Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

I _____ therefore I am human

| 22 Comments

Reading Time: 2 minutes

What does it mean to be human? I posted something on facebook recently and a friend said, “we are losing our humanity”

I was thinking about the current events in Palestine/Israel, and how sometimes (usually?) we are numb, we make ourselves numb in order to survive, in order to live and move on with our lives while other humans are suffering. And I thought of what it might mean for someone in Israel (I am biased, of course) to justify the killing of children by their own government (I do not absolve the other side, but the Palestinian people are not the same as Hamas; however Israeli people do vote democratically for their government that is committing these atrocities). Update: Here is a really great summing up of the situation I just read, expressed way better than I ever could:

Palestinian extremists’ attacks on innocent civilians must be condemned and ended but the root of the conflict lies elsewhere — in the dispossession of the Palestinian people. Israel currently occupies, colonises, bombs, raids, and controls the water, trade and the borders of a legally free nation that has been recognised by the United Nations. In Gaza, Israel has created the largest open-air prison in the world, and then blockaded it. Now as bombs fall, the families, literally have no way to get out.

There was news and photos (probably not real?) of Israelis “watching” (for pleasure, seemingly) the bombing of Gaza. I refuse to believe these photos, did not even research it. Just refused to believe it.

Anyway, I have never met a Jew or Israeli who thinks this is “ok” on either side. Then again, most “kinds” of people I meet and who would talk to me about this are probably on the more “liberal” side and would unlikely feel otherwise or at least tell me otherwise.

So… I thought of “I think… Therefore I am”, and it’s still #clmooc, so I am hacking that statement.

Instead, I would say…

I feel..therefore I am human

Or breaking it down:
I feel therefore I empathize
I empathize therefore I am human

So here’s my make with “light” for #clmooc

20140718-023059.jpg

(Thx to Mallory from #clmooc twitter chat for pointing me to the glowtxt website/tool)

(P.s. This is a new – more serious? – direction from questioning humanity that took place in #edcmooc and twitter vs zombies!)

22 Comments

  1. My guess is that thinking people would hold Israel accountable for driving the Palestinian to madness and, as a result, irrational actions. I have Jewish friends I simply can’t talk to. The idea of an exchange between us has been reduced to positions that allow no escape or resolve. What happens to a person’s humanity when it is set aside? Even in the name of survival we need a way back to being human.

  2. All mammals feel, though, Maha, so that’s not enough (so do birds, so do reptiles). A swan will break your arm to defend its young. I think that one of the descriptors that makes us human is the capacity to understand consequences. It doesn’t really roll off the tongue — “I am able to understand consequences therefore I am human” — but it’s something that we learn that we did not have as babies or even infants.

    • Good point. I assume mammals also empathize, so you’re right, David. I guess I was just trying to say we lose our humanity when we become numb and unempathetic. But understanding consequences… Do all humans do that, or just the thoughtful, mature ones? For important things, I mean…

    • How about calling it foresight? I have foresight therefore i am human? Sounds ok

  3. The problem is… not everyone has foresight. But we all have the *ability* to have foresight.

    Still, it’s close enough, I would say 🙂

  4. I’ve heard too many people speak of “losing our humanity”, and I think I have a problem with their definition of humanity or the way the word is being used. Yes it is human to empathize but we don’t do it universally, not towards everyone everywhere. Humans are naturally biased and selective about their empathy, some more than others. There are several factors that play a role in the selection, and its not always about right versus wrong. Maybe our most intrinsic feelings are towards children, but having something happen to our children is not the same as having something happen to children of a relative, neighbor, a fellow citizen, someone in the next country, or the next continent or the other side of the world. Not only identity, but proximity is a factor. I remember having a conversation back in Dec 2012 with an Egyptian friend living in the US about the horrible school shooting that left 20 children dead. I told her “Yeah but did you hear about the 52 children who died here in Egypt in the train wreck recently?” She said “Yeah but my kids go to school here and it doesn’t feel safe anymore”. Varied degrees of empathy but does it make us any less human? Degrees of media exposure to tragedies like these magnify our feelings about them as well. I only hear about children suffering in other parts of the world, but research into events and history makes us more aware in order to empathize. You mention above that you are “biased” and “refuse to believe”, and that is totally human. So I think it’s more accurate to say I selectively empathize therefore I’m human.

    • Hey Manal, ur right of course that there are factors that affect our degree of empathy. The empathy that happens instinctively. Maybe what I am getting at (this is something I have been thinking of for about a year now) is developing (maybe thru education) a mindful, intentional empathy. The one that does not come naturally. Meaning: I believe if we remove a lot of context and tell a story in the abstract, and are told to put ourselves in the shoes of the parents of any of the kids who died in any of these incidents, we’d be able to do it. We’d feel it. It’s all the other factors that cloud our feelings. That said, context and history are essential to truly understanding (even if that understanding is partial) the suffering of others, because all incidents are not equal. Still, yes, I think it’s always more of a universally-acknowledged tragedy when kids are killed because we know they’ve done nothing to “deserve” it, they’re dying for someone else’s sins/mistakes/risks.
      That all said, the whole proximity thing is problematic for Egyptians towards Palestinians and it kills me to hear how some ppl talk about that situation, where self-interest suppresses empathy towards someone you should technically be able to empathize with more than others – someone who is ur neighbor, speaks ur language, has ur religion, etc., has shared history and culture (Gaza especially) and then to not empathize when it’s supposedly easier to empathize than with others…
      The story of ur friend and distance is important but it’s not (in my mind) about empathy: it’s about security, and of course proximity matters there.

      • I know nothing about educating people, and I don’t know if there’s such a thing as teaching people how to feel a certain way like being empathetic, especially adults. You’re making a case for the removal of context while also arguing that it’s essential, so I’m not really clear on what you’re saying here. Telling someone to remove context in world that’s all about context is like giving someone knowledge that is useless and inapplicable in real life. But as I try to imagine how this could possibly work, i think maybe context can be used consciously instead of being removed altogether. For example, if you begin by showing me an image of someone being tortured – I get an immediate reaction of empathy. Next you tell me that he’s being punished because he’s a serial rapist pedophile – My feelings are replaced with anger, disgust, feeling what is being done to him is justified. Next you tell me that he’s been abused his whole life – My feelings change again and maybe there’s an internal struggle. Maybe this is a really bad example but I’m trying to say that you can teach me to control my judgements and biases and challenge them rather than have them control me and my feelings. And maybe that way I can access my initial feelings of empathy again after losing them with every disclosure you made. Maybe we aren’t losing our humanity as much as we are losing access to it. This idea makes me hopeful.
        I’ve taken children out of the equation this time because in my experience from listening to people who aren’t empathetic about what’s happening to people in Gaza generally feel this way out of judgment rather than due to distance. I heard people say things like: “The people of Gaza support Hamas, they support their governing Gaza, they support their terrorism as a form of resistance, they support killing Egyptian soldiers and civilians – why should I empathize with them?” Some people consider them enemies. And it’s really challenging to make people empathize with their enemy. And you’re right, self-interest can be so consuming that there’s no room left to feel for others.

        • Hi again Manal, I don’t have a well-developed idea of this yet, so your comments are helping. My comment about context was actually to say two things which you just said yourself in your example of the person being tortured: that context-free “things” promote empathy, then context changes how we feel. Definitely becoming conscious of our biases, etc, help. I will Be back later

        • I am back Manal. So I needed to do some quick research because ignorant me thought since Abbas was president that Hamas were no longer in power. Very complicated situation but bottom line they have not been voted out, so… (And there is no end to how stupid they are, apparently, and willingness to sacrifice their own people, knowing how Israel would react, but does not absolve Israel)

          Anyway, RE teaching empathy, I am unsure it is possible, but people in the ‘caring’ professions (e.g. nursing, therapy, social work) try to develop it as part of their preparation for their jobs. I think there are two aspects to it: the cognitive aspect you talk about relating to understanding own biases, etc. but there is also an affective dimension that is not as logical, but a sensitivity, a feeling. Teaching something not in the sense of telling people how to do it, but helping them recognize it. Was it you who said “access” to our humanity? Because empathy is partly natural and burying it (as Scott said) may be evolutionarily needed for us to survive, but then re-accessing it might help in situations of conflict. I’ll try to explain all this later in another post, maybe.
          But RE: why empathize? I think even if it’s your enemy, you gain from empathizing in the sense that you’ll better be able to understand where they’re coming from and reach a solution. The problem is with uni-lateral empathy: it would be ridiculous for the weaker person to empathize when the stronger person continues NOT to. But empathy isn’t always a choice. Do we switch it on and off at will?

  5. My guess is there’s an evolutionary advantage to being able to remove others from human considerations. It works at the group level and overrides the personal. When I was fired from the college without notice or rights it was pointed out to me by people who I consider normal (and actually known to me as empathetic) that my designation as a “casual” allowed the organization to treat me like an object.

    These were not crazy people, only people who at some level were permitted by a form of social logic to simply bypass considering me as belonging. I think we reach that level of disregard before we the level of empathy and it allows us to preserve the more evolutionary advantageous survival of the group.

    Maha I think you are right to call this a loss of humanity but maybe only at the highest level where we would sacrifice everything, including our own survival rather than cut someone from the group.

    In the book “Three Day Road” by Joseph Boyden the main character is a First Nations man who becomes a sniper in WW I and the conflict of morals over permitting a group member to kill others. In the book it is actual killing and maybe organizationally that can translate to removing someone as a group member but I bet it involves the same part of the brain.

    Nothing I’ve said justifies the act of De-humanizing people.

    • I get where you’re coming from. If i were truly empathetic and felt the loss of my own child for each child’s death, and felt it in a continuous manner i would go crazy. The most empathetic ppl are probably clinically depressed or insane. But there must be a balance for each of us… This is a really interesting conversation

  6. I am recognisably human.

    Please allow me to introduce myself
    I’m a man of wealth and taste
    I’ve been around for a long, long year
    Stole many a man’s soul to waste

    And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
    Had his moment of doubt and pain
    Made damn sure that Pilate
    Washed his hands and sealed his fate

    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guess my name
    But what’s puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game

    Humanity is a luxury.

    Human power struggles enable the privileged to distance themselves from suffering and loss and to revel in their empathetic humanity.

    “It is all so, so, so sad, such an awful affair, don’t you agree?”

    A grim game, I grant you.

    I am the Devil’s advocate.

    • Ahh as always, Simon! You have a very good point. But what you’re describing, I think, is fake empathy? If one feels real empathy, I suspect one would feel a need to act, in some way?
      And isn’t it even worse to not even think it was sad? To think the victim deserves it? it might be more honest, though. Thinking… My conclusion from last year is that critical citizens need to be critical after being empathetic and oriented towards social justice… It’s not a formula, obviously, but … What’s missing here?

    • Hi Simon – lovely to see this cited here – it’s one of my ‘funeral’ songs! Hedging my bets when I go… Sandra

  7. During the Vietnam War support for the war dropped as news photos and film clips came in showing the suffering of civilians. The abstract notion of “enemy” became the reality of fellow humans in trouble–caused by “us.” You couldn’t escape the idea of being complicit in their suffering and interestingly the advocates of war in their uniforms and suits became the “bad” ones, cruel and inhuman.

    This could be about explaining the suffering of others to ourselves? As you suggest Maha, to keep us from going crazy with emotional overload. To balance our logic we need both the innocent and the guilty. Someone to blame and someone to absolve in a simple causal relationship allows us to remove ourselves from the equation. To be mere observers of a natural and inevitable relationship?

    I’m not sure if this makes sense though it answer to me the “selectivity” that Manal brought up. Maha, wasn’t there something mentioned earlier to a bit lighter on subject matter until Ramadan ended? I’m not seeing a full moon on the horizon yet:-)

  8. I think it’s possible to teach empathy but each of us needs to look inside ourselves to find the logic of it. An outside consideration of “them” and “us” adds too many variables. Assuming we know ourselves we avoid building abstract “others” with motivations we create and put on them. This would include attributing good intentions or innocence which may not be real.

    For me I know I make mistakes, do mean things and treat people with disregard. I’m most aware and of people who do things I find myself guilty of and though I don’t approve, this does feel like a form of empathy–a fellowship of human failure in a sense.

    Forgiveness is the hardest thing I struggle with. Maybe empathy is more than fellow feeling that seems to have limited power to change the world anyway? Releasing ourselves from anger and bitterness may be more effective?

  9. What I love about this Maha is the implicit challenge of Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’. Rationality only gets you so far…

  10. I’m reading a paper right now that talks about emotion being our direct access to our humanity. That we aren’t rational and it only distorts our actions to have a need for logic. My main care nurse in intensive care after my heart crashed “specialized” in people who were not expected to live. She also covered kids with cancer and survived it by being both a religious person and choosing to be vulnerable to the pain overcoming her. The spiritual side of us came first as we became humans and I think we put too much effort into avoiding the “irrationality” of religion as if it carried nothing to teach us. Or set us back from the perfect world we’ve made without it.

    Empathy and emotion can flatten us. Since we aren’t fools, we need to choose to be out there and maybe medical people are more prone risk all that can go wrong by caring?

  11. Sure Maha, should of thought to attach it. The subject of the paper made me think of you and Clarissa as eclectic subject investigators = people who find things in odd places. The paper is interesting and full of references for further study.

    TIN MEN: ETHICS, CYBERNETICS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF SOUL
    Valerie Morkevicius
    Political Science Department, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, USA
    Journal of Military Ethics, 2014
    Vol. 13, No. 1, 3–19, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15027570.2014.908011
    © 2014 Taylor & Francis
    Downloaded by Scott Johnson

    According to the copy I downloaded and paid for the paper can be used for “research, teaching and private study purposes.”

    Scott

Leave a Reply

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: