Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What Keeps Mankind Alive?

You gentlemen who think you have a mission
To purge us of the seven deadly sins
Should first sort out the basic food position
Then start your preaching, that’s where it begins

You lot who preach restraint and watch your waist as well
Should learn, for once, the way the world is run
However much you twist or whatever lies that you tell
Food is the first thing, morals follow on

So first make sure that those who are now starving
Get proper helpings when we all start carving
What keeps mankind alive?

What keeps mankind alive?
The fact that millions are daily tortured
Stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed
Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
In keeping its humanity repressed
And for once you must try not to shriek the facts
Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts --Bertolt Brecht

Take a moment to connect this:

The argument of this fascinating and deeply provoking book is easy to summarise: among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine. They do worse even if they are richer overall, so that per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population (the basic measure of inequality the authors use). The evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett supply to make their case is overwhelming. Whether the test is life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, even the amount of rubbish that gets recycled, the more equal the society the better the performance invariably is. In graph after graph measuring various welfare functions, the authors show that the best predictor of how countries will rank is not the differences in wealth between them (which would result in the US coming top, with the Scandinavian countries and the UK not too far behind, and poorer European nations like Greece and Portugal bringing up the rear) but the differences in wealth within them (so the US, as the most unequal society, comes last on many measures, followed by Portugal and the UK, both places where the gap between rich and poor is relatively large, with Spain and Greece somewhere in the middle, and the Scandinavian countries invariably out in front, along with Japan). Just as significantly, this pattern holds inside the US as well, where states with high levels of income inequality also tend to have the greatest social problems. It is true that some of the most unequal American states are also among the poorest (Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia), so you might expect things to go worse there. But some unequal states are also rich (California), whereas some fairly equal ones are also quite poor (Utah). Only a few (New Hampshire, Wyoming) score well on both counts. What the graphs show are the unequal states tending to cluster together regardless of income, so that California usually finds itself alongside Mississippi scoring badly, while New Hampshire and Utah both do consistently well. Income inequality, not income per se, appears to be the key. As a result, the authors are able to draw a clear conclusion: ‘The evidence shows that even small decreases in inequality, already a reality in some rich market democracies, make a very important difference to the quality of life.’ Achieving these decreases should be the central goal of our politics, precisely because we can be confident that it works. This is absolutely not, they insist, a ‘utopian dream’.
With this:

For more than two hours on a dark Saturday night, as many as 20 people watched or took part as a 15-year-old California girl was allegedly gang raped and beaten outside a high school homecoming dance, authorities said.

As hundreds of students gathered in the school gym, outside in a dimly lit alley where the victim was allegedly raped, police say witnesses took photos. Others laughed.

"As people announced over time that this was going on, more people came to see, and some actually participated," Lt. Mark Gagan of the Richmond Police Department told CNN.
Is it merely coincidence that this horrific crime occurred in California? Is there no possible causal relationship at all?

It is, of course, too easy to say there is one, and run screaming away denouncing materialism or classism, or pronouncing class warfare or creating any other shibboleth from this comparison. But does that make the comparison entirely invalid? Can we only compare general trends (as the argument from The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Betterby Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, obviously does)? Can we not draw any particular lessons from a general analysis of this kind of horror? Criminologlists do:

Criminology and psychology experts say there could be a variety of reasons why the crime wasn't reported. Several pointed to a problematic social phenomenon known as the bystander effect. It's a theory that has played out in lynchings, college riots and white-collar crimes.

Under the bystander effect, experts say that the larger the number of people involved in a situation, the less will get done.

"If you are in a crowd and you look and see that everyone is doing nothing, then doing nothing becomes the norm." explains Drew Carberry, a director at the National Council on Crime Prevention.

Carberry said witnesses can be less likely to report a crime because they reinforce each other with the notion that reporting the crime isn't necessary. Or, he says, witnesses may think another person in the crowd already reported the incident. The responsibility among the group becomes diffused.

"Kids learn at a young age when they observe bullying that they would rather not get involved because there is a power structure," Carberry adds.
So there's that. There's also the almost existential problem of the "other:"

This detached mentality can be especially pervasive among youth, who are too young to comprehend what victimization means, said Salvatore Didato, an organizational psychologist in New York. When a teenager -- or anyone -- -doesn't have a personal bond to the victim, they are less likely to help out.

Experts say sometimes bystanders see the victim as less important than the person committing the crime, who appears to wield power. "The victim to them is a non-person," Didato said.
We could invoke Levinas and Derrida to examine that issue. But do the abstractions of French phenomenology really give us any purchase on a story like this?

Moving from generalities to specifics is always a problem, especially since generalities themselves tend to be vague and glittering. As the reviewer of the books notes:

Is the basic claim here that in more equal societies almost everyone does better, or is it simply that everyone does better on average? Most of the time, Wilkinson and Pickett want to insist that it’s the first.
But statistics point to averages, not to specifics. They posit trends, they don't read the tea leaves of ordinary lives in all their peculiarity and particularity. So it's unfair to even imply that people in California particpated in a gang-rape because California is as shockingly unequal in its distribution of wealth among its citizens, as a group of those citizens were towards the welfare of one individual.

Or is it? It seems obvious this group thought as a group; that the victim was "other," a non-person with whom no sympathy was needed, or perhaps merely allowed. Some came to watch the spectacle when they heard of it, some came to participate; no one so much as went back inside and activated their cell phone. Why? Were they each, individually, that evil? They each had an individual motivation, but that motivation was driven as much by the group as by their conscience, or apparent lack of conscience. Sartre famously said of his existentialist ethics that it made the individual responsible for all of humanity, that when the individual chose, he/she chose for all humankind. This case could practically be a textbook example of Sartre's argument.

But why would people make a choice like this? Could it have nothing to do with the larger society? It's a dangerous parallel but an apt one: we accept the argument that "ordinary Germans" accepted, even participated, in the atrocities of Nazi Germany in part because of the state of Germany after World War I, and the broken economy and hyperinflation that made Hitler's rise to power, again at least in part, possible. It was the reason we rebuilt Germany and imposed the Marshall Plan after the war was over, so we did more than devote our attention to the state of the nation to historical analysis. Is it impossible to apply that analysis to ourselves, to say that the evil men and women do is not in part due to inequalities that society could correct if it chose to? Can we really say that these two things, happening together (the report of the analysis, the report of the crime) are merely happenstance? Is the ability to see the victim as a non-person, as someone without power in the situation and therefore irrelevant, even non-human, not at some level tied to social and economic inequalities which teach the very same lesson on a community-wide scale?

In theological circles, we discuss this in terms of the covenantal and imperial economies. Of course, when we discuss such things in public, we get slapped around for it. Maybe we should discuss them anyway.

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