Sunday 31 August 2014

Compassion for thinking reeds

Right at the end of our plane-ride back from Boston, our slack-gobbed watching of video content was interrupted by chunky heart-throb Liam Neeson to urge us to support the Aer Lingus contribution to UNICEF by shovelling our small change into the envelope which had been delivered with our ear-phones.  His breathy urgings were accompanied by movie-clips of small black children being given medicine or education by young white folks.  None of the black kids had elephantiasis, or river-blindness or Burkitt's lymphoma: not even a suppurating sore or a snot-laden upper lip at which flies were feeding. The Beloved and I promptly complied in an effectively trivial way.  The lady beside me started to fill out credit card details because she had no small change.  We had been caught by a sense of empathy with those children who were like enough to our own that we could give if asked nicely.

I've never been easy about such an approach to giving money to make the world a fairer more evenly resourced place.  But I was too busy, or too stupid, to articulate what was wrong.  It took an essay by Paul Bloom and the comments on the essay to bring my disquiet into focus.  Paul Bloom has a high profile from making his engaging and informative Yale lectures for PSYC 110 Introductory Psychology freely available on the interweb.  In his latest Forum/essay/debate, Bloom has addressed the psychology of empathy and counter-intuitively labelled it a Bad Thing.  His argument is that an emotional response to suffering and injustice is not the most equable way for you or me to lash out our money. Boston and its neighbours are still processing and responding to the effects of last year's Marathon Bombings by, among other worthy things, selling tee-shirts.  People who live in the area have given generously to appeals to help after 3 people died and 200 were horribly mangled.  They have been giving proportionately less to the thousands of dead and tens of thousands of maimed in distant Iraq (or Cambodia)

One of the responders to the Bloom piece is Peter Singer, an Australian psychologist and experimental philosopher who has forced us to think through our ethical stances by posing cases where ethics poses a puzzle - where ethical behaviour is hard work.  For a scientific gloss on the process, Prof Dr Tania Singer (no relation) hooked up Matthieu Ricard, qualified biochemist, serious Buddhist and TED-talker to an fMRI machine while he was being a) commmmmpassionate b) empathising with something.  Different parts of his brain lit up under these two regimes and he experienced the latter as be oppressive and exhausting.  There's more said about whether you want empathy from your doctor [probably not].  The take-home is that if you respond to suffering with the emotion of empathy you may not be helping much and if you give money or time in your response you may be making the world rather less fair than more.

I was off yesterday on a round of desperately visiting friends before the mill of the academic year starts grinding all residual energy to nothing. It will be work & Blob until next May and maybe not even Blob. Over another cup of tea, I was comparing notes with a friend who is scheduled for surgery on his spine. He's been through everything: physiotherapy, aspirin, acupuncture, steroid injections (expensive and useless), paracetamol, guided pain management, ibuprofen, homeoapthy, morphine.etc, cranial osteopathy, chiropracty . . . and sees surgery as the last resort.  But he's also been worn out by well-wishing friends&relations offering their anecdotal reasoning for adopting such a therapy - my poor crippled Auntie May had feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) tea at night and leapt tall buildings within a week. And also oppressed by the empathy slopped out (tsk tsk; wince; shake head; intake breath) by his visitors.

What to do?  Read as much of Bloom's position as you have time and patience for, then read at least Singer's [pro] and Baron-Cohen's [con] replies. One proposal that seems rational and achievable is to return to the medieval concept of tithing. Each month take 10% (or whatever, 1% would be a lot more than I gave to the Liam Neeson appeal) of your disposable income and dispose of it: a cheque to Oxfam, massive tip at a restaurant (preferably the blonde kid in Burritos and Blues in Cork or the dark one in Star Anise in Stroud), folding money to a homeless person . . . Then when the Irish Heart Foundation cold-calls you can honestly say "I gave already". I suggest doing the disposal at a regular time (third Sunday of the month lunchtime immediately after grace) to minimise the effect of whatever your local newsroom thinks you should be empathising about.
"L’homme n’est qu’un roseau,
le plus faible de la nature ;
mais c’est un roseau pensant

1 comment:

  1. Anytime I am lucky enough to leave the warm Wexford climates and venture further I always treat the homeless/beggars as the tax collectors of the place I find myself. As a privileged traveller who has disposable income I made a pledge long ago to honour these humble tax collectors in the place I am holidaying and add some coinage to their hat/cup/hand. On the last day I fold some coin and give it to the gate keeper... Chris del Bosque