Monday, June 15, 2009

Identity, Violence and Empathy

An essay from what started as a letter to a Village Enterprise Fund colleague regarding World Anti-Poverty Week, which occurs October 11-17 of this year:

A very high impact lesson that many of us teachers use in teaching about the issue of poverty is called the "Hunger Banquet".  Do a search online for various ways to do it but basically you give a few people a big meal, maybe 1/3 rice and beans and the rest a bit of rice and water to mirror the current world conditions on poverty/hunger. 

Addressing poverty through food is a powerful way to do it in the US because our culture is so food rich and heavy (think gutbuster bacon cheeseburgers etc.) - it's hard for most Americans, even our poorer citizens, to imagine going without significant calories in a day.  The Hunger Banquets can be done in schools or publicly staged to create awareness, information can be disseminated, donations can be asked for at the event, "things you can do" and resources for them can be discussed. Anyways that is just one idea that comes to mind though I know it's a bit outside of VEF's typical approach to creating awareness and fundraising. It is important for us to ask what the root structural causes of poverty are and they are not disconnected from the way food is produced and distributed in the world.

Two rainstorms have come within 24 hours here which is a blessing for anxious farmers.  Interestingly the first one came from the west, the second from the east, which is the more typical direction from which clouds travel across Soroti.  From whichever way the rain comes you can hear in the voices of locals what each drop of rain means.  As the water falls down the dreams of maize or sunflowers growing up to heights that translate to enough food for the family for the season or a bit of income are expressed openly with a bit more optimism, if at least for a relieving day.

We are making more friends here and getting to know the area better.  It's nice to be greeted so kindly and gratefully by shop owners and neighbors though there are times when you'd like to be less of a curiosity to everyone.  I first experienced such intense interest from the locals and the empathy of what it may feel like to be from a "minority group" of the population in Thailand when I went with my family to visit my sister who was studying there in 1996.  If anything a lesson is that when you are different than most of the people around, you get treated differently, and this gets complicated by history, cultural patterns of interaction, politics, socioeconomics and language. 

As a social studies teacher leading discussions about race or class or gender issues at Berkeley High, where some 25-40 languages are spoken on campus, I really got to see how some of these issues play out.  A central theme becomes clear: identity - or how we see ourselves, how we see ourselves in relation to others, and how others see us.  Unfortunately at this point in our social evolution the focus is more often on differences we perceive or believe in than the commonalities we can find. 

It is thus my hope and a thrust of my career and social interactions to help people seek the universality of the human experience in their own interactions.  And it is my firm belief that doing so would lead to less poverty, less violence and less human suffering because of the empathy – the unique trait of those who have achieved the highest level of moral development according to Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg - that is activated through the commonalities we find with others. Former president of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan once said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself because you are your neighbor. It is an illusion that makes you think your neighbor is someone other than yourself.” With such an approach the concept of "the other" starts to dissolve; the solvent being the inevitable bond and compassion we begin to feel when we find that we share something with another person.

This feeling comes from somewhere innate because it is in our survival interest to bond with other human beings, to collaborate with them towards our shared basic goals - food, security, shelter, companionship.  And here some might say is the root of philia and agape love (Martin Luther King Jr., Christian theologists, and ancient Greek philosophers identified various types of love, typically: eros or romantic love, philia or brotherly love, and agape, which is a self-sacrificing, altruistic, devotional love).  And when we operate on not just the intellectual understanding but actual relationships wherein we feel a connection rooted in shared experience or interest we see more constructive action. Connected people “lend a hand”, or solve problems together, or collaborate on a project towards shared interests. Constructive action deepens human collaborative and social relationships and can also be seen as peace-building. 

But so long as there is a sense of scarcity or insecurity when it comes to meeting our basic needs humans will sometimes collaborate with others - most often their familial, clan, tribal, community, or national kin to use structural violence (unjust institutional systems or laws) or direct violence against "the others", which is a chosen group or groups of somehow categorized others that is seen to be a threat because of their values or practices (example: the LGBTT community to those who believe in a certain definition of marriage and vice-versa), their assumed intentions (example: Iran to the neoconservatives of PNAC), or historically most often – because the other is seen to be in competition for or in possession of the needed resources or is the cause of the scarcity or insecurity (examples: as many others see the US, or ethnic warfare throughout the last 12,000 years. The oldest archaeological evidence of organized group versus group violence was found in Sudan where fifty-nine skeletons are buried in a mass grave many of them with the arrow or spearhead inflicted wounds. The event occurred during a time when climatic changes led to dwindling resources after a period of human population growth in the area). 

The ongoing conflicts among groups here or there, the great disparities of wealth in this world, the grossly unequal distribution of food are arguably the result of a few national groups organizing to secure more resources for their kin in the last few hundred years and being crushingly successful. The last five hundred years of world history tell the tale of the rise of nationalism, technological innovation towards the increased ability to destroy human life, the organizing of massive groups into armies representing the state, armies of people trained to not just kill, but specifically to kill “the other” which includes a rigorous program of psychological conditioning (statistics from World War II show that only 25% of US soldiers actually fired their guns at the enemy. Wanting to increase this number the army and marines have since ramped up their program on dehumanization of the enemy and reflexive as opposed to conditional firing. As Shakespeare so eloquently expressed through the tragic figure of Hamlet whom I will summarize and paraphrase: “To hesitate – therein lies the rub.”).

And it is national governments that have a relative monopoly on the tools of violence. The great armed forces of the world and weapons of mass destruction are concentrated in the controlling hands of the kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, advisers and elite legislators, the generals and admirals of modern history and contemporary times. And how have they chosen to use them? And what have been the effects? Where went the lessons of our great religious and philosophical teachers to “turn the other cheek”, that “violence begets violence” that “the pen is mightier than the sword”, that we should “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, that we should “love thy neighbor”, that “thou shalt not covet” that as the Dalai Lama says, we are, more than ever, part of one community thus violence is ultimately self-destruction?

A problem is that to organize such institutions to advantage some people and exploit or oppress others or commit such large-scale violence requires the dehumanization of the other as it is against our nature to take such action against someone or a group with whom we feel a bond.  And a systematic process of dehumanization and the experience of violence as victim or perpetrator powerfully affects the psychology of individuals within a culture and the culture itself.  Just as baseball references are part of everyday American vocabulary the words of violence are rife within the American and many other cultural lexicons. But it doesn't stop at our words. Thoughts becomes words, words become action. By most violence is seen as an acceptable tool to gain more of what is perceived as needed.  And the violence becomes easier as we desensitize and further dehumanize, which is necessary to maintain a sense of justification for committing unnatural acts such as denying others freedom or killing innocent people.  You can see this in how the Bush administration approached war-making or blacks were treated in apartheid-era South Africa or American South or how many in Uganda view the Karamoja people.

It's hard to recondition the mind and our patterns of interaction to seek bonds instead of differences with others.  Here comes in the importance of education systems and how and what we choose to teach.  As Gandhi said, "If we want to see real change in the world, we must start with the children.” Indeed, each generation offers us an opportunity to educate people in ways the recreate and reinforce violent systems and structures, such as socializing people into the punitive nature of our justice system that by the measure of recedivism has shown to be an utter failure (70% of all prisoners will be rearrested within three years of their release) or instead teaching and calling on youth to practice restorative justice in their own lives and as an institutional reform project of their generation.
Restorative justice projects, such as Cathrine Sneed's “The Garden Project” wherein the aim is to recognize the injury of the transgression to the community and have the transgressor work with others in the personal and communal healing process, are proving to be wildly successful compared to traditional punitive measures (jailing, economic and political disenfranchisement, execution). Rates of recidivism are much much lower and transgressor and community members report feeling strengthened by the reconciliation and restoration process. Remember - constructive action deepens human collaborative and social relationships and builds peace.

But more influential in our thinking and decision-making is the realities we face that relate to our basic needs.  And the reality of the state of the world today is that for the reasons I detail above and surely some others a large percentage of human beings live in a crippling cycle of poverty or real or mental resource scarcity or livelihood insecurity. The challenge in creating awareness about seeking bonds with others and thus compassionate and constructive action for people of richer realms towards those of poorer places is that they are far removed from the visceral experience of a complete lack of money, the intense pangs of hunger, from the roof of their house caving in, from relatives dying of easily treatable diseases or the screams and splattering of blood and forever-haunting horrors of witnessing murderous violence. 

So what can we do to change the way we identify ourselves, our relations with others and how others identify us? How can we awake Americans from their food comas or have them feel a fundamental human connection with the poorest of the poor living halfway around the world from them?  If we can't bring the African mother and American mother together for a conversation, if just telling them "what life is like there" gets an "Oh that's so sad ... I've got a meeting to get to" or even a donation but no attempt to "be the change" then in the short-term sometimes we have to shock people, give them an affective experience outside their day-to-day existence.  We have to help them to feel destitute or uncomfortable, unjustly treated or hungry, without health services or in danger. At the same time we have to help them feel empowered to do something about it.

For me, witnessing violence, being acted upon violently, and the examples of great nonviolent social movement leaders like Cesar Chavez, Meena Kamal, Chico Mendes, Aung San Suu Kyi and of course Gandhi and MLK are what inspire me to give and work towards peace, justice, and the relief of human suffering in the world. For myself and others activities like the Hunger Banquet, books and films, music, compelling speeches, a healthy dose of reflection through them all and importantly the discussions they provoke and the modeled actions one can take in light of the greater empathy achieved can serve as “shock” and inspiration. As VEF does, we need to continue to show and invite others to do the many creative and constructive things that can be done as empowered members of the local and global community who see and feel how we are connected, how we are one in the same with “the other”, that identity need not be achieved via recognizing how one is different but how we contribute towards universal human needs.

And especially during a time like World Poverty Week, is it so bad to "shock" someone into an emotion, deeper reflection or action?  After all it's no shock to the people we serve, it is simply their daily existence.


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