Columns / Discourse / April 21, 2014

Building the revolution on empathy

The revolution. It’s a concept we’re all vaguely familiar with: we think of it as a sudden, widespread change in human consciousness from some form of domination and oppression to a social system based on cooperation and rooted in justice. This philosophy is fairly popular among political liberals who tend to place great value on change, and by extension socio-political upheaval. “Revolution” is less popular amid political conservatives, who tend to place greater value on stability and tradition. Among intellectuals, the subject is generally looked down upon as idealistic and airy-fairy.

Matt Barry’s column, “So you say you want a revolution?” from the Nov. 7 edition of TKS reflects this attitude. In his evaluation of Russell Brand’s rhetoric on the subject, Barry critiqued Brand and the ideology of so-called revolutionaries: “Do not let them talk airily of revolutions in consciousness and paradigm shifts. Make them tell you what the first Monday after the revolution looks like.”

Russell Brand aside, the truth is that plenty of political revolutionaries have given answers to that question. Martin Luther King once proposed a national wage, a guaranteed source of income to every single U.S. citizen, for less than the cost of the horrific ongoing Vietnam War. The Green Party’s 2012 platform was filled with ambitious ideas as well: an increased financial transaction tax to rein in speculation, the reinstitution of Glass-Steagall (to break up the banks into fail-able sizes) and New Deal-like programs to provide opportunities for the working class.

Furthermore, widespread changes in American consciousness have occurred in the past. When the world wars demanded a change in status quo, women went to work in droves and men dutifully faced battle on the bullet-ridden front lines in Europe. The culture of war permeated American consciousness and transformed many aspects of life that may have seemed unchangeable.

If it is possible to undergo a societal transformation so geared toward war, why not one in the opposite direction? And why shouldn’t such a widespread shift accompany the concrete changes that have been proposed, time and time again, by political progressives?

Challenging our assumption that such a reformation would contradict human nature is essential. As Nelson Mandela said, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

The topic of a change in consciousness is not only realistic, it is essential. The unjust actions of the status quo (such as the mass incarceration of African-Americans in the U.S., the worldwide assault of women by men and the oppression of America’s working class) are carried out not by vague structural voodoo, but by the actions of flesh-and-blood humans who have suspended their empathy for the sufferings of other humans.

History is embedded with rare acts of bravery that show us a reversal of those acts is possible. During the Holocaust, Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara risked his career and personal safety by signing thousands of illegal transit visas for Jews to escape from Lithuania. Oskar Schindler gave up his industrialist fortune in protecting the workers at his factory from certain death in the concentration camps.

We look to these people as examples of our deepest, human values: care for others, love and bravery, rather than dismissing them as aberrant exceptions to human nature.

We also understand, though, that these acts are not commonplace. Many of us have been brought up learning to obey authority first and foremost. We can learn, however, to build empathy in ourselves and place higher trust in that than in authority.

It might be tempting to say: that’s fine on the individual level, but what will really change things?

That’s the primary necessity. The world is made up of individuals. There are no permanent “we fixed it!” solutions, only actions of empathy with roots in human nature with the potential to spread from person to person to person.

That is what the revolution will look like and only from that basis can widespread, structural solutions begin.

Leland Wright

Tags:  Hitler holocaust human nature New Deal reformation Russell Brand U.S. Vietnam War world war II

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