What Canada Desperately Needs: Visionary Leadership

April 20, 2011

Many people have been calling Canadians parochial throughout this election. Apparently we’re not comfortable with our leaders having opinions about politics outside our own country (and casting votes to back them up). We are apparently less involved internationally than ever before, especially in leadership roles. As a country, Canada is “retreating in on itself, clinging to the security of its own cultural stereotypes.”

Quite frankly, I think the kind of parochialism described above is but an aspiration at this point. I would love to see nation-wide parochialism. Instead, we have something closer to the real, historical definition of the word: looking no further than one’s own church parish. The campaign has showcased several variations of such limited and narrow outlooks, and the dialogue has largely been confined to pet causes, special interests, and the concerns of small minorities.

The real tragedy of this election is not that we will have spent several hundred thousand dollars to get to about the same place, give or take a few seats. It is that we – led by our fearful leaders – have failed to take the opportunity to engage in dialogue about the path Canada is on, and more importantly, what that path should be. This election has mostly been fought over the past: disrespect for Parliament, carpetbaggery, where money was and wasn’t spent, what was and wasn’t allowed to happen, and generally the same tired policies and pot shots we’ve heard for years.

Thus far, there has been a woeful lack of debate about the real issues that will shape the future, such as youth unemployment and skill development, education, and the role of urban areas. Nobody has yet talked about a solution to the looming crisis in pensions. The critical and contentious issue of technology scored nary a mention at the debates. Overall, there is a chronic lack of an overriding, national vision.

This is why I cringe every time I hear someone talk about how Gilles Duceppe would be the best person to elect. “He’s just sooo charismatic, and such a great speaker.” Indeed. (Especially en français in comparison to the other party leaders whose first language is English, n’est-ce pas?) Let’s not forget that he is running on a platform that, 150 years ago, would likely have been considered treasonous, and continues to act as a catalytic force for ill in Canadian politics.

It is very easy for Gilles Duceppe and his Bloc Party colleagues to say whatever is most appealing to Canadians because 1) they know they will never have enough power to actually act on any of their promises; 2) they know they will never have to find any money for their schemes; and 3) since they are at heart a regional party, they need not come up with any coherent vision. They can borrow from the left and the right with no regard for the practicality of their position. As Tasha Kheriddin wrote recently in the National Post:

For federalists, the Bloc continues to represent an immovable force, not only an obstacle to a majority government, but a siphon for political talent and resources which would otherwise be deployed in the other parties, most notably the Tories and the NDP.

Instead of allowing federal politics to develop on a left-right continuum, as in the Rest of Canada, the Bloc continues to perpetuate the federalist-separatist dichotomy, and run an effective extortion scheme to boot.

Basically, the Bloc constitutes a wedge between voters in Quebec and national policies enacted by widely-supported national parties.

I don’t mean to vilify the Bloc above all others, as there are several parties at fault here. I have heard the Green Party criticized for similar reasons, namely being a single-issue party. I can certainly see the merits of that argument, given that the Green party’s platform is neither particularly left- nor right-wing, but mixes and matches policies to suit its “Green” foundation. (It also siphons votes and resources away from other parties, ones that could perhaps be more usefully employed formulating policies within mainstream parties that have a hope of being elected in numbers.)

I personally disagree and think the Green Party is coherent in its vision of offering policies undergirded by a focus on sustainability, in the same way the Tories offer policies broadly based on the principles of personal accountability and small government, and Liberals’ policies are broadly based on the idea of equality of opportunity and greater state involvement. What differentiates the national parties from the Bloc is that their policies (for the most part) allow Canada to work together without demanding rights and special privileges for some and not all.

To be clear, I don’t believe that parties should stick strictly to where their political forebears have trod. But political parties are important because they organize political thought and allow voters to make decisions based on what they imagine will be consistent ideologies. No election campaign can cover every possible scenario, so we want those we elect to act along predictable lines when something unexpected occurs. Those who elected George W. Bush in 2000 should not have been surprised that he reacted to the September 11 attacks as a conservative Republican would; this was the blueprint he ran on. With some exceptions, right-wing American politicians have often shown less regard for multilateral institutions like the UN than their left-wing counterparts. It is part of their ideology.

The American comparison is useful because it also shows us what a visionary candidate for a nation’s leader looks like. Vision is a mandatory quality for American presidents. They need to be able to energize vast numbers of voters into believing in their vision of the future. George W. Bush had a vision, that of “compassionate conservatism.” Obama certainly had a vision – of hope, change, empowerment of communities and international bodies, and support for social programs. Some might argue that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price for enacting his vision of an America in partnership with other nations around the globe in such a short time after taking office.

The last Canadian PM to win a Nobel Peace Prize was Lester Pearson. During his minority government, he implemented what are now seen as the signature Canadian social programs and icons, including universal healthcare, the CPP, and our current national flag.

Do any of our current potential national leaders have that kind of vision? Please, someone, convince me – my vote is up for grabs.

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ANARCHY! (or, Why the State Does Too Much And Yet Not Enough)

April 15, 2011

Nations are ever-present structures in our lives. Their appearance as political entities and actors around the nineteenth century marked an inflection point in how we think about groups of individuals and how power is aggregated. I have outlined before why nations are perennially important, and the enduring popularity of my post on A Hierarchy of National Needs among search engine indices attests to the currency nationalism has in the public sphere.

But I’ve been reading some fascinating criticisms of nationalism (in the form of national structures and governments) lately, which attack nations as ineffective from an ideological standpoint. The attacks come both from below – the position in which I would classify libertarian thinking, in that it desires less state control over aspects of individuals’ lives – and above – those who believe more multi-national or supra-national organizations are necessary to create global solutions to global problems.

(At this point I’ll remark that the root of both of the preceding words is “nation.” If people are going to start thinking differently about the base controlling structures in our lives, they must stop referring to them as, essentially, collections of nations, or at the level above nations.)

Criticisms from Below

A feature on the Pileus political science blog recently discussed Habermas and one of his critics, Hayek, on the issue of public discourse in the nation state. For those unfamiliar with recent political philosophy, Habermas stands as a giant in the area, perhaps most famous for his ideas about the creation of a culture of public interaction within societies in the early eighteenth century, which he termed the “public sphere.” He asserted that humans have the ability to make society more equal and just through rational communication (I can’t help but imagine that he would love erudite and insightful blogs with intelligent commentators for this very reason).

Hayek’s criticism, expanded on Pileus by Mark Pennington (who has just written a book on the subject), is that discussion in a free and protected public sphere is not enough. The actions of individuals can in many cases be better proof than simply the airing of ideas or theories, particularly if such actions are brought about by acting in opposition to the prevailing belief system of the times. As Pennington writes:

The spread of knowledge in markets, the arts and science does not typically proceed via collective deliberation, but advances best when individuals and groups have a ‘private sphere’ that secures the freedom to experiment with projects that do not conform to majority opinions. Then, incrementally, through a process of emulation the prevailing wisdom may change over time. It is not sufficient for people to be able to talk about their ideas. Rather, they must have scope to act on those ideas – and this requires ‘property rights’, not ‘speech rights’.

In a way, this argument can be summed up as advocating free market principles across the board, the ability of people to “vote with their feet” and come to agreement with popular action as well as discussion. Pennington also notes that the independently wealthy have an important role to play as “trail-blazers for new values and ideas.” I think of such individuals as venture capitalists for ideas.

In essence, I see this argument as, broadly, a repeat of one of the key arguments against socialism/communism, which is that it restricts choices and enforces conformity. Pileus clearly has free market, libertarian leanings, and seeks to decrease the role of the state in favour of individual accountability (much like David Cameron does). It’s fascinating to read a defence of this viewpoint from the perspective of the public sphere/political economy.

Shakespeare at the Supranational Level

And yet, on the other end of the spectrum, I see criticisms that the state is not powerful enough. In a discussion from Big Think’s series this month on Shakespeare’s continuing relevance, Kenji Yoshino notes the relationship between the plot of Titus Andronicus and modern statecraft:

Titus is about what happens when the revenge cycles spin out of control. Revenge tragedies represent something that happens when the state is very weak and so the Elizabethans had a very weak state where there wasn’t a standing army.  There wasn’t an effective police force and so when something happened that was horrible like someone kills a member of your family, you had to choose whether to rely on a very weak state that was basically going to do nothing or to take justice into your own hands. It strikes me that we’re at the international level where the Elizabethans were at the national level because we’re stepping onto an international theater in the way that you described and there isn’t a centralized authority that’s going to step in and quash the revenge cycle. So if terrorists fly planes into our buildings what are we going to do, go hat in hand to the UN?  No, we’re not going to do that.  We’re going to engage in vigilante justice, right, but we all know how those stories end.

What a fantastic concept – nations as vigilante justice-inflicting thugs. It speaks eloquently of the toothless nature of the supranational power structures in our world today. One excellent comment on a post I wrote about nations emphasizes the often unworkable nature of supranational bodies: in essence, they are made up of groups of nations that have wildly varying amounts of power, wealth, and desire to change the existing global power structures. The vested interests have no reason to want to give up their advantage – and why would they? The comparison to an early modern land with no police state is apt. Why would a powerful, wealthy family used to settling its own scores want to give up that privilege and pay into a communal system of policing that would essentially render them equal under a higher law to those who would seek to do them ill?

Moreover, surpanational institutions are much more difficult to hold accountable for their actions, because who will hold them to account? Democracy functions well (usually) at the national level because there is always the threat of voters punishing the incumbents for abuse of power or poor decision-making. Such is not the case at the supranational level, where even democratic bodes (such as the EU parliament) are subject to the whims of national leaders and their fears for re-election, which always take precedence.

Considering that empathy is a theme I’ve been working with lately, I can paint this as a picture of its limits, too: while there are certainly many characteristics and loyalties and ideas that are shared among all humans, mostof us can only extend our feelings of “sameness” and empathy so far. Those outside of our national community (or, also quite commonly, race/ethnicity, which often amounts to the same thing as a national community) are easier to ignore because they are not like us. They don’t share our histories, or national institutions, or language, so they are harder to comprehend.

In the longer term, I believe nations will fizzle out, gradually ceasing to hold the importance they do now. With pressure – both practical and ideological – from above and below, power cannot continue to function effectively at the national level forever. The anarchy in the title, however, refers more to the absence of a coherent and consistent “publicly recognized government or enforced political authority,” as Wikipedia puts it, at one level. Perhaps we have a future of shifting loyalties (local, national, supranational) and power brokers vying for our attention as voters and citizens. Sounds like a party.


A Communism of Pain

April 10, 2011

When I was younger I thought often about the idea of a communism of pain.  If all humans were somehow linked to the extent that pain could spread itself out among many, what would be the net effect at the individual level? How much pain – in terms of an impossible-to-quantify objective amount – is out there in the world? Would the extreme suffering of the few spread out to a chronic, if manageable, level of pain for the rest of us? Or would it, distributed amongst the billions of humans on the planet, amount to almost nothing in a single one?

Of course, I understand that pain is a biological imperative, our bodies’ way of telling us that something is wrong and that we should stop whatever we are doing that is causing it. But from a purely sociological (or maybe political) perspective, what would be the result of averaging it out? Perhaps equal distribution wouldn’t be optimal – after all, communism in theory espouses taking from each according to his ability, and giving to each according to his need. Varying pain thresholds might in some way be taken into account. Or perhaps those most in a position to inflict pain could be those who felt it most deeply. (No pain, no gain, as it were.)

Actual sharing of pain through embedded receptors or similar technological enhancements is more in the realm of science fiction or post/transhumanism than reality at present. But empathetic pain-sharing does in fact exist. Recent research has indicated that the same areas of the brain are activated in those observing someone in pain as the actual sufferer. In both cases, our anterior insular cortex, the area that monitors how we feel about things inside our bodies, and the anterior singular cortex, the part of the brain that processes emotions and attention, are engaged. Moreover, the empathetic response is greater the higher the level of affection for, or perceived identification with, the sufferer.

Pain expert Sean Mackey theorizes that pain empathy played a role in mammalian evolution by signalling those in distress so a pack could stick together, heal together, and prosper. Noted primatologist Frans de Waal would agree. He studies bonobos, the great apes scientists now believe are as closely related to humans as chimpanzees. He has concluded, after studying bonobos extensively, that empathy is a much more basic instinct than many consider it to be, and much less intellectual. Instead of a fairness rationalization, or a sense that one can imagine himself in another’s position, he believes that empathy is much deeper, and less complex. His theory explains why infants show empathetic responses to fellow children crying, but only learn theory of mind, or the more intellectual basis for understanding others, around age four. Incidentally, a physical basis for empathy also explains the contagious nature of yawning, as he has explored in other research.

Communist bonobo

A communist bonobo (picture slightly adapted) - does he feel our pain?

Bonobos are also noted for their very sexy way of solving all kinds of problems, and for generally displaying much more cooperative and less competitive behaviour than that of chimpanzees. This is significant because the narrative of competition has coloured much of the modern period’s image of itself, and its image of the way early humans lived – nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes once wrote. De Waal locates the competitiveness myth around the time of the Industrial Revolution, as a necessary backbone for the proto-capitalist system that was then forming, and which has now come to dominate global economics and politics.

The political bent of the concept might be significant. A growing number of studies has pointed to those on the more liberal left end of the political spectrum being more open-minded and thus more empathetic than their more conservative counterparts. Tolerance, inclusiveness, and a passion for social justice have recently been linked with both political liberalism and high levels of empathy. (One might ask if this implies that communism is a political representation of empathy, which could set off hours of debate, I’m sure.)

Given the general trend toward a more liberal way of thinking and behaving over the past hundred or so years, and the ever-expanding list of encounters with “others” that telecommunications, air travel, and globalization has allowed us, is it possible that humans are in fact more empathetic today than they were, say, when Victoria ruled England? Or when Arthur did? Would the apparent recent setback of declining empathy and rising conservatism then be a blip, or a reversal?

And if we are more empathetic now, does that mean we inflict less pain on others than in the past?  Sadly, I believe conflicts arising out of urbanization, a skyrocketing global population, and scarce resources – coupled with the arrival every year of new ways to maim and torture others – would signal otherwise. After all, it appears that humans also share enjoyment of schadenfreude, the pleasure in seeing others’ misfortune (apparently as much as a good meal). Similar to the way being in a group can magnify feelings of competitiveness, it can also augment satisfaction in seeing rivals fail. This enjoyment also carries a political twist: in one study, Democrats were found to be secretly happy when reading about the recession, thinking it might benefit the party at the next election. And the stronger the political identification, the stronger the sense of schadenfreude.

It seems, then, that we are hardwired both for empathy towards those in pain, and a delicious satisfaction with seeing it. Perhaps a communism of pain would therefore make us more sensitive to the suffering of others, but all the more likely to enjoy it.

(Note: Almost all of the articles linked to in this post were fascinating to read; I’d highly recommend perusing the ones on primates and schadenfreude in particular.)


Revisiting Posthumanism: Technology and Empathetic Fallacies

April 8, 2011

Empathy is a critical component of human interactions, and has been essential to our evolution as a social species. It lies at the root of our dominance over other species that do not share the collaboration mindset. Effective social interactions and behaviour modelling create group cohesion and action. And as the world becomes ever more urban and crowded, empathy is more important that ever. There is among some scientists a palpable fear that modern technology decreases empathy, lessening our intuitive social skills. But the potential for technology to actually increase empathetic feelings is immense — so can the use of technologies therefore make us more human?

An article in the New York Times this week queried the effect of facebook on relationships: does using facebook make people less inclined to invest in face-to-face contact? It may be too soon to tell, but a recent study has indicated that technology is still just the medium. Those inclined toward fulfilling relationships will use facebook as a tool to expand and deepen them. Those inclined to withdraw from society will use facebook to withdraw still further.

One insightful commenter disagreed, noting that his own studies have found that, among college-age students, empathy has been declining over 30 the past years, and markedly so over the last 10. His findings jived with a recent article in Scientific American on the same subject. The implication, of course, is that all that time at the keyboard, along with the general trend toward social isolation, reading less fiction for pleasure, and an uptick in the number of youth who describe themselves as conservative, has re-wired our brains in such a way that we can no longer relate as well to each other. Moreover, technology makes it easier for people to be exposed to only what they want to be exposed to, and only world views that align with their own – incomprehensible amounts of such one-sided content, in fact. Limiting exposure to those who think the same way is a choice increasingly made by those who can afford to do so.

But I can’t help but wonder if technology is, again, just the medium through which all of this plays out. Those who don’t want to encounter anyone who votes for a different political party or has a lesser socio-economic status and who consequently cloister themselves in a one-note Internet news digest, for example, are the same people who will live in a gated community in the real world, lessening empathy and social cohesion in that way.

And technology can also help empathy expand and grow in the real world. An honourary TED talk I watched recently showed a historical extension of empathy from individual to blood relatives, clans, nations, and even other species. The key is exposure, understanding, and a feeling of shared goals. Without the Internet, there would be a lot less exposure to and understanding of different cultures. Would the “jasmine revolutions” have spread so quickly without knowledge sharing between underemployed 20-somethings with Twitter accounts? Thomas Friedman thinks not, and also credits other technologically-reliant factors with helping to spur them on. Among these are widespread reporting of what corrupt officials were up to through Al Jazeera, the ability to see vas swaths of underutilized government-owned farmland via Google Earth, and an image of China on the rise from the Beijing Olympics.

As far as shared goals, technological interactions are in some places considered to set the standard for cooperation and teamwork. A recent Economist article argued that playing World of Warcraft or similar team-oriented role-playing games can increase engagement and skill-building, leading to greater success in the workplace. (Hey, it worked for the CIO of Starbucks.)

The narrative of the game may be key here. Writing in the Journal of Evolution & Technology, PJ Manney locates storytelling at the centre of empathy. Stories are compelling ways of showing how humans share the same desires, values, hopes, dreams, and fears, he says, and technology has always been important to diffuse stories between different cultures. As the evolution of technology has taken us from the printing press and the novel to instantaneous news and the explosion of opinions in blogs, storytelling has become more immediate, more prolific, and more visual. And, returning to the theme of post-humanism (or the near-synonym transhumanism, or “H+”, which Manney refers to), the future human that has made use of sensory technologies to the point of incorporating them into his or her make-up can be even more directly connected to others by literally experiencing the world as they do. Manney refers to this sensory augmentation as “a more effective connection with others, through a merging of thought or telepathic link or internalized instant messaging.” This is WoW with human-human interactions, instead of human-character role-playing.

Posthumanism/transhumanism is feared, as I wrote about in an earlier post, because some believe technological “enhancements” would create inherent inequalities among humans. Yet it is possible that technology could incite a great equalization of feeling and experience — and empathy.  In effect such changes would therefore make us better able to relate to each other, and in the end more human, not less so.