I’m left-wing. I think I know what that means, but I’m never sure.
I come from a family who have always been left-wing. Their arguments and their actions were hugely influential on my politics. I did once think that it was entirely because of that upbringing that I became left-wing; Labour to be precise, despite the flat white-drinking, sourdough bread-eating, middle-management lifestyle I have now (though this appears to be the last bastion of the left today, we’re told).
With the advent of social media I’ve become exposed more relentlessly to political viewpoints across the spectrum. Brexit has made it suffocatingly ubiquitous. Once I’d have been glad that so many people were engaged with politics. I think I still am, but I never see people convince each other of views they are initially opposed to. At best, people without a strong view might be swayed towards one or another viewpoint. Millions of us are just hurling our hyperlinks and jargon at each other and getting frustrated by how little any of it sticks. For the ultra-rich and the establishment this endless, incessant bickering among the ‘great unwashed’ is so useful I can’t help but think it’s the plan, for nobody’s angry with them for hoarding wealth, we’re all arguing about gender and ethnicity while working ourselves to death in zero hours contracts and using foodbanks to make ends meet.
I used to read The Spectator, The Times and Sunday Telegraph, along with The Guardian, The Observer and New Statesman. In all that time I don’t think I was ever convinced of anything a tory or a right-wing thinker had to say, while I was also not convinced of the wilder left-wing views of your typical Morning Star reader, or the entirely antagonistic attitudes of the big unions to capital. It hasn’t changed despite the ubiquity of political utterances in both social media and in the plethora of politically oriented think-piece sites that have sprung up, from Breitbart to Novara Media.
I read politics all the time yet I never seem to change my mind.
More and more it feels like I have a model of what is right and I reject arguments and opinions based on their inability to fit this model that I think best expresses a good state/private sector split with low income inequality and stronger wealth redistribution. I believe people should be given the self-belief, support networks and educational opportunities to pursue their ambitions, but should they succeed, they may enjoy many but not all the fruits of their innovations and qualities, because such success was built on the back of the aforementioned support; from colleagues and employees through to the infrastructure and institutions that maintain the framework in which people can focus on their ambitions rather than survival – education, law and order, energy, transport, healthcare, council services etc.
If they failed, they had a proper safety net from which they could regroup and go again, paid for by all of us; more than adequate welfare, social and mental health care, childcare support etc. It is a state (in the wide sense) that provides a framework within which its citizens have the best chance of thriving and doesn’t leave anyone behind, because why would you want to leave people on the floor and not give them a hand back up?
But if that view of a just and prosperous society comes from things I was told by my family and then things I read, why is it so impervious to alternative models of the best possible society?
I have seen, over the decades, the reasons people have given for their extreme wealth. It is, often, asserted that they earned that extreme wealth and so they deserve it. All of it. With it comes a view that anyone not as wealthy is somehow at fault for that, that they haven’t got what it takes. But there might also be, in there, notions of happiness tied to this excessive wealth accumulation that are entirely wrong according to the research (see Daniel Nettle’s ‘Happiness’ and the happiness data in The Spirit Level). There’s a prioritising of one’s own pursuit of pleasure over contributing to the pleasure or welfare of others, no matter how opulent and indulgent the form one’s pleasure might take because it is (a) right. This is a tangle of excuses as to why extremely rich people should remain extremely rich. I never understood, in my gut, how someone so incredibly wealthy could look to cement that status at such great expense to others, that they would lobby against any redistributive efforts. I’m called a commie for making this point, despite never advocating for total redistribution of wealth or that the state should run everything. Social media’s fuel appears to be straw men. Meanwhile, (see here and here) an oligarchy of the super-rich is created whose families, regardless of merit and through active suppression (lobbying, cronyism) and tribal identification, go on to maintain themselves at the top of the pile, somewhat giving lie to the belief that anyone, equally, can make it.
But there are so many, even among the poor, who, in their gut, think that if they can get extremely rich, it will be down to them alone. They, like me, project their own images of what people are or should be like, and what people should want, onto others. They have their own notions of human nature at odds with mine. Our arguments and exchanges reduce, inevitably and simply, to what we believe the world ought to be like because it either reflects human nature as we see it is or should be. I am criticised, for instance, for having views that have a false notion of what it means to be human. And I disagree!
And so more and more I find myself reflecting on our predispositions; what causes some to give to the homeless and some to bully and abuse them. Is there a description of what it means to be human that can explain why both responses to suffering exist?
Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baren-Cohen continues to fuel my thoughts, given it adds to an increasingly convincing corpus of research on the brain’s causal correlations to personhood and our predispositions, e.g. that we’re not naturally gendered at birth and that while both gender and empathy evolves in response to stimuli both immediate and sensory through to emotional and intellectual, we tend to either be more or less empathetic and so, more or less capable of finding the suffering of others intolerable. ‘Othering’ human beings to be able to commit acts of violence on them, or merely discriminate against them, correlate strongly with reductions in activity within the empathy circuit.1
If your empathy circuit is fully firing, you might literally be unable to cause them unnecessary harm. I won’t pretend my own circuit is overdeveloped. I do a bit for charities but give no time up for volunteering.
Nevertheless, I seem to struggle a lot more with seeing others’ suffering than many of my right wing interlocutors. It’s on a spectrum of course, this correlation I’ve noticed, but I sense a tendency towards a Cartesian, and so outdated, view of the sovereignty of choice and action in individuals in the views of right wingers, notions of developing minds as blank slates, of a person’s capacity to make and remake themselves as being absolute.
It’s interesting that in the bodies of research building up over time in disciplines such as cognitive neuroscience through psychology and sociology, they all appear to be pointing towards feedback loops between brains and the external micro and macro stimulus they receive as strongly influencing each other regarding what people are capable of conceiving as a set of choices or possibilities. Some people can grow up unable to believe they could manage a company, unable to believe they’d ever get that GCSE in Maths, or that they don’t deserve to be happy. Less controversially, people grow up just not wanting to be brain surgeons or barristers or carpenters, it just isn’t something that excites them as a person or ambition and so the ‘cones of possibility’ radiating from this moment are not limitless. One’s life defines one’s sense of what’s possible. There are things we could choose we cannot even cognise as choices. We cannot remake ourselves in the entirety, but that is not to rule out the possibility that external stimulus can, in the right neural bed, create radical change. Research such as Cohen’s shows that people with higher degrees of empathy innately care more for others because they simply can better cognise another’s suffering and respond emotionally to that. His book shows too it’s possible for a chemical stimulus to improve this, to actually change empathy levels. It’s as possible, then, to effect less invasive, more long-term change in people’s brains. Why wouldn’t we want more empathy? Can a significant empathic response be at all negative, of all the traits that make us up?
Insofar as I might have a moderately noisy empathy circuit, I believe it does help to explain why, when someone succeeds through the labour of others, I look to them to say, ‘remember their efforts, don’t exploit them for further personal wealth’. I don’t say ‘you deserve to keep every penny for yourself.’ When someone disagrees, it’s correspondingly hard to accept their reasoning because there are literally high enough levels of activity in my ’empathy circuit’ that it practically disallows me from agreeing; it simply doesn’t feel right. There’s a conflict at a pre-dispositional level to the idea I might strongly concentrate my wealth at the expense of those who helped me to acquire it. But my empathy circuit can be suppressed by all kinds of factors; anxiety, depression, tiredness, you name it. All affect my dispositions, temporarily, to various degrees.
If the stimulus we’ve received in our lives and the predispositional strength of activity in the brain’s various regions define the pattern of reality we believe makes the most sense to aspire to and pursue then these will, necessarily, differ between us. As such we’re always going to struggle to convince each other of our views. If it’s tied to empathy; if your ’empathy circuit’ simply isn’t buzzing enough to believe it’s bad to bully a homeless person, or even that it might not entirely be the fault of that person that they’re homeless, then I’m not likely to persuade you otherwise because you have enough data points to make a consistent model of reality that is more in harmony with alternative pre-dispositions. My model of the world is posited on something more primal than research, as is yours. What we believe makes a good society contains the necessary and tacit assumption that this society must allow for us to thrive within it, so our notions of a good society are, necessarily, different.
You’ve seen the solution. Brains have plasticity. Stimulus can trigger us to adjust these patterns, elements of them become dissonant to a change in our predispositions2. Reason and argument are tools that can expose new ‘data points’ to people and I think the problem is a function of the depth and breadth of our world model. Simpler models with fewer cohesive data points are easier to re-pattern. A persistence in our presentation of the rightness of a set of actions is necessary, so that should someone undergo a radical shift in life experience that changes the way their brain is wired, there’s a chance that our model of the world can influence theirs, it can help create or strengthen a disposition that causes a dissonance in their world model and instigate a change in values. High levels of empathy will diminish our ability to harm and tolerate suffering in others. It’s just a fact. I believe that if we could engineer our neural development to strengthening the ’empathy circuit’ we’d have a better world. Do you?
- Baron-Cohen identifies at least ten related brain areas involved in empathy, which he refers to as the ’empathy circuit’. The medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is highlighted as a hub for social information, and the area in which our own perspective on events can be compared to that of others. The dorsal part of this region is involved in thinking about other people’s thoughts and feelings in conjunction with our own. In contrast, the ventral part of this region is more concerned with our own thoughts. Damasio has suggested that this region can store a record of the emotional valence of prior causes of action, positive for actions that turned out to be rewarding and negative for actions there were punishing. It has been shown that damage to this area of the brain can reduce empathy.
The ventral medial prefrontal overlaps with the orbitofrontal cortex also identified as part of the empathy circuit. Patients with orbitofrontal damage may have difficulty with judging social behaviour, which is seen as indicative of a lack of empathy. These observations about the orbitofrontal might be seen as linking empathy to the functioning of subjective consciousness, since it has been shown the activation in the orbitofrontal can correlate to appreciation of the subjective experience rather than strength of signal.
The orbitofrontal is close to the frontal operculum, which may be involved in assessing the intentions of others, and this in turn is close to the inferior frontal gyrus involved in the visual recognition of emotions. This connects to the inferior parietal lobe, part of the mirror neuron system, which reacts when observing actions in both ourselves and others. Further to this, the middle cingulate cortex is involved in the experience of pain in oneself and in others, while the anterior insula is connected to empathy via awareness of the body. Taken from here. [↩]
- I’m aware that my use of the phrase ‘pre-disposition’ is philosophically lazy, it’s shorthand at best but hopefully sufficiently legible shorthand for the point I’m trying to make [↩]