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Home3B: Engendering, Imagining and Creating Utopian

3B: Engendering, Imagining, and Creating Utopian Possibilities During Dystopian Days

Title:  Humans and Their Rights: of Empathy, Civilization, and Subordination

Author: Harold McDougall

Institutional Affiliation: Howard University School of Law

Contact Information:

email: hmcdougall@law.howard.edyu


June 1. 2017



Jeremy Rifkin (The Empathic Civilization) proves that homo sapiens is "soft-wired" for empathic connection to the small group of other humans with which we, as hunter-gatherers, came into contact. Rifkin argues our empathy now reaches farther, to include ever-larger groups of humans, as we developed religion, governments, and nations and global consciousness through telecommunications and the internet.

But Paul Sheppard (Coming Home to the Pleistocene) shows that our biology has not had time to adjust to these changes. We,homo sapiens, have been hunter gatherers for most of our 200,000-year existence, and sedentary, "civilized" folk for only a little over 10,000. That’s not enough time for evolutionary change.

Our empathic wiring, like most of our other hunter-gatherer DNA, remains in place as it was. Instead, as Yuval Harari points out (Sapiens), once we emerged from hunting and gathering and began a sedentary lifestyle, our empathic impulses began to be redirected by social training toward imaginary communities. These imaginary communities were based on second-hand information rather than the actual personal contact and intimate knowledge for which our empathic programming was designed. These imaginary communities are also all hierarchical, subordinating human beings based on their political or economic position, gender, age, religion, and/or ethnic background.

Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) shows that these imaginary communities grew directly out of the shift from hunter-gathering to sedentary food production (farming and herding). The food surpluses that sedentary food production created allowed priests, soldiers, and kings to emerge, among others, whose immediate role was not producing their own food but rather organizing all food production, collecting and redistributing surpluses, and "running things" in general. The resulting social systems, and all those that have followed, are "kleptocracies," extracting tribute from lesser members.

I believe the dynamic Diamond identifies stems not only from the drive to control surplus, but the way surplus is produced. To create surplus, human society must be scaled larger than the biologically natural hunter-gatherer group of twenty or so. At these larger scales, empathy can no longer work as it was engineered.

The expansions in empathy Rifkin describes, to accommodate larger groups such as religion and nation-state, have always identified a group to which one should bear allegiance while screening out everyone not in the group, or lower in the group hierarchy. That involves a suppression of empathy as well as an extension of it, fueling the emergence of the other, nastier qualities that Rifkin chronicles—narcissism and violence, to name a few. True empathy and human rights are inextricably intertwined, ensconced in the advice to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself,a maxim found in all the world's major religions.

But true empathy can only be practiced face-to-face. Ironically, most efforts atresistanceto the structural subordination and oppression of "civilization" have failed because they were centered in small groups that didn't know how to grow larger without sacrificing the intimacy upon which they were based. Slave and peasant rebellions and uprisings were typically led by a single charismatic leader or a small vanguard group, for example. A similar fate befell later movements such as worker's uprisings, minority rights, women's rights, and anti-colonial national liberation movements.  

To gain recruits in the larger population, they created their own fictions, their own "imagined realities" which were ultimately crushed by the established order or at best (or worst?) simply replaced it.  Modern, social media-based movements have figured out how to gain adherents without replicating hierarchy or subordination, but they lose the intimacy of face-to-face, "real-time" communication and relationship building.

Malcolm Gladwell highlights this point, noting that social movements based on social media do not provide the intimate personal connection needed for people to take risks for one another, risks that are necessary if they wish to challenge an established order, even more so if they wish to erect a new, more just order in its place.

I believe movements for human rights must be based in small groups of humans intimately connected with one another, such groups in turn linked to one another by personal contact, dialogue, and exchange.This is the idea of an “assembly" that I have developed elsewhere. Such an assembly could renovate some of the basic human values that support and undergird the Golden Rule, and indeed surpass it, as they evoke empathy not just for our fellow human beings but for all the inhabitants if the natural world.