When I write about the concept of the group mind, I'm often misunderstood to be advocating for collectivism. In fact, I would never bother advocating for collectivism, because collectivism doesn't need an advocate.
The impulse to groupthink has us all in its grip, every moment of our lives -- whether we like it or not, and whether we admit it or not. We can try to better understand the ways that social psychology affects the individual decisions we make and the private feelings we feel, but it is not in our power to remove these societal influences from our lives. We might just as well try to survive without breathing air.
In the past week, the story of the murder of young African-American Trayvon Martin by an overzealous "Neighborhood Watch" volunteer named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida has shocked many Americans. The first shock is the injustice of the crime -- a friendly, helpless kid, armed with a deadly Skittle, falling into the crosshairs of a wannabe hero with a gun, a racist eye, and way too much time on his hands.
But George Zimmerman's crime is not an individual crime, and the shadowy fingerprints of the "group mind" are all over this case. Zimmerman was policing a residential area that identified itself as a gated community, and it was his membership in this gated community's "Neighborhood Watch" program that made him feel empowered to shoot at a stranger. When the Sanford police arrived at the scene of the crime, the officers amazingly came to the conclusion that Zimmerman must have been justified in shooting Martin, and even the top leadership of the police force concurred with this decision. What seems at first to be the murderous act of a single deluded man turns out to be the deadly delusion of an entire city.
How would it feel to have been a physicist just before Albert Einstein, or a biologist just before Darwin? I can sympathize with all the dedicated, highly trained scientists who must have toiled in frustration for decades, grasping for insight, groping at patterns, making little discoveries here and there, yet always sensing that they were missing the big idea.
Amateur or professional philosophers today can probably relate, because our field appears to be currently in a state of darkness comparable to physics before Einstein or biology before Darwin. Why do I say this? Well, the big tipoff is the low standing of philosophy as a whole. It's widely considered a quaint and vain hobby, a useless college major that merits half a shelf in every bookstore. We have no famous philosophers, and virtually nobody considers philosophy or ethics important for everyday life.
We are so accustomed to this sad state of affairs that we often forget that societies do not always ignore philosophy; they only do so when the field is moribund. In the half-century before the French revolution, when ethical philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were making powerful discoveries, philosophers were treated as superstars. Similarly, physicists and biologists probably started getting a whole lot more respect after Einstein and Darwin finally broke the ground that needed to be broken, and may not have gotten much respect before. The standing of any intellectual discipline directly correlates to its level of success ... and it's a sad fact that ethical philosophy has been a flop since the dawn of the modern age.
This is no idle or abstract problem; it amounts to the human disaster of a world that fails to comprehend itself. The spiritual, psychological, social and political problems that ethical philosophy are meant to help fix are going unfixed, and modern society has also come to think of this confusion as normal. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
What do the following scenarios have in common?
- A football stadium erupts in cheers when the home team scores.
- An army advances towards the enemy in a battle.
- A family watches TV together.
- Two people meet, fall in love, get married, stay together for life.
- Twelve poker players glare at each other as the final table of a tournament begins.
- A fire department storms into a burning building and saves several lives.
- A group of marine scientists and ecologists rescue a shoreline from an oil spill.
- Members of a small town church gather for a weekend's worship.
- A high school drama department puts on a musical play.
- A political party conducts an intensive national voter drive on election day.
- A classroom gathers for a teacher's lesson.
Let's also throw in these somewhat different situations, and look at them in a similar light:
What do all these scenarios have in common? In all of these cases, an outside observer who wishes to understand exactly what is taking place will have to consider not only the isolated thoughts and motivations of each individual person, but also the dynamics of the group as a whole. Each person in each scenario has a private set of feelings, desires, fears, ideals, motivations. But the group itself seems to exert a strong force, often creating a sense that the group has its own feelings, desires, fears, ideals and motivations separate from those of each individual in the group. As the activity plays out, the intentions of the group will often take precedence over the intentions of each individual in the group.
A family watches TV together. Two of them want to watch a comedy, one wants to watch basketball, one wants to watch a cooking show. They flicker through the channels and find "American Idol". No mathematical equation of (2 * comedy) + basketball + cooking could possibly equal "American Idol", and in fact none of them would enjoy watching this show if they were alone. But they do enjoy watching it together, and the next night they happily gather in the same room to do it again.
It's not surprising that many techies like Ayn Rand. There is a minimalist clarity to her ethical philosophy, a primal unity of method and structure, that may remind an Objectivist of the intellectual foundation of a great operating system.
I often disagree with my Objectivist friend John from Oklahoma City, but he and I share a common frame of reference because we're both networking professionals: he runs his own firm, and I'm a software consultant. (I'm not an Objectivist, of course, but I am an anti-Objectivist, which means I spend a lot of time thinking about the same problems that Objectivists think about.)
I recently received an insightful email from another reader of my book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), Tommaso Delfanti, a race car engineer from Italy. He contacted me to share his thoughts on the effectiveness of my arguments in this book. He also mentioned that he'd become interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy after playing the game Bioshock, which portrays a dystopian world in which Randian heroes (both good and corrupt, including a quasi-Randian figure named Andrew Ryan) compete with various enemies for primacy in their violent world.
The producers of last year's film Atlas Shrugged: Part One, based on Ayn Rand's controversial 1957 novel about heroic business vs. corrupt government in a mythical USA, have just announced that the second installment in the three-part series will be released in 2012. The first installment got poor reviews and failed to pack theaters, so there was some uncertainty as to whether the second and third installments would ever secure funding. But it wouldn't be very Randian to yield to bad reviews, so I'm not surprised these filmmakers have found a way to persevere.
Ayn Rand was a hot-button topic through 2011, and there's no sign that the fiery author-philosopher's newly popular Objectivist ideology won't stir up the same intense debates in 2012. An avowed Randian named Paul Ryan remains one of the most influential Republicans in Congress, and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney seems to agree with Paul Ryan's plan to drastically cut Social Security. That doesn't mean Mitt Romney is an Objectivist (though, we can imagine, he'd probably become one if necessary). But it does mean that the controversy over entitlements for middle-class Americans and safety nets for the poor will continue to be a gigantic topic of public debate through the upcoming election year. This is the controversy that Objectivists eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The ghost of Ayn Rand will continue to make herself felt in 2012.
I can tell that Ayn Rand is still hot by looking at the continuing sales of my short book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters). I'm about to pass the 1000 sales mark for this modest publication, and it's still selling more copies each month than the month before. There are 72 comments (some of them brilliant, some of them absolutely ridiculous) on the book's Amazon page, and several readers have also posted critiques of the book (sometimes harsh ones) on Litkicks.
I love it when readers give me negative or positive feedback about this book, and I don't mind the criticism. I'm aware that I advance some unusual (some might even say "quirky") ideas to support my argument, and I'm not surprised that many readers are initially put off by some of my premises or methods. (I do think, though, that the book stands up to close examination, which is why I always try to respond to a serious critique.)
Since our weekend debates about ethics often revolve around the word "empathy", it occurred to me that we should find out exactly what the word means. Let's hit up Wikipedia and see what we find:
Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion. The English word was coined in 1909 by E.B. Titchener as an attempt to translate the German word "Einfuhlungsvermogen", a new phenomenon explored at the end of 19th century mainly by Theodor Lipps
I'd like to hunt down these etymological hints for a future article, but first I want to examine the meaning of the word. Does "empathy" indicate a person's rational awareness of another person's feelings, or rather does it indicate an emotional concern with another person's feelings? The word is often popularly used in the latter sense: if I am empathetic with you, I care about your well-being. But the Wikipedia definition draws a prominent distinction between "empathy" (the intellectual awareness of another person's feelings) and "compassion" (a concern for another person). "Empathy", then, seems to have no necessary moral substance. It's possible to feel empathy with someone while also wishing them harm. Empathy is only the antenna, the awareness, the sense.
This distinction may be too finely drawn for some people's tastes, as it disagrees with the popular use of the term. But the distinction between awareness (empathy) and concern (compassion) does seem useful, and I am willing to go along with this strict definition of the term from now on, and differentiate between "compassion" and "empathy" as needed in future discussions.
But an even tougher controversy involving the meaning of "empathy" becomes apparent in the next section of the Wikipedia page, titled "Theorists and definition". This controversy appears to be so active that Wikipedia throws up its hands and offers a list of possible definitions from various theorists, presenting a fascinating dichotomy between two popular meanings of the word. Here's the section in full:
I've noticed something strange when talking to friends and relatives and neighbors about politics, or about the future of the world. Many people seem to believe that ultimate evil is a real and powerful force in our lives today. They believe that this evil threatens our families, our society and our nation, and they see it as our responsibility to prepare to fight this evil to the death.
Evil, according to this notion, is an eternal force, absolute and self-sufficient. It is beyond reason or negotiation; it can only be defeated for a generation, after which it will rise again, ready for another battle. We train ourselves for this recurring combat by consuming pop-culture representations of the enemy we must eventually fight: Darth Vader, Voldemort, the White Witch. These mythical creatures are widely understood to have direct correspondents in international history and politics: imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Red China, Soviet Russia, Al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran.
I have never believed in the existence of ultimate evil, and I suppose this helps explain why I disagree so often with people I talk to about current politics. I was recently struck by the coincidence of two people I was talking with in two separate conversations -- both of them progressive liberals, smart and well-informed -- pointedly declaring to me that they are not pacifists. This is apparently a badge of honor for both of them, or perhaps it's more precisely an insignia of their membership in the army of good vs. evil. When the dark lord shows his face, I will be ready to fight. An awareness of quasi-mythical evil in the dark corners of the world also seems, unfortunately, to be present in nearly every American politician's foreign policy platform.
It must be the philosopher's job today to examine this kind of groupthink critically, and to help us reach a level of understanding that is less childish, less destructive, less obviously cartoonish. This is more vital than ever today, since modern weaponry has made the stakes for war and peace so high, and since cross-cultural paranoia appears to be currently at a hysterical peak.
Up until the mid-fifties, J.D. Salinger had been circling around the eldest child of the Glass family, Seymour. Seymour appeared as the main character in the short story “A Perfect day for Bananafish”, but for the most part he stayed in the background. At the time of Franny and Zooey he was already dead. But in almost every Glass family story, Seymour was a presence: the soul, conscience and genius behind Les and Bessie Glasses’s large troupe of precocious children.
Now, in twin novelllas packaged in one volume, and appearing in in 1963, Seymour gets top billing. But because these are Salinger novels, Seymour does not come out and speak or perhaps do a little soft shoe for our amusement. Instead, the stories are narrated by his Boswell, his brother Buddy Glass, and once again Seymour is one degree removed from the action of the stories. The name of this collection is Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is the first and most engaging story in this collection. It concerns the wedding day of Seymour and his wife-to-be, Muriel. The rest of the Glass family is dispersed across the face of the earth due to the war, so it is up to Buddy to be the sole Glass representative at Seymour’s wedding.
Buddy had been drafted into the army, and he arrives in New York, on leave, from Fort Benning on a sweltering June day. He takes a cab to Muriel’s grandmother’s house and waits with the other guests for the arrival of the groom. And waits. And waits. Finally it becomes apparent that Seymour is not going to show up, and all of the guests pile into waiting cars to take them to Muriel’s parent’s house.
Buddy jumps into a car with, among others, the matron of honor, who keeps repeating that she wants to just get her hands on Seymour for ”just two minutes” and do him some bodily harm. Buddy, who at this time has still not introduced himself as Seymour’s brother, sits uncomfortably in the car, not knowing why he is even there.
The car moves along slowly and then comes to a dead stop. Madison Avenue is blocked both north and south due to a parade. The occupants of the car wait in the sweltering heat, a situation that becomes even more uncomfortable when it the others discovers that Buddy is Seymour’s brother. The inhabitants of the car eventually decide to abandon it and head for a nearby Schrafft’s restaurant.
In 1948, J.D. Salinger published the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in the New Yorker. This event was a major step in his literary career. First, it brought Salinger serious critical acclaim. Second, it established a working relationship between the author and The New Yorker. The magazine offered Salinger a right of first refusal contract, and he subsequently published his new work almost exclusively in the New Yorker. Third, it marks the first published appearance of Seymour Glass, the oldest sibling in the Glass family. Salinger would go on to chronicle the lives of the Glass family siblings in a series of short stories and novellas.
“Bananafish” is the only story in which Seymour appears in real time. In all the other stories he is either referred to, or described from a distance in time. Nevertheless, the spirit of Seymour pervades all of the stories, and is a constant presence in the thoughts of his younger brothers and sisters.
The "Bananafish" story (which became the opening story in Salinger's beloved collection Nine Stories) is a masterpiece of economy and style. Using mostly dialog to set the scene and give background on the main characters, Salinger presents the barest of facts, describes a series of events, and then lets the reader puzzle out the meaning and fill in his or her own perception of the characters. Salinger at this point in his life was a student of Zen Buddhism, and “Bananafish” is similar to a Zen koan, or riddle, in which a question is posed and the answer is found through meditation and self-examination.
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a new book by psychologist Steven Pinker (I introduced it here last week, and it's on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review) that documents in exhausting detail how much less violent our planet is than ever before in history. The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David A. Bell, one of my all-time favorite history books, is an illuminating look at how the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution began a new era of vicious ideological warfare in Europe that set the pattern for the genocidal horrors of the past century. War and politics, according to David A. Bell, have never before been as broadly destructive as they are today.
How can both of these books be telling the truth at the same time?