The Next Revolution

I think I'm starting to see the boundaries of the next social revolution. Let me lay out a little context of recent references that I believe are related.

First, I talked last year about the "monkeysphere" idea.  The basic idea is that our primate brains can only accept about 150 people who we consider part of our clan, tribe, or village, and beyond that, all the other people are equivalent to "things" in the world.

Next is related to things I've seen in discussions about Burning Man and the idea of "community".  To me, the notion of "community" is like a lot of words: they are there to provide a spectrum upon which to measure.  So when one says, "the community", that is a reference to a specific group of people with traits that tie them together.  The thing that is important is that being "in the community" means you have the traits of the community — it does not mean that you must adapt your behavior because of your physical location.  In other words, actions cause description; description does not cause action.

Related to that, I recently found a new term: POSIWID.  According to Wikipedia at least, Stafford Beer coined the term as an acronym for "[the] purpose of [a] system is what it does".  The underlying principle is that the intended function of a system is irrelevant: its purpose (or function) is solely defined by what it does.  If, for instance, you set out to create a community of people who share art and resources, you might end up with a big party in the desert: the purpose of that system is a big party in the desert, no matter what your intentions were.

I have observed (especially in the last 10 years) that people I encounter are much more polarized by political party or political views than ever before.  It is probably most attributable to whom I hang out with, but I also believe there is a trend.  What I mean, specifically, is that I was finding prejudice in myself concerning politics: that I would judge someone favorably or unfavorably solely based on their political party affiliation.  I thought this was interesting to observe, and generally not good.

I also see the strong opinions of people concerning socialized health care. Although there many facets to it, the one I find most interesting is the debate on whether an arbitrary stranger should be cared for.  I'm neglecting any specifics because you can create straw men to support either side (i.e. abusers of a taxpayer-funded system versus a hard worker who circumstantially loses access to care).  The question is: will you help someone you don't know anything about?

So finally, what's this next revolution?: it's how we treat strangers.

I see people lining up along a spectrum.  On one side are people who are only willing to help those people they know personally (i.e. who are within their "monkeysphere") at the expense of the well-being of people they don't.  On the other are people who willing to support everyone equally, even if that means they may not have resources to help people they know personally.

I think it is more noble to lean toward helping everyone, and a testament to the superiority of humankind.  However, I also know that such civility is frail: a small percentage of people working to their own advantage can poison the whole system.  All societies have blind-spots and points of leverage for the advantage-seeker, but civility is maintained by the unspoken agreement among people that they not take advantage at those points.  And in America, there are socially-acceptable points to find advantage: that permission is specifically what allows capitalism to work.

Anyway, I find myself playing both sides of the fence for the time-being.  I have a network of friends who I help freely (with my time, skills, money, and resources) and who will do likewise for me.  I also strive for a better solution that is more inclusive because I feel better when my behavior also helps other people.

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Heroes, Monsters, and Your Own Personal Monkeysphere

I had an interesting confluence of information thrown at me this past week. First, on Monday, I got an e-mail from one of the organizers of FrostBurn. It was a gentle suggestion to check out the lecture on TED.com by Philip Zimbardo: How ordinary people become monsters…or heroes.

The gist is that it is relatively easy to get people to do unimaginably cruel things. All you need to do is to ask them to gradually increase the intensity of their behavior, and to absolve them of responsibility for that behavior. As has been demonstrated by the atrocities of history, nearly anybody can be party to this kind of behavior, except for a few: the "everyday heroes".

In response to that e-mail, someone else posted a link to What is the Monkeysphere?. It outlines the notion that our brains are only capable of dealing with a clan of about 150 individuals. Outside that group, everyone else is not even a person, just a thing in the world. The article argues that in general, people don't care about the outsider group except when they make a deliberate effort to be empathetic. I personally don't think this is true, but Philip Zimbardo's research seems to back it up.

Anyway, in Zimbardo's lecture, he says that anybody can be trained to be an "everyday hero". His method of doing so asks people to consider themselves "heroes in waiting" — that someday you may be called upon to act heroically. I personally use the guilt-based technique where I ask myself, "which course of action will make me respect myself tomorrow?" to elicit my best behavior.  Regardless, we agree that a core element is the desire to not go along with the status quo for its own sake, but to remain vigilant and question that which seems wrong.

Then on Tuesday, I went to The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) for the Books Sandwiched-In lecture. Douglas Lowry discussed his view on The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music by Steve Lopez. Lopez, a columnist, discovers a man named Nathaniel Ayers playing violin in the streets of L.A. Although he writes a column about this encounter, he is struck by this man and returns to him many times over several years. Ayers is clearly mentally ill, and Lopez tries to get him to use psychiatric services to discover how to experience joy.

Anyway, I just thought it was interesting that these things all seemed pretty related.

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