Thursday, August 17, 2006

The poor who?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a post that essentially said that America doesn't devalue the lives of Muslims, per se, but rather devalues poor people of all religions, nationalities, creeds, and colors. A rainbow of indifference, if you will.

Now, there's scientific proof.

Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychologist has been studying the psychological mechanics of stereotyping, and she presented some of her findings at a special panel at the ASA conference this week. She posits that all people are initially evaluated first on a scale of "warmth" (basically how good someone is), and then on a scale of "competence" (how able they are). She constructed a two-dimensional space using these measures and demonstrated where certain identities (e.g., "Jew", "homeless person", "executive") fell, according to empirically determined popular belief.

You'll recognize that certain identities are resident in the High-warmth, High competence area: athletes, astronauts, actors, etc. Others are to be found in the High-warmth, Low competence area: old, the disabled, children. In the Low-warmth-Low competence area are typically homeless, criminals, and the poor (given that we universally attribute wealth to competence). The Low-warmth, High-competence area includes corporate leaders and 'preppies'.

So, it turns out that when we think about people, in general, we think of them differently than objects. We mentally empathize - we intuit what they're thinking and we try to respond to that -- this is the essence of social interaction. And when we do, a fairly particular spot in our brains is noted to be active. Now, I'm not a neurologist, and I didn't note the name of this part, but it's pretty small, dead center, and toward the front of the brain. It fires when a person falls off a chair, but not when a book does. It's an indicator that people are psychologically important and unique to us, which shouldn't be surprising.

What is surprising is that when we're viewing images of people from the Low-warmth, Low-competence quadrant of Fiske's graph, it doesn't fire.

How about that.

In other words, people who we don't feel any warmth toward and who are not considered someone of consequence, we dismiss as people. We, in a sense, withdraw that special privilege of humanness from them, treating them the same way we do books, chairs, and bobo dolls.

And, as social psychologists have long said, we all pretty much agree on where certain people types fall on these scales. In fact, there's fairly little variance across world cultures: we all see the poor, unwashed masses, the mentally ill, and the incarcerated in this way. And that in a sense explains our actions (or inactions) toward them. We don't empathize - we don't try to feel their pain, we don't wonder what they're thinking, and we don't worry about them.

The truth is that this isn't a specifically American thing. Everybody does it across the world, and largely to the same populations. Even those who inhabit that "low-life" quadrant probably share these social definitions. Perhaps this means they withdraw empathy from their compatriots and even from themselves. They come to live in a world of objects, without humanity.

I want to stress that science's ability to place a particular thought or emotion in a particular spot in the brain does not make that thought or emotion any less socially based. There is no biological or evolutionary necessity to dehumanize. It is a socio-cultural convention, one that we permit when it is convenient.

As Americans, perhaps, though, we have a special responsibility to recognize this. Since we have such power to affect the lives of people all around the world, it is our incumbent responsibility to work against the tendency to treat the rest of the world as objects. Not only morally, but practically, because those who are treated as inhuman are liable to act that way. Could this possibly underlie any of the discontent in the (poor) Muslim world?

I don't know if there is a practical personal limit on empathy, but I'm pretty sure we haven't reached it.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Judge for yourself

I just want to point something out about my last post. I am not in fact advocating demeaning sex with deities. I personally have no desire to engage in any group sexual activities with any supreme beings of any kind (that I know of), and I'm fairly sure most gods would be uncomfortable with that scene. In fact, I'm tempted to withdraw my invitation, just so there aren't any awkward confusions in the etherworld or wherever the Trinity hangs.

A careful reader, however, will note that the vulgar comment in my last post came as part of an "if" statement, and therefore, logically, the initial condition must be fulfilled before the statement takes effect. In other words, if God is NOT fraudulently claiming to be the embodiment of good, then He need take no offense. Now, if He is in fact an evil lying bastard (note, again the 'if' here), then I submit that I should be able to insult him as much as I want to. Until He strikes me down, of course.

Some will take this as audacity, nonetheless. And this is my point. I believe that human beings have the right - even the responsibility - to judge "God," just as the governed may judge the governor, and children, when grown, will judge the parent. I am a free being with free will and the ability to determine for myself what is wrong and right, beautiful and ugly, worthy and worthless; and I decide who will have my support and my love based on their actions and my appraisal of them. God is no different. If God were to behave in respectable ways - if He is kind and wise and merciful, if He is loving and accepting and righteous - then He would get my respect and my allegiance. If He does not - if He is ruthless and destructive and pitiless, if He is petty and intolerant and selfish - then He would deserve and receive my scorn and opposition. How can a reasonable person say otherwise?

Do you ever wonder about the evil minions? Do you ever ask where those guys in the matching uniforms in some Bond villain's cave came from and why they are working for the local evil megalomaniac? I think of them as just "followers." They follow their leader (typically to their own deaths) without asking whether what he's doing is right and supportable. They help build the death rays, they launch the doomsday missiles, and they fight the heroes, somehow never allowing themselves to question the morality and the effects of what they're doing. Usually, they pay a high but deserved price for it. Perhaps they don't think it's their place to do so. Maybe they were brainwashed somewhere along the line into thinking that whatever their master did was right, no matter what it looked like. I guess it's "faith" of a kind.

Or maybe it's fear - fear of repercussions from a vengeful #1, or fear that if they look too close and ask too many questions, they'll be noticed and the other minions won't ride with them in the little automated cars.

How many people in mankind's history have been minions in this way to false gods and destructive leaders of all kinds? How does one EVER know whether one is following the right one or not?

Well, I submit that we each must decide this using our internal compass of right and wrong - fairness, equity, compassion, and justice. And that our leaders - our gods - are thus subject to the judgment of the people, every bit as much as the people are subject to the judgment of any god or leader. In fact, we all have the duty to judge in this way, lest our leaders think they can impose their will on others and take over the world for their own selfish reasons.

I will not be anyone's minion that I have not known and judged for myself to be a benevolent and beneficent leader. If he were rather destructive and venal, even if he were to bring an army to throw against all who oppose him, opposing him would be the moral thing to do. Joining his army would make me as guilty as he - even if all my friends joined too. And even if he had the power of a god and claimed to have created our ancestors from dust and ribs, this would not change.

I still get to be his judge. As do you.

So, if the doomsday Christians are right, and God is coming to rapture their self-absorbed, callous, tiny souls before inflicting massive pain and sorrow on the rest of us- if He is responsible for the contradictions and confusions in the bible, and yet expects people to have used it and it alone for “salvation” like some grand puzzle master– if He really gave us physical senses and rational thought but demands that we ignore both under pain of hellfire- if He really condemns homosexual expressions of love, but has nothing particularly negative to say about slavery- if He is the one who made me stub my toe because I imagined my friend naked, but allows the Pizarros, Pol Pots, and Torquamadas of the world free passage- if He is the one washing away entire towns of people with floods, the bad with the good and the old with the young, because the average piousness had fallen below the damnation point - if He really is the one helping the Yankees into the world series every damn year, the doomsday Christians are just His evil minions, and I will fight them all while I have strength left.

That’s the ‘god’ I insulted. And that guy can still bite me.

If that’s not your god, then we’re fine. And let me just suggest that this just may be your fight too. You have to judge for yourself.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Armageddon lovers and their posts


Woweewow wow.

I just noticed that I had 14 comments (and counting?) for my post on the sad and inexcusable Christian preoccupation with Armageddon. And other than my new favorite blogger beepbeepitsme and my old favorite blogger Drek (and probably Ghost Dancer), it's pretty much a circle of loonies and simpletons with death wishes. No offense.

Did none of you even read my post? I urged you to start thinking about how you can prevent catastrophes of the human kind. But people are apparently much more interested in making noise and feeling important.

Let me point out that the total number of comments I've received for my eleven posts on media control, war atrocities, gender politics, baseball, free speech, gay marriage, the value of life, Iraq, and Emperor George I is 3. But that stuff isn't important. It's just the real world.

Let me also point out that Christians of various stripes have been expecting the world to end literally since the death of Christ. The prophecies are purposefully vague so that EVERY age will look like the end days. Every war might be THE war. Every leader could be the antichrist. But they've somehow always been wrong. And they will always be wrong. But there’s always the next time! That’s how it keeps the faithful faithful.

And the people of every age are just as provincial and self-absorbed as the people of this age (though you guys have less of an excuse). Notice how everybody thinks the prophecies refer to the current and the local, no matter when and where they are? Why the heck should the bible predict Katrina and Rita (which were in the U.S and were recent), but not the millions of other storms that have occurred since the writing of the bible in Bangladesh, Yemen, and the Ivory Coast? Why should the world and its god revolve around you? Why not some Korean grandmother?

It's the same reason we wear our lucky sweatshirt and cross our fingers when our football team plays on T.V. We think we our own behavior is actually crucial to distant events unconnected events, and that our wishes (if we love our personal invisible friend in the sky enough) will matter more than everything the athletes and coaches (and the equally religious fans on the other team) want and do. Admit it – you think that, don’t you.

And for Christ's sake, if the bible warnings are God's way of showing his love, why is it so cryptic, so confused, so indecipherable that even his fanatical servants can't agree among themselves what the hell it means. "I love you mom. So, if you can find the secret phrase hidden in this word search, I won't shoot you in the face with the rest of the family."

If it were somebody else's religious book saying this crap, you'd giggle in their faces.

I know you've all taken the oath to ignore logic and be a zombie here. You believe that god put us in a world with rules and laws, but that when we learn them, we can't use them: rather we should believe every literal (English) world of some recent translation of a translation of a collection of copied copies of copies of manuscripts written by mentally suspect religious hucksters and ecstatics from over 1500 years ago. You go ahead and do that. But don't quote your version of that old horror novel at me. And don't you dare tell me you're the one taking the high ground. Especially if you're the narcissistic do-nothing devils bringing about these 'prophecies' yourself anyway.

If god comes and he does not agree with me on this, then he's a fraud, and he can lick my balls while Jesus blows me.