TCS: What Makes Us HUMAN?

Good Morning!

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Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
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When I am sad, my dog recognizes it, and tries to comfort me. She doesn’t know why
am sad, only that something is wrong. So Sympathy can transcend the barriers between species.

Animals feel anger, fear, lust, love, loyalty, hunger, happiness, sadness, loneliness, pleasure, contentment — even a sense of their individuality, which means they can be embarrassed (watch a cat take an unexpected tumble). Animals can learn behavior, especially skills and choices which will mean survival or perpetuation of their species — cranes dance, birds sing, ants and bees build homes, wolves hunt together so there is more food for all, elephants remember past events and mourn their dead, horses have a sense of humor, whales and dolphins have their own languages and rival us in intelligence.

So what defines Human?  I think it is Empathy and Imagination.

Empathy is Sympathy combined with Imagination. When we see another person experiencing a strong emotion, the first step to Empathy is thinking: “How would I feel if this were happening to me?” Then we search for memories of events in our lives which have made us feel that emotion. What we remember may be totally unrelated to what is happening to this other person, but it’s not the event that matters, it’s how that event made us feel. This connection goes much deeper than sympathy. It allows us, at least to some extent, to see ourselves in the other person. At that moment, it transcends all differences, beyond Culture, Language, Religion, Race or Gender.

And it is our Imagination, for both better and worse, which has created Civilization.

Much of what is happening now in America has been caused by a massive loss of Empathy and Imagination. Because, while these are inherent parts of being Human, we can be trained to ignore them, or battered into suppressing them. This has been going on in public education for almost five generations now, because the best way to encourage these traits is through The ARTS, which have been systematically stripped out of the public education curriculum as “unnecessary” and “too expensive.”

Study after study shows the high value of Music skills which transfer directly to better cognition in mathematics, the value of the Visual Arts in improving the mind’s ability to think and perceive, the discipline of Dance in training our bodies and giving us a safe outlet for our emotions, and Theatre Arts in teaching us empathy for people who are unlike ourselves, and helping us understand our own thoughts and feelings.

Learning these skills makes us better people.

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The rudimentary “Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic,” so touted by the Right as all that students need to be taught, do nothing to improve people, they only make us  employable as minimally skilled, and easily disposable, Labor.

The constant mantra that political parties on the Right and Left are “the same” has caused many Americans to opt out of voting. Only Far Right fanatics seem  unaffected by this — they vote in every election, while the Left is far more fickle, and this has shifted the balance of power more and more to the Right, meaning more slashes to public education, fewer people exposed to the Arts, and more and more people with less and less Empathy and Imagination.

Our movies, computer games, and television programs are increasingly brutal bloodbaths — or “real life” sexual fantasies, that pander to voyeurism passed off as romance — which further blunt our sensibilities. It’s not any single version of these kinds of films, games and programs that’s a problem, it’s their overwhelming number, and the paucity of any other types of entertainment. One piece of ‘Death-By-Chocolate’ Cake isn’t really harmful, but a steady diet of only processed foods and high-sugar soft drinks is injurious to our health, just as an endless stream of only Violence and Lust dulls our feelings of connection with other people, especially anyone we’ve been taught to think of as Those People, who are not only different from us, but somehow Less Human.

It then becomes so much easier to scream invective at a woman wearing hijab; to vote for deporting people who have crossed our borders seeking a better life; to carry signs demanding we turn away refugees, even small children, as “threats to national security.”  So much easier to put a flag on your vehicle from a “nation” which hasn’t existed since 1865 that came into existence to only defend and expand slavery; to demand a “whites only” country where men rule over women, “like it says in the Bible” which you haven’t really read because it’s hard for you to understand all those old words that nobody uses anymore. So much easier to vilify all “Rednecks” and Fundamentalists as thugs and mindless idiots, to ridicule people whose ignorance is no fault of their own, but caused by the dumbing down of public education. To see only evil in people who are not “enlightened” like Us.

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Each of us has played some part in fracturing our country into Us and Them. This I see in myself just as I see it in the Teapublicans I detest.

Too many people are terrified of everyone around them, regardless of whether we lean Left or Right politically, and some of us on both sides have real cause to be frightened. Negative experiences also blunt our ability to feel Empathy.

The Golden Rule can slip so easily from “Do unto to others as you would have them do unto to you” to “Do unto to others as they have done to you” and then tumbles into the deep dark of “Do unto to others before they do it to you.

America desperately needs a Rebirth of Empathy and Imagination. Time to be fully Human together.

I have no grand plan to get us there, I only believe with all my being that this is where we must go.

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It’s Monday – please make it a good one!

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 45 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband and a bewildered Border Collie.
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6 Responses to TCS: What Makes Us HUMAN?

  1. Malisha says:

    Empathy can easily get a person into trouble, that part is true, and there is a gigantic movement in this country right now (and I believe it DID start really gaining steam as civil rights became a real thing in the 1960s) to give empathy a bad name. I found myself recently chatting with someone who had read Bloom’s book “Against Empathy” and obviously was delighted to use it as an excuse to bless his own politics of “MINE MINE MINE!!!” and its sad twins (quadruplets?): Islamophobia, isolationism and injustice. I was talking about my own (perhaps unfortunate) habit of seeing the other person’s side, even when the other person’s side is flat-out wrong. My comment had to do with a subject far removed from our political scene today, but it did mention the word empathy. Immediately my friend sailed into an explanation of how correct it was to think only about oneself, and how empathy was ruining our country, because we were feeling sorry for poor refugees and thus inviting terrorists into our country, and on and on and blah blah blah and suddenly it came to me, how hard it is — and perhaps how unnecessary — to feel empathy for a person advocating its elimination from our public lives. Therefore, although I refrained from pointing out to him how little I thought of his intellectual attachment to the “Against Empathy” position, I did give myself the liberty of totally discounting his position as both immature and wicked. And I don’t feel bad for doing so.

    • wordcloud9 says:

      The Ayn Rand crowd has so much to answer for! And the American myths of the Lone Wolf and the Started-from-nothing-Billionaire are just as much at fault. No one can stand entirely alone 100% of the time, and certainly nobody makes billions of dollars all on their own – a billionaire has always climbed to the top of his money heap over the backs of the workers who actually do the work that generates the wealth. And the billionaire’s children merely inherit the money, having even less feeling for where it really came from.

      I never think of Empathy as agreeing with another person’s thinking, but as connecting with their feelings, usually when they are vulnerable in some way, and feeling isolated. But also sometimes there’s a ‘click’ of recognition – a shared moment with someone you barely know – it may be only that moment, but it may also be the spark of a close friendship – what ‘Anne of Green Gables’ called ‘kindred spirits.’

      • Malisha says:

        I agree with that. I don’t agree with opinions when I empathize with people who have them, either, but I tend to feel that their point should be respected because they must have a reason for making it. This is what I find changing now. This person I mentioned in my comment, for instance, will give lip service to things like “equality” and “justice” and he is offended when he is dissed for not being as wealthy as a neighbor. But he believes that “creating wealth” has some sacred quality to it and that the “wealth creators” are somehow deserving of all kinds of special perks (such as not having to pay tax if they disagree with the way the government spends “their” tax dollars).
        But I find my empathy for these people diminishing. Greatly diminishing. I just can’t forgive them for not allowing for the fact that others — just as deserving, as fellow humans, as they hold themselves to be — are suffering because of their own insistence on privileges that they self-identify as “deserving.”
        These people seem to be always talking about needing protection from others. It is usually others who need protection from THEM.

        • wordcloud9 says:

          Ah, yes the old “undeserving poor” – the Scrooge excuse, but with a new twist.in the 21st century – instead of expecting the poor to die hidden from view in debtor’s prisons or work houses, they don’t even care about hiding what’s happening anymore – they’ll just step over them on the sidewalk, as they get into their cars, expecting the Sanitation Department to “clean up the mess.”

          When Money has the final say, not only in business, but in politics and healthcare and education, then there’s no room for Empathy, no “there but for the grace of god go I.”

          • Malisha says:

            But I do think there is a reason to have the poor and homeless all over the landscape: to scare your workers into accepting any kind of hostile work environment, any kind of economic hardship, any kind of bullying behavior by management, any kind of deprivation, rather than to lose their jobs. Having the miserable homeless available to beg for pennies from the working poor is useful to put a daily scare into those who might say, on a day when they were too mistreated, “Fuck this! I quit!”

  2. wordcloud9 says:

    Malisha –

    You are, of course, exactly right

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