The Empathic Civilization

"It is then certain that compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species." (Rousseau)

"The peoples of the earth have entered in varying degree into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere." (Kant)

Jeremy Rifkin has published a book with this title. Its subtitle ("The race to global consciousness in a world in crisis") perhaps undersells the book's seriousness and especially its value to us as a contemporary synthesis of anthropology, history, philosophy and science.

In this series of posts I have begun to lay out a program for the reinvention of "anthropology" in some sense of the word. I trace its origin to Rousseau and Kant. Rifkin is by no means as kind to the Enlightenment, but I do think he deserves to be read by any anthropologist who finds the fragmentation of the academic discipline frustrating. Apart from anything else, I found the book an immense storehouse of knowledge, even if it has been cut and pasted by an army of directed researchers.

Rifkin's thesis is simple, but powerful and generative. Human beings are wired for "empathy" which is like sympathy and compassion, but goes beyond just feeling sorry for people. It is the ability to place oneself imaginatively inside another person's mind and as such is linked to development of the self, of individual personality. Both Marx and Durkheim held that individualism was a function of more, not less society; and Rifkin follows them.

His basic argument is that to be human is to care for others, to work for common ends with people whose lives we may not know well, but whose feelings we somehow share. This in turn is a result of expanded systems of communication, of which our internet is just the most inclusive version so far. But it also their cause, since we need to get in touch with each other.

There is a catch. Of course there has to be one. It is our old friend the second law of thermodynamics, usually summarized as "entropy", the notion that energy always flows from order to disorder in a universe where the first law states that the total amount of energy remains constant. In order to build this enlarged capacity to communicate, we increase entropy. The "race" is on, therefore, between humanity's ability to achieve global consciousness ("empathy") and our destruction of the planet in the process ("entropy").

The story may be too simple and over-dramatic, but it makes for a compelling read. It allows Rifkin to string together an unusually coherent history of our species of the sort that we haven't seen, well, since Tylor and Morgan. I'll have more to say later, some of it critical. You can get the book in hardback from amazon.com for $18 which, at over 600 pages, is a steal. I recommend it to students for its very wide range of topics. But actually the book has some possible answers for why we are here in the OAC.

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Comment by Keith Hart on April 12, 2010 at 10:06am
Thanks for this clarification, Geoff. I find it interesting that the processes you refer to require some definition in space, however temporary. Please excuse me if I stick with the anthropology of religion, since I have given more thought to that, especially to the continuities and contrasts between Durkheim's and Rappaport's great books on the subject.

Durkheim had a dualistic conception of the religious life as a bridge between separate worlds, the sacred and the profane, the collective and the individual. He assumed that society would continue to be organized by the impersonal institutions of state, market and science. In such a world the personal and the everyday have no meaningful connection with society and history, so that it is left to experts, sociologists and anthropologists, to discover how the abstract principles by which we live are reproduced in religious ritual. Rappaport's approach (Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity) is strikingly different. His definition of ritual draws no hard line between the sacred and the everyday, between society and the individual or for that matter between culture and nature. This post-modern approach could be said to reflect conditions in the late 20th century world when he wrote.

What I gather from your inevitably brief comments is that the idea of a safe space conducive to generating greater empathy retains something of Durkheim's modern dualism, without its rigidity. If this interpretation is right, the conclusion is that we don't simply negate such divisions, but retain them in more plastic and flexible ways.
Comment by Geoff Chesshire on April 10, 2010 at 8:36pm
I would like to know whether what you have in mind is anything like a religious congregation, coming together to worship regularly in a sacred place.

I have in mind the space created by a mediator for aggrieved parties to reconcile, the space created by a meeting facilitator to break through dysfunctional communication patterns, and sanctuary spaces of all kinds. The space may be bounded physically by walls or simply by a circle marked on the ground, by an interval of time, by agreements and customs, or any combination of these. A famous example was where soldiers in the WW1 trenches took a day off to celebrate Christmas together. A safe space may be created that is conducive to a shared spiritual experience, but sometimes religion reduces worship to a formula. Just as "Try hard to relax" is absurd, so is "Now let us pray." Far from bringing on a shared spiritual experience, this can devolve to mean little more than "Now let's pretend."

This idea has many secular applications which I associate strongly with music, sport and varieties of fiction. In fact most of the metaphors I have for thinking about creative performance and shared experience are musical in origin.

Yes, participation in music and dance is a perfect example, as expressed in the song "The Music Never Stopped." Various ceremonies and celebrations fit the bill, where people set aside their day-to-day hustle-bustle and connect on another level. This doesn't always rise to the level of empathy, but you recognize it "while the music plays the band."
Comment by Keith Hart on April 10, 2010 at 3:27pm
Where should we be looking for our heroes, villains, and fools? .

I'm a classicist, so I pick my heroes from the list of those who made a big difference to the way we think. Many of them were actively engaged in politics, but what we retain from them is what they wrote. Locke and Marx come to mind. Life is too short to waste time on villains and fools.

We can learn to recognize conditions conducive to empathy, and we can help to create those conditions. I think one of the keys to this is learning to hold "safe space" in which together we can let go of the fear, judgment, pretense, and various cultural and emotional baggage that block our innate empathic capacity.

I am not yet convinced of the specificity of the idea of "empathy" or of why we need it. Notions like "safe space" sound a bit new age to me. I need to build bridges between these concepts and what I have already learned from my intellectual heroes. When I read this comment, Geoff, I was reminded strongly of Emile Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and I would like to know whether what you have in mind is anything like a religious congregation, coming together to worship regularly in a sacred place.

This idea has many secular applications which I associate strongly with music, sport and varieties of fiction. In fact most of the metaphors I have for thinking about creative performance and shared experience are musical in origin. Last week I heard a performance of Elgar's violin concerto by Nikolaj Znaider who must be the tallest musician ever. It was a love duet between soloist and orchestra, symbols of the composer and his mistress. I can't begin to list the levels of my own and the audience's engagement with this enthralling drama. I wonder which aspects of such an experience might be usefully described as empathic.

Was that a "safe space"? What are the precedents for building and maintaining such spaces?
Comment by Keith Hart on April 10, 2010 at 2:51pm
The first law of thermodynamics is merely the definition of a closed system, and the second law applies only to closed systems. We live in an open system...

Thanks for clearing this up, Geoff. I have always believed that popular use of the notion of "entropy" reflects a metaphysical preference for closed, static systems; but I never took the trouble to find out if my own metaphysical preference for open development had any sound basis. So your authoritative statement cheers me up no end. I never bought the steady state universe either. I'll settle for being able to "locally decrease entropy". Anything less would be hard to bear. That's what I find hopeful in what you first had to say.
Comment by Geoff Chesshire on April 10, 2010 at 5:45am
Serious question: What can we come up with in the way of a process that will lead to similar improvements in empathy processing?

This really is the key question. I don't mean to dodge, but if we try to reduce this to a process, we'll only come up with something as absurd as "Try hard to relax." I'm sure many of us have experienced moments when we look around us in wonder, and see that we all have the same knowing smile that says, "Yes, I'm feeling it too!" We can remember, but we can never re-create the same magic moment. However, we can learn to recognize conditions conducive to empathy, and we can help to create those conditions. I think one of the keys to this is learning to hold "safe space" in which together we can let go of the fear, judgment, pretense, and various cultural and emotional baggage that block our innate empathic capacity. It has taken me fifty years to learn to be fully present within a shared space and at the same time observant as if from above. I find this essential to holding the space, but possible (for me) only where a safe space already exists; holding the space is a shared responsibility. I am hopeful to see "improvements in empathy processing," because I learned most of this from people much younger than myself.
Comment by John McCreery on April 10, 2010 at 2:33am
All ideas are good for some things more than others. I am not trying to organize an army, but have chosen to explore stories that support beliefs which might help us to build a new kind of anthropological community here.

Keith, I'm with you here. Building armies takes skills and a kind of perseverance that I know full well I sorely lack. And finding good stories that support belief remains a fascinating process, even though it is still, sometimes, my day job. Given that all good stories require characters, where should we be looking for our heroes, villains, and fools?
Comment by John McCreery on April 10, 2010 at 1:56am
I would say that our senses have enough bandwidth, but that our capacity to process, filter and find meaning in all this information is overloaded. This capacity is an example of the complex structures (e.g., our minds, our electronic prostheses, our institutions) that the flow of energy through the system allows to emerge and evolve. Rather than being a finite resource, this capacity may continue to increase.

The most hopeful thought I've heard in a long while. Thanks Geoff. It is, indeed, nice to envision a future in which the human capacity for empathy increases along the same sort of curve that CPUs and memory chips have. But we know, at least in retrospect, how that has worked, through continuing physical improvements in circuits inscribed on silicon. Serious question? What can we come up with in the way of a process that will lead to similar improvements in empathy processing?
Comment by Geoff Chesshire on April 9, 2010 at 10:54pm
I, for one, am encouraged to see and be able to participate in this discussion. I daresay even that I can detect the germination of some seeds of ideas that I had planted in other conversations months ago. I find that quite empowering!

I must admit that I have read only the first 250 of Rifkin's 600 pages. I found myself wishing he had written something more concise and accessible, because his ideas need to be absorbed by a wide audience. I am encouraged by what I have read so far.

Keith, I'm not so concerned about the point of entropy being the catch. Even though Rifkin has written a book entitled "Entropy," my math/physics background tells me that he misses the point. The first law of thermodynamics is merely the definition of a closed system, and the second law applies only to closed systems. We live in an open system; energy from the sun flows steadily through our system and never comes back, and that's likely continue for billions of years. To the extent that processes on earth (including human activity) make effective use of this flow of energy, complex structures emerge with the capacity to store energy and information. Through our creativity, we make use of this energy flow to build and maintain structures, institutions and diverse relationships that locally decrease entropy.

John, you're right that "there could still be a bandwidth problem, i.e., the capacity to empathize is a finite resource." I would say that our senses have enough bandwidth, but that our capacity to process, filter and find meaning in all this information is overloaded. This capacity is an example of the complex structures (e.g., our minds, our electronic prostheses, our institutions) that the flow of energy through the system allows to emerge and evolve. Rather than being a finite resource, this capacity may continue to increase.

I can only hope that our capacity for empathy may outgrow our capacity for coercion.
Comment by Keith Hart on April 9, 2010 at 6:30pm
All ideas are good for some things more than others. I am not trying to organize an army, but have chosen to explore stories that support beliefs which might help us to build a new kind of anthropological community here. This is not the only thing that interests me nor is it the only level I function on. Above all there is no telling who will read this stuff or what they will make of it. I have worked out, however, that it is not your cup of tea, John. As a teacher I always lectured for belief rather than for knowledge. There's a difference. I don't say one is better than the other, but we all do what we think we can do.
Comment by John McCreery on April 9, 2010 at 2:56pm
But, as Kant said, however remote a world where justice is administered universally might seem to be, there is still some value in trying to write an anthropological history of humanity that aims to support that process.

A noble goal, indeed. I am thinking about what little I know about religious and political mass movements and large military and other organizations. Do you know of any in which the big idea or the charismatic leader or both are not at the apex of a hierarchy composed of nested units such that the sub-leaders who form the links between higher and lower levels are, in effect, members of two overlapping but internally strongly bonded small groups? Has there ever been an actual example of a transcendental ideal that reached significant scale without being associated with this type of organizational structure?

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