Monday, April 11, 2016
Have you ever watched some heartwarming video shared on Facebook or somewhere on Youtube, and found yourself shedding a few tears? Maybe even full-on sobs of joy or compassion? I do. I love stuff like that. Admittedly, I usually don’t like to show people that side of me. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting in the lobby of a doctor’s office weeping over a compilation of deployed military parents surprising their kids at a tee ball game (although, most people would likely give me a pass on that). But I keep that type of response private—usually on the toilet as I mindlessly pass the time scrolling through social media. Probably the last time I made a public display with it was at the 9/11 Museum in New York, and of course I wasn’t the only one in the place in that condition. But doesn’t it feel good? Doesn’t it feel natural? It just happens. Every time I watch Rudy’s dad so proud of his son finally playing in a Notre Dame football game, I have a good cry, and it feels great. So why do so many people opt out of human compassion?
There is a common argument that I hear from people in the United States. Violence is natural. Aggression is part of human nature. Fight or flight. And to a degree, they’re correct. We do possess an autonomic nervous system. Our amygdala helps us trigger a response involving fear or anger and a burst of adrenaline from our adrenal glands that increases our heart rates and breathing so that we may fight off an attacker or run away from danger. And surely we experience a wide range of severity of this from light irritation to complete rage, even in situations when only our mental well-being is threatened—someone hurts your feelings or you get rejected by The Voice judges. But I think violence and aggression are, themselves, only a small part of our “natural” behavioral tendencies. They serve a situational purpose. But how often do you experience stimuli that call for violent reaction? Perhaps the claim that violence is “part of human nature” is a bit of an overgeneralization meant for the purpose of rationalizing a deeper truth, and something that I’ve argued for some time, that Americans live in and maintain a violent society.
There is scientific research to support the idea that actually, humans are more prone to gravitate toward compassion and empathy for one another, as opposed to aggression or violence. A study was conducted decades ago in which researchers set out to explain a phenomenon long documented in maternity wards and hospital nurseries. When one baby starts crying, the rest begin to cry as if it’s contagious. And what the research seems to suggest is that when these babies respond to one another crying by crying themselves, they are displaying a rudimentary form of empathy. Read further on this: http://www.psy.miami.edu/faculty/dmessinger/c_c/rsrcs/rdgs/emot/McDonald-Messinger_Empathy%20Development.pdf. Such compassion may be innate and completely natural. I’ve never seen a newborn respond with aggression. Really, if you follow a child through toddlerhood and into school age, they more often want to kiss your boo-boos or give you a hug if you’re sad. They express true empathy. It’s natural to them. And when they do begin to display violent or aggressive behaviors, it always seems to be the imitation or Ninja Turtles or something—a kid-friendly show with mild aggression and violence. Kid-friendly violence. You know, to start them out light. And then, according to some research, by the time you reach 16, you’ve seen approximately 20,000 homicides through TV, movies, and video games. What happened to that sweet toddler who wanted to snuggle with you when you were feeling blue?
Just ask Albert Bandura. Bandura is a psychologist famous for the Social Learning Theory. He argued that some of our learned behavior is observational. He did an experiment in the 1960s where groups of children observed an adult playing with one of those old-school inflatable punch-me clowns (yes, I had one, too). One group watched as an adult played nicely with the clown. The other group watched as the adult punched, pummeled, and even hit the doll with a mallet. Watch this video to see for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmBqwWlJg8U. The group that watched the adult play nice did exactly the same, and as you can see, the children that watched aggression mimicked almost exactly the actions they saw of the adult they observed.
So get to the point! Yes. Here it is. I think we’ve trained human compassion out of the common behaviors of American citizens. It’s hard to deny the violence in our media, in our language, in our sports, etc., is a very present and integral part of our culture. We are a country almost perpetually at war with someone, and have been since our founding through a Revolutionary War. We glorify our violent past and present, and it seeps into the way we influence our citizens to act on a daily basis. And this begins from birth. It’s a process of socialization. That sweet toddler mentioned before was cute for a while, but especially if he’s a boy, we start influencing him to “toughen up”. Eventually that turns in to “act like a man”. We actually discourage kids to shun sensitivity. And then they take that attitude with others around them. Trust me, I get it. There is such a thing as being too sensitive. There is a level of toughness a person must have. However, I think we have to be careful that we’re not inadvertently doing away with that person’s naturally-occurring sense of empathy. As if having a culture of violence and corresponding murder rate isn’t bad enough, it’s almost worse that we have a culture of callousness. And if compassion comes naturally, callousness is learned. When you look around you and find that even people who claim to be devout Christians take an apathetic or even negative attitude about the plight of others, it’s troubling.
A friend of mine today stated that “a society should be judged by how it treats its weakest citizens”, and she’s right. And so far, as a society, we’re doing a bad job at this. People want to do away with government assistance altogether over an average of about 2-3% of recipients abusing it. People want to ban Muslim refugees or even Muslims altogether over a handful of extremists. A woman gets raped, and you blame the victim. You argue that affordable healthcare is a “privilege”, and not a right—that your life means less if you have less money. Thirty-three people get killed in Brussels during a terrorist attack, which is horrible, and we’re still covering the manhunt. Seventy are killed the same weekend in a suicide bombing in Lahore, Pakistan, and it barely makes the news. Who cares? “It’s over there. Pakistan…figures…” We take the same attitude when a school shooting happens in the suburbs versus South Chicago. We discount the lives of people sometimes based on socioeconomic status or ethnicity. Hey, I like football and MMA. I like The Walking Dead. We are all products of the system. Trained to thrive in violence. But we are all born with a strong sense of compassion and empathy. I’d like to see this again find its way to the forefront of our behavior. I’d like to see it trump violence. I’d like to see people care for others, shedding the callous attitudes so many have come to be indoctrinated with. And that kind of socialization starts from birth. Am allowed to hold optimism for our generations to come?