What it Means To Be Mean
The path toward becoming either Progressive to Liberal on the one hand, or Regressive to Conservative on the other, winds through a measurable combination of environmental factors and brain function. Recent studies of brain function and psychological makeup have revealed varying degrees of political outlook being rooted in organic biological function and/or systemic exposure to social attitudes throughout life. The studies suggest some people may not be able to help it while others go with the flow and ultimately choose not to think differently from their parents, peers and surrounding society.
Let’s first examine the effects of either mindset. According to Moral Foundations Theory, promoted by a collaboration among psychology and social scientists specializing in morality and politics, morality is widely variable among cultures yet repeats itself thematically in universally similar ways. Each culture exhibits a discreet array of natural, instinctive ethical definitions around which it constructs a series of social support descriptions that define the hierarchy among them, attributing color and flavor as they delineate the unique shape and timbre of each society’s culture.
Every culture exhibits a combination among these ethical definitions:
1) Care/harm – This classification describes how well we relate with others in terms of intuiting others pain or suffering. It is attached to kindness, tenderness and how effectively we cherish or care for others. This is one side of empathy.
2)Fairness/cheating – Altruism is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation promoting survival of the tribe, group or family. Justice, individual rights and autonomy altruistically delivered to others applies, another side of empathy.
3)Liberty/oppression – Domination from without creates tension eliciting umbrage and corrective reactions in opposition to, most often, defined authority. Images of peaceful demonstrators being bullied and injured by uniformed authority swelling the ranks of subsequent protest actions is a good example.
4)Loyalty/betrayal – Social animals, including humans, form coalitions of mutual support and common cause. Patriotism, self sacrifice for the common good.
5)Authority/subversion – This order and hierarchical configuration expresses social interactions in terms of leadership, how one follows, qualification of legitimate authority and tradition defined behaviour.
6) Sanctity/degradation – Underlying, but not limited to, religious concepts of raising existence above the sensually indulgent, animal, lustful, fleshly, worldly or basely human, into an elevated, spiritual sphere. Sanctity and degradation treat the notion that the body is a fragile shrine easily desecrated by immoral acts or toxic contaminants.
Societies combine these ideas in variable proportion, as do further refining subgroups within the society. It is the conflicting priorities that make for a divided society. Conservatives rely on all six of the ethical departments, and the culture wars of the last thirty years rages over the Right’s greater reliance upon Authority, Loyalty and, perhaps especially the application of Sanctity and conflict over its legitimacy. Conversely, Liberals and Progressives bestow greater proportional weight to Care/harm criteria with heavy support from Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression fields.
What are the pressures that bring some in society to revere the group or its leaders so highly that individuals are expendable? How do individuals come to regard those who are not members of their group, however it may be defined, as not deserving of the advantages reserved for the group, whatever may be chosen to withhold from them?
Simon Cohen-Baron has been studying empathy for three decades. His work is wide ranging and comprehensive. He has led in the development of what he calls the Empathy Quotient to quantify extent and efficacy of individuals’ empathy. With various combinations of colleagues, he has examined the effects of testosterone on Empathy, taken hundreds of brain scans pinpointing brain Empathy centers’ activity and how those functions reflect Empathy Quotient measurements. Amniotic fluid and adult blood samples measured possible protein compounds’ effects on gestational development by examining those amniotic fluid compound effects on brain Empathy Center development and acuity. These examinations together with colleagues’ specialties among an extensive range of investigative sciences, such as social neuroscience, genetics, tomography techniques, psychosis quantification among many others, sought to pinpoint why some people are capable of cruelty while others are not, and whether the phenomenon is linked with an empathy center brain dysfunction along with to which degree there may be social and other biological determinants.
In Baron-Cohen’s latest book, The Science of Evil, he redefines the mystical, emotionally laden term evil with empathy, or the lack of empathy, establishing a quantifiable emotion upon which to base
and test his theory. Among many factors, it turns out there’s an effect from testosterone levels during gestation and after puberty. But, that’s just the beginning. The greater population of empathy normal individuals exhibit a range of observable brain function. Individuals who exhibit reduced or diminished empathy center activity are categorized among three types: Borderline, Narcissist and Psychopathic. Further measurable trends indicate genetic predisposition toward reduced empathy to a status of no measurable empathy at all: “Empathy Zero, Negative.” There is significantly less empathy center activity in the brains among those who measure in the Empathy Zero, Negative population. Gestational and environmental indications are also indicated representing all three factors – Borderline, Narcissist and Psychopathic – in the nature or nurture realm of personality traits.
In other words, some people are just born that way, though there do appear to be some avenues of therapy that can help ameliorate the final outcome of some among Zero, Negative personality characteristics. That’s not to say that everybody who descends within a family sprinkled with Empathy Zero, Negative ancestors will become zero negative, or even exhibit reduced empathy. That is because there are a large number of environmental factors in the stew that effect the individual’s personality as well. That is to say, just as one may be genetically predisposed to exhibiting reduced or zero-negative empathy, one who has neither familial history or genetic markers of zero-negative orientations, there are plenty enough environmental factors, such as childhood neglect or abuse, and the general public zeitgeist on issues of empathy to swing a developing brain steering an individual disposition one way or the other.
Social Pressures: Normalizing Meanness
In recent decades, there has been well organized, private, public and government sponsored policy shifts institutionalizing gravitation away from an empathetic society to one of evermore reduced empathy so that America is currently verging on operating as a zero-negative personality would toward those vulnerable who cannot fend for themselves due to political and socio-economic factors. It began with Ronald Reagan’s exhortation that government is not the solution, but that
government is the problem. He failed to define, however, to whom government is the problem. His and his followers’ implication is that governmental influence is a universal threat to its citizenry. At the same time, religion arose as a political issue, blurring the Constitutionally drawn line separating Church and State, which introduced a host of cultural issues with a revived mantle of supernatural authority only suggested previously, and heretofore easily relegated its Constitutionally appropriate place.
Enter the so-called Culture War. The Culture War is based on theocratic justified policies coupled with corporate elite pressure toward freedom from civic responsibility. The resulting philosophy created a systemic rejection of empathy in secular policy and law. The Right leaning political forces had strength in numbers among Religionists and the financial strength of corporate interests that include, among other characteristics, diverting monies previously used to maintain society to further finance the erosion of government protections for the poor and needy as well as the general population against greed and abuse.
Removal of the Fairness Doctrine by President Clinton under Republican pressure removed any semblance of public media balance offered to the public by televangelists, news outlets, and paved the way for the likes of Fox News. Under the mantle of corporate personhood, special interest themes designed to overshadow reasonable discourse, fortified as speech protected by the First Amendment, continues to systematically deceive the public toward control of public opinion without consequence. Reaching the logical conclusion of corporate personhood, the Republican nominated Supreme Court majority has handed Corporations carte blanche to overwhelm the airwaves with opinion posing as self evident truth and conviction substituting for facts.
A series of systematic exemptions for specific classes of financial market transactions seeded the ground for widespread fraud creating an illusory bubble of prosperity, the collapse of which nearly ruined the world economy. Corporate influence over government has let the perpetrators escape significant consequences, avoid restitution or compensation, or even consolation, for losses engineered on vast numbers of investors. That same influence over government, and control of broadcast content has continued to advance the policies that caused the barely averted global depression as the solution to fix their effects.
These are but a few in a cascade of events that could arguably be individually described as rational. Each, however, lacks any consideration of fairness and consequence, relying on authority, loyalty to caste, and a distorted sense of government oppression. That’s Empathy Zero, Negative type psychopath behaviour.Recurrent. Systemic. Endemic. Chronic. Socially destructive. Zero empathy.
Here’s Lookin’ At You, Kid
As a society, we’re left with a significant number of people who are attracted to authority. Once authority is acquired, they wield their power ostensibly for their group, family or tribe but ultimately for themselves. They notably embrace the indisputable authority of money and types of assumed authority such as conferred, by default, to tradition or a deity. Authoritarians, by nature, use whatever authority they can accrue to bludgeon dissent and resistance. They especially focus their control on the vulnerable. In various displays of empathy rejection, we’re treated with themes like Newt Gingrich extolling “why the African-American community should demand pay checks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” and how Hispanic immigrants “should learn English and not use the ‘language of the ghetto.’ ” An Arizona sheriff, currently running for Congress as a Republican from Arizona, who having appeared with John McCain in the anti-immigration political ad, “Build the dang fence,” is newly accused by his purported ex-boyfriend of threatened him with deportation, explicit photos of the boyfriend posted on a gay dating site, and demands for non-disclosure about their relationship. Mitt Romney says, “I’m not concerned with the very poor” and “I like being able to fire people who offer me services.” According to Dr. Ron Paul, only women who have been victim of an ‘honest’ rape would qualify for a post-assault estrogens injection, because, well, it’ll have to do. How is any of that fair and why are situational consequences not worthy of consideration?
Rick Santorum cites cultural conflict as a spiritual war, and would limit others’ behaviour and liberties on sole authority of his own faith. He paints the President’s reference to faith as a phony theology, and claims the President’s support of universal education is merely a ploy to get kids into college to indoctrinate them with left wing ideology. All that work during preadolescence in Sunday School, all those confirmation courses, prayer breakfasts, Bible study groups, youth fellowship gatherings and countless Sunday sermons throughout young adulthood would be laid waste. This is the man who admonished a voter on the campaign trail that government must not support her gay son’s “unhealthy lifestyle” such as marrying and raising a family. He also claims that rape victims should be denied any chance at an abortion and should best try to make the best out of a bad situation. That is, celebrate the effects of being brutalized and violated. Santorum has stated he is “not a believer in artificial birth control.” He says contraception is “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be” He hasn’t exactly established by whom it’s supposed to be. But, “if you take one part out” of the equation, he said, sex would become “not for the purposes of procreation” whereby the participants “diminish this very special bond between men and women.” He ignores all the evidence that indicates sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is an integral part of mental and physical health regardless of its part in procreation.
Santorum opposes gays serving openly in the military, marriage equality and same-sex civil unions. He supports anti-sodomy laws targeted directly at criminalizing gay sex. He claims, “I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts,” going on to compare gay intimacy to “man on child, man on dog or whatever the case may be.” He says he fears that homosexual action may become regarded as equal to heterosexual activity. In Rick Santorum’s world, fairness, parity, equality and harmful consequences apparently don’t figure at all.
School boards institutionalize isolation and vulnerability among gay teens by regulating out of existence recognition of gay bashing and bullying among students, teachers and administrators under threat of suspension, expulsion or dismissal. State legislators propose statutes that would protect gay bullying and physical gay bashing as long as it’s motivated by religious sentiment. When called out on abuse and abdication of civic duty, abusers of authority and protected rights claim persecution to deflect criticism and avoid responsibility. An apropos illustration is a celebrated case of Illionois’s Catholic Charities that claimed they were discriminated against by being denied their claimed religious right to discriminate against same sex couples to whom they’d deny adoption services, all the while insisting on still receiving state grants to fund those services among the chosen elite. Authority, Loyalty, Sanctity, Oppression, with little or no observation of Care/harm or Fairness/Cheating.
You Are Here
The effect on individuals has been variable, but in many cases it’s been catastrophic. Women’s choice is threatened with statutes that would withhold funding for all healthcare services, not just birth control. New definitions of employer provided healthcare requiremenst have inspired numerous state legislatures to introduce bills that would exempt any objecting business from providing contraception in their healthcare plans if they have any moral, not just religious excuse. House Oversight Committee Chairman Daryll Issa (R-CA) convenes a hearing about controlling contraception while actively barring women’s testimony. Republican controlled state legislatures are effectively restricting abortion rights to the point of making illegal not only contraception itself, but some fertility techniques. Further, some forms of natural miscarriage could be charged as manslaughter unless the woman involved could prove it wasn’t artificially induced. Workers’ collective bargaining, a thorn in the side of big business and a huge target for elimination by Corporate America is being assaulted in states controlled by Republican legislatures and governors. Authority, Loyalty to clique, Liberty to control others indiscriminately, Sanctity of their cause. But, where’s the Fairness and care for consequences?
Republicans in Congress are pushing for privatization of social programs to eventually divert substantial proportions of funds that now provide beneficiaries with food, clothing, heat in Winter, medicine, general to specialized doctors’ care, and utility bills to instead line the pockets of private investors fortunate enough to have the resources to “buy” into the attendant agencies under award by whatever political connection they have, including any manner of exclusive resources they enjoy at the expense of the general public.
Adjacent states are simultaneously passing marriage equality bills, one signed into law, the other, whose governor is expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination in four years, stonewalled his state’s equality measure with a veto accompanied by a provision directing the legislature to place government acknowledgement of citizens’ rights before the public for a vote.
It’s not just the government under controlling pressure from Corporate America, aided and abetted by the Religious Right’s force of numbers. Corporations and Religionists have created a formidable phalanx of entities, mostly tax exempt, religion inspired foundations and political action committees, to create new beach heads of assault on the rights and freedoms of those whose choices lean toward Fairness, Consequences and Liberty at the expense of Authority and Loyalty. LDS and Knights of Columbus colluded to fund, populate efforts and pass anti-equality referenda and state constitutional amendments in California and elsewhere claiming that marriage equality threatens their concept of marriage and Freedom of Religion. Catholic bishops push against businesses founded by religious orders having to play by the same public commerce rules as any other business regarding provision of women’s healthcare. The Family Research Center, headed by Tony Perkins and certified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, claims the Left is trying to create a Theocracy and marriage equality is tyranny that promotes incest, bestiality, and polygamy. At the National Organization for Marriage, another SPLC certified hate group, former leader Maggie Gallagher labelled homosexuality an “unfortunate thing,” “at least, a sexual dysfunction similar to impotence or infertility,” and “a sexual disability preventing certain individuals from participating in the normal reproductive patterns of the human species.” She also claimed that gays “can always control their behavior,” and even admonished the incumbent President to give more funding to scientifically discredited “ex-gay” research. Gallagher recently insisted on MSNBC “Up with Chris Hayes” that she’s never done any of those things. Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association, yet another SPLC certified hate group, and host of the American Family Radio program Focal Point, rails preposterously on a daily basis on themes such as 98% of gays are drug users, have up to 1,000 sex partners (in a lifetime, annually, weekly? We just don’t know!), the HIV link to AIDS is a scam, and people living with AIDS reap what they sow.
These are but a few among an extensive roster of gay bashers, and but a scant taste of their pejorative litany relentlessly levelled at gay people. Others, such as Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, Matt Barber, Victoria Jackson, Chris Christie, Liz Trotta, Kelly Yanta, Rev. Kenneth Hutcherson, John Eastman, and Allen West to name only a few, cast their unsupportable aspersions with tedious alacrity. They make stuff up, never have to prove anything and never bother about the suffering they inflict directly, or inspire the weak and gullible to inflict obliquely. Any calls for responsibility, restitution, accountability, compensation or even consolation are met with cries of intolerance, First Amendment injuries and any other manner of glib rejection of accountability one can imagine. It’s all about Authority, real or imagined; Loyalty to their authority and the family or tribe that agrees with it; Sanctity of the message and group cause; their Liberty to express it without regard to others’ rights to be free of that message Ideologues are infiltrating and influencing otherwise politically neutral organizations, too. A former candidate for governor who ran on a platform of reversing abortion rights temporarily succeeded in denying private charitable funds to Planned Parenthood shortly after being hired as an administrator. When news of the changes hit the media, the charity claimed that current funding, which had not been affected by the change, had been restored when it was actually only future funding that is to be denied. The tactic has successfully mislead critics and diverted criticism as if some permanent correction in policy had been made.
There are so many more, readily available examples of how people in positions of power, who exhibit diminished to nonexistent empathy, spread inane projections on innocent citizens. Many instances of religious harassment and political aggression had been, until very recently, subsumed into a vaneer of civility, kept in check by more universal public morals and ethics. But, since the 1980s’ symbiosis between regressive politics and politically empowered conservative evangelicals, – and more recently the black-is-white rhetoric enabling Birchers-cum-Tea Partiers – the lid has been lifted off the simmering antipathy among the cliché group of elder, mostly male of European descendant voters, and their apologists. As if from nowhere, anachronistic, ostensibly long settled political issues have been newly foisted into the foreground, forcing already overburdened Americans, straining under the immense pressures of an economic breakdown borne of prolonged stress under regressive political policies, to shoulder the same, tired, old “culture war” issues for the second and sometimes third time in our lives.
The Long and Winding Road
One has to wonder to what end. What sense is there to the subterfuge, the mendacity that enables it, and the sheer lunacy of the fit – or lack of logic – in it all? Perhaps that’s the large and the small of it: there is no point. It’s just more chaos, a cyclical crescendo of background noise foreshadowing – or forewarning the more aware, astute or merely attentive – what’s in store if we don’t snap to and get our act together.
The bigger question that follows focuses on what a reasonable person, be they moderate-to-liberal, among the moderate faithful, secularly oriented (sceptic/skeptic, humanist, atheist, agnostic, non-faithful, etc.) or the electorally crucial, independently minded individual who can only sit back in dumbstruck awe at the nature of what passes for conservatism these days in American politics. What’s to do about this fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into? There’s very little therapy available to literally change the minds of those who organically are unable to exhibit normal levels of empathy. And, those therapies are solely the province of those inclined to seek it. But, we can change the environment that restricts empathy. We can adjust the attitude of the nation’s emotional landscape. Of course, we must make our voice heard on Election Day and usher into national, state and local office representatives who value fairness, care about the effects of government policy, pay more than lip service to Liberty while minimizing gratuitous oppression of the vulnerable among us. And, we must make our preferences known beyond Election Day – loudly, clearly and in a sustained manner – in our seats of power through letters, email, phone calls, rallies, protests and in response to regressive, empathy bereft expositions in water cooler chatter, Thanksgiving dinner-like conversations and in response to online articles. Seize every opportunity. Lobbyist and SuperPAC influence hits their targets daily. That influence must be countered similarly by an overwhelming, aggregate voice of individuals in every venue possible. Only our mass resistance to radical regressive strength will counter the onslaught we endure. Vigilance is the only device by which public sentiment can be redirected toward fairness, social justice and countering the harmful consequences of regressive oppression with empathy and reason.
©2012 Nathan Garcia. All International Rights Reserved