his anecdotal opinion overrides any amount of hard statistics or testimony from others.  If he once met a black guy who shoplifted or was a general dickhead, then no amount of further information can convince him that the current justice and prison system overwhelmingly targets blacks for minor crimes, and lets whites and the rich off the hook for many similar crimes.  On the other side, if he has no direct experience with something, then it doesn't matter how big of an issue everyone else thinks it is.  Out of sight, out of mind.

We are exposed to stories like this all the time, both in the normal people we meet and more recently in the news.  We hear heartwarming stories of a guy who hated Muslims all his life (having never met one), until a few moved in to his neighborhood, and he realized they deserved the same respect and decency as everyone else.  Or a hardened racist who then gets an organ transplant from a black coworker or something.  While nice to read about, these stories are ultimately disheartening to me, because they convey just how strong this tendency is to distrust and even oppress others until we've met them personally and been convinced face to face of their humanity.  The problem is that there are almost 8 billion people in the world, so it would be impossible to meet them all.  If I only deem the people I've personally met as being worthy of the same rights and dignity as I am, then the world is screwed, because that means I'll be fine with consigning the mass of humanity to suffering and abuse.  It's like that Simpsons episode where Homer is a big homophobe until a gay guy saves his life from a bunch of reindeer.  The gay guy is happy at the end that Homer no longer hates him, but sardonically quips, "Homer, I won your respect, and all I had to do was save your life. Now, if every gay man could just do the same, you'd be set."

The nice thing about the liberal democratic principles that took shape during the Enlightenment, and that are pretty well captured in the US Constitution and the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is that they give us a framework for realizing that all people are deserving of the same decent treatment and have the same rights, even if we haven't met them personally.  This makes things much easier for all of us, since we don't have to burden ourselves with mistrust and hate of the unknown, and at the same time we don't have to establish intense, time-demanding personal relationships with everyone on the street just to keep from killing them.  But of course these days all those principles have been put in doubt.  Well, not really put in doubt as in there's been a coherent counterargument to them put forward.  Democratic principles have more just been shut out from lots of people's minds, since lots of folks seem to want to give old Fascism and authoritarianism a try again.  Just for the hell of it, you know.  In fact, a recent article about the demise of religion even among the Right Wing in the US is sort of terrifying, since it contends (I think rightly) that, for all the flaws of Christianity, it at least gave some framework of universal humanity under a just, loving God.  Now in the absence of this pretense of decency and love, White Nationalists are going buck wild with oppression, with no need to even justify their actions against Christian values they no longer acknowledge.

If a lack of empathy drives people to discount and dehumanize others, to deny them their rights, there is a parallel trend going on in the intellectual sphere.  I feel that the current US administration's attempt to downsize and destroy government institutions, the arts, and science is simply the extreme expression of a profound incuriosity, akin to the lack of empathy for people that one doesn't directly know.  It seems like the philosophy of many on the Right Wing vis a vis knowledge and intellectual inquiry is that, if they don't have direct contact with something, it doesn't matter.  This may have been a valid approach in the caveman days when our intellectual sphere was pretty much limited to what we could directly see and experience, just as it would have been valid for a caveman to limit his empathy to those he knew personally.  But today the world is so big and complex that we all rely on a whole bunch of systems to sustain our life, and we probably don't know much about 99% of these systems. 

For me to be typing on this computer, there needed to be a factory (probably in Asia, staffed by people trained in a specific skill set) assembling computer components from other countries, made from raw materials sourced in Africa and Australia.  Then there is a whole complex shipping chain to get the computer from China to a store in the US, where I bought the computer.  The fact that I had money to buy the computer is due to the existence of an economy dependent on billions of interactions between consumers, producers, government regulators, economists managing macroeconomic stability, etc., as well as a whole education system that formed me in certain skills that are considered valuable to the larger marketplace.  I personally understand very little about computer manufacturing, or coltan mining in the Congo, or shipping through the Panama Canal, or even the administration of a functioning school system, but I have enough common sense to know that it's good that all these systems exist, and to recognize that there are more or less competent people all up and down the value chains making them work. 

A more extreme example I had recently of all the things going on in the world that I know nothing about but that are nevertheless very important was an encounter with the geoscience department of a major public university in the US.  I checked out the faculty page of this department, and their research all consisted in things like studying tectonic plates and geothermal vents in remote parts of the world.  I didn't even understand a lot of the terminology they were using, and couldn't directly see the application of the work done there to my daily life.  But I would never just assume it was worthless.  Obviously it helps us all if scientists understand more about geosciences in terms of predicting earthquakes and volcanic episodes, both near where we live and in other parts of the world where we may have to help pay for disaster response.  But beyond this there are surely a number of benefits we all reap or may reap in the future from just having certain specialists learn more about the world around us, including the Earth's mantle under us.  I don't need to understand all the research going on in this field for me to deem its existence worthwhile--I have enough humility to assume that the dedicated work of others is worthwhile, even if I don't know the details.

If I limited my consideration of what is important to the few things I do directly (namely working in agricultural development in my case), then I would be very ignorant and arrogant, as well as ungrateful for all the other important things going on that permit me to exist in the manner to which I'm accustomed.  If I was arrogant and ignorant in this way, and had enough power to be able to destroy all these things that I didn't consider worthwhile, then it would be bad not just for me but for the world at large.  In the absence of curiosity, nothing seems interesting or worthwhile.  If I don't understand it, it's not worth knowing about, or even existing.  Let's just destroy it.  This seems to be what Trump and Bannon are trying to accomplish by cutting federal funding to the arts and sciences (as well as calling on all Executive Branch agencies to justify their existence, which is underlain by a bad-faith assumption that everything that Trump doesn't know about is worthless until proven otherwise).  These cuts don't achieve any major cost savings (a more effective way to do that would be to curtail the runaway public security costs now being used to protect the Trump brood's lavish vacations), but they do further the cause of aggressive, destructive stupidity, the type that is too shortsighted to see that the arts and sciences make for a better existence for everyone, or that the many agencies working on the complex internal functioning of the world's most powerful government each have a valuable role to play.

And this brings me back to my sons' school assembly.  The teachers started off the show by saying that there had been a collaboration between NASA and the space agency of our beleaguered Central American country, based at their preschool.  Obviously this was tongue-in-cheek, though I do imagine plenty of developing countries would like to build up something like a space exploration program and the robust research infrastructure that would go along with it.  As I was watching the little kids bounce around to space-themed songs, I thought about President Kennedy, the national consensus about the Space Program in the 1960s, the idea of a creative process to build something new, all of which contrast with the current administration's partisan, unpopular process to tear down countless programs that took decades of clear-thinking, motivated people to build up in response to perceived problems (pollution, voter repression, illiteracy, etc.).  (Disclaimer: NASA and space exploration are in fact one of the few things that seem to fare well under the Trump budget plans.)  Even what was perhaps the most objectionable part of the 1960s drive to the Moon, the jingoistic Cold War race against Soviet socialism, was at least a coherent, unified pursuit of defined US values against another set of well-defined values with which most of our country was at odds.  Today, Trump's team is not only allied with a bunch of ex-Soviets, but specifically with a strain of Russia that doesn't even have the decency of a coherent value system like Communism that, even if only in name, was in theory devoted to human wellbeing.  No, our new Russian buddies are cynical anti-humanists, areligious except when it comes to persecuting gays and Muslims, not even feigning a genuine desire for widespread wellbeing or economic equality for all their countrymen.

I guess that if you are incurious to the point of actively despising and persecuting intellectual inquiry, and antipathic to the point of actively despising and persecuting religious and ethnic minorities, then the logical conclusion is in fact to ally with others of a Darth Vader mentality.  The natural endpoint of such convictions is to become a Stormtrooper yourself.  But I still don't know how I can explain that to my kids, who side with Luke Skywalker.

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