Oct 27, 2013

suprise surprise, it's harder for the rich to empathize - but chains can help

I posted a few months ago about studies that show that racism makes it harder to feel the pain of black people - even if the person whose empathy is being studied is themselves black!

Well a recent article in the NYT reviewed what it calls 'a growing body of literature' showing that those with social power not only empathize less with those who have less power, they don't even get to the first stage of paying attention to them! The author, Daniel Goleman, argues that to reduce the economic gap we have to also work on this empathy gap. 

One of the ways to bridge that 'empathy gap' is bit by bit, via people who those with social power do pay more attention to.   I understand much of international solidarity activism to work this way, and I find useful Galtung's description of this move as mobilizing a 'great chain of nonviolence.' He argues that nonviolence
“works better the shorter the social distance.  More particularly, when the other party has been totally dehumanized in the mind of the oppressor, civil disobedience may be seen only as one more instance of queer, strange behaviour, uncivilized rather than civil in its disobedience … It is when one’s own people, the Other inside the Self, or the Self in the Other, start reacting the same way, non-violently, sending a forceful signal that “we are not tolerating this any longer,” that chords of responsiveness are being touched.  Doubts about legitimacy are generated.”[1]
He recognizes that 
“The long-term approach would be struggle against the sources of dehumanization, bridging all gaps within and between societies.  But the short-term approach would be to mobilize the in-between groups, have them act out their political conscience and consciousness on behalf of those too far down and away to have an effective voice.  And then build social and human ties to solidify that political cooperation, in both directions, with the oppressors and with the oppressed.”[2]
Writing this in 1989 he ends with,
“Whose task was it to stay Washington’s ruthless aggression in Nicaragua, using the contras in that great chain of violence built from above? Above all, the task of the US people, in massive demonstrations … students, for instance, particularly from elite universities.”[3]

Martin and Varney argue that although Galtung presents this as a psychological chain, it can also be seen as a communication chain, where intermediaries can communicate more directly be that because of language, meaning systems, or other reasons.[4]  As they see it, “The chain gets around power inequalities by utilizing a series of links, each of which is closer to power equality than the direct connection between resisters and their opponents.”[5]  They surmise that Galtung uses the adjective 'great' in reference to the Christian concept of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ where all beings exist in a hierarchical order, from rocks up to God[6] - which is rather different than the idea of Christian solidarity based on brotherhood and equality before God that those accompaniment groups that are Christian tend to reference. 

As Clark puts it “when an oppressed community cannot directly influence power-holders in a situation, they begin link-by-link to construct a chain of nonviolence by approaching those people they can reach, planning that each link will in turn connect with others until the chain extends to people closer to the power structures and even to decision-makers themselves.”[7]  Clark cites Summy’s argument that this is useful when a power holder is not directly dependent on the cooperation of the subject population, and so the chain connects with those on whom the power-holder does depend.[8]  


[1] Johan Galtung, “Principles of Nonviolent Action: The Great Chain of Nonviolence Hypothesis,” in Nonviolence and Israel/Palestine (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Institute for Peace, 1989), 19–20.
[2] Ibid., 32.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Brian Martin and Wendy Varney, “Nonviolence and Communication,” Journal of Peace Research 40, no. 2 (March 1, 2003): 220.
[5] Ibid., 229.
[6] Ibid., 219.
[7] Howard Clark, People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (London: Pluto Press, 2009), 215.
[8] Ibid., 216.
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