Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Atlas Syndrome of Today’s Citizens

It is not uncommon that a child feels that he must substitute for another. One boy tries to be the older brother who had been so promising, but who had died. A girl tries to be the boy that her father really wanted. These substitutions invariably complicate and often stint the development of children. Children may be even worse off when they have to substitute for a parent. A boy fills the role of the absent father, or a girl fills the role of the deceased mother. Such roles make young people grow up quickly, but at a terrible price. Becoming the breadwinner or head of the family at an early age offers the prototypical source of an Atlas syndrome.
Imagine that it is late in the evening, and we are walking through the slums of Birmingham, England, somewhere around 1845. The streets are squalid, the shacks infested with mice and rats, the stench staggering. In one shed the stench may be just a shade stronger. If we enter the door, we are in the living room annex kitchen annex sleeping room. Through the back door we see a yard in which we can just turn around. The smell of urine and feces pervades everything. A girl of about twelve tries to comfort three younger children who are crying for some reason, possibly hunger. The girl’s father has just entered and with a vacant look sits behind a cold stove and complains about the dark. He has a bad cough. The mother is long dead. The girl cannot remember her clearly.
Move forward two years. In what kind of state will we find the girl? After carrying her world for these two more years, probably she is no longer healthy, and surely she is not attractive. Most likely she works in a factory now, and her ten-year-old brother has to run the family. The father is slowly dying. The Salvation Army, if it could enter this picture, would provide a rescue more rewarding than the U.S. cavalry saving some last good people from a tight spot. But there is no Salvation Army. Not yet.
In modern welfare societies, such naked overburdening, such a prototypical Atlas syndrome, has become rare, but in many places around the world it is still present today. Slums and shanty towns continue to mushroom in huge Third World cities. In the rich, industrialized countries this sort of Atlas situation has disappeared. But a different situation has grown, one that is less crude, less tangible, but just as pervasive.
How do newspaper and television reporting affect us every day? First, we see and hear about social, economic and political problems on an unprecedented scale. Much of the news is bleak, even if we skip the obituaries. Our field of cognition has widened immensely but our field of action has not. Ignoring problems has also become more difficult, because much information contains explicit or implicit appeals for action. We may feel guilty if we do not respond.
Aaron Wildavsky has drawn the ethos of modern, aware and responsive citizens to its logical conclusion:

‘Imagine the family life of Mr. and Mrs. Model Citizen, who obey all the commands about participation. Monday and Tuesday nights they attend meetings of the local sewer-service board because it is clear that without adequate sanitation the community cannot exist. Wednesday and Thursday evenings are spent dealing with police problems; public safety, after all, is essential for the good life. Fridays are reserved for pollution, so threatening to our way of life. Saturdays go to mental health, because if people don’t think straight they cannot do anything else. Caucuses on lack of participation usually happen on Sunday. The week has left Mr. and Mrs. Model Citizen deeply unsatisfied, of course, because they have had to stand by while the Middle East deteriorates, national forests are cut down, and the United Nations withers away. The next week promises to be equally hectic as mother rushes off to a meeting of the Council on Juvenile Delinquency. She had failed to notice that her daughter had not been home for two days and had just been caught in a drug raid. Father was to be absent from work again, because no moral man could afford to miss the meeting at which the Welfare Council decides how to deal with indigent families. The Geratsco Fertilizer Company, however - callously indifferent to Mr. Model Citizen’s public service - insists that he pay more attention to his job or consider joining the unemployment rolls himself. Father had planned to take his son on a hike, but there was too much to be done to preserve the ecological balance of his region; left to himself, the boy starts running around with a juvenile gang and gets picked up for burglary. With both children in jail, Mother and Father Model Citizen console themselves with the thought that now they will have more time (and incentive) to spend on problems of penal institutions.’

We know more about present challenges, but their sheer number is overwhelming. The solutions offered to address these challenges are mostly advertised in the way that detergents were advertised in the fifties: they all wash the world whiter. If we look more closely, we find that many proposed solutions are doing less than detergents could do. Solutions that contain ‘activist’ ingredients expose the blackness and grayness, the dirt and the stains, rather than clean them. Apparently such activists assume that if such problems are exposed fiercely, these problems will shame themselves away.
Even if the tools that are offered could satisfy us, we still cannot bite off more than we can chew. What is the sense of contributing a minuscule particle? Even if we were convinced that our tiniest contribution would be worthwhile, we still are not stimulated by our daily intake of news.
All of this is true not only in reference to the media, but also for much of the information we get from education and the arts. Children at primary school learn to feel guilty because children in other countries starve as victims of our own ruthless, egotistical society. Bad forces in the world are responsible for such problems. In former times we could blame colonialism, while more recently we blamed multinationals.
When I asked one of my children to describe what he thought company directors looked like, he told me that such people were fat, smoked cigars, were very rich but underpaid their employees, were ruthlessly destroying nature to fill their own pockets, and exploited poor people in the Third World by paying low wages and low prices. I felt a bit unsettled by this description because the two first characteristics were true for myself as well. Thus far I have had no chance to exhibit the other vices.
News that offers us a sense of satisfaction or meaning, or news that stimulates us, is rare. I remember the first landing of men on the moon, the unexpected visit of Anwar Sadat to Israel, the fall of the Berlin Wall. More often, however, the news spawns frustration, indignation, or tension - that is, if we have not yet grown bored, indifferent or cynical.
The incessant stream of global problems makes us doubt our significance as individuals. Each of us feels insignificant in that huge ant hill of humanity on this planet. The broader our view, the smaller we see ourselves as individuals. While such a feeling is fed not only by the media, it can also come from the sight of great multitudes in stadiums or during mass meetings at huge public squares. A comparable feeling may overcome us as we land at an airport close to a metropolis such as London or São Paulo.
Some truths are so simple that we seldom think of them. When we dramatically, unexpectedly lose someone near, we remember that people die. When we nearly suffocate we remember that we need air. When for the first time we are surrounded by people who are all of another race, we remember what race we are. When we are lost in a huge crowd, we remember being one of the very many. The world is big and its problems are huge.

The Idea of a Better Society
An Atlas syndrome of citizens responsible for their own society cannot develop among fatalists. The Atlas syndrome is a modern feeling. It can grow only when we are convinced that we can engineer society, that we can develop and improve it, and that this is what we should do.
Fatalism - the idea that the state of our society is not our responsibility, but our fate - manifests in three attitudes. The first is that nothing can be done to improve society: there will always be the same problems; human nature is imperfect and cannot be changed. The second attitude is that this world simply is not meant to be improved or is not worth improving. This view contends that we should be satisfied with the world hereafter, that this life is only a test case, a training ground or banishment for some sin in the distant past. The third attitude is that the Lord, or people chosen by Him, will take care of the world.
In medieval times fatalism dominated, as it still does in many parts of the world. Cathedrals, the most beautiful products of the Middle Ages, are great and impressive pointers to the life hereafter. Still, many social and economic improvements were made in response to the immediate needs and practical ambitions of people.
The first important prelude to modern society was the projection of an ideal society. This ideal society would exist not in the hereafter, but in this world, be it in fairytale location: in the distant past, the distant future, or distant and unknown countries. This utopia became one of the most consequential social inventions ever made.
The Thomas Edison of this invention was Thomas More, who in the year 1516 wrote Utopia (6) and gave the genre its trade name. His ideal society appeared as a pinnacle of both Christian and classical virtues. Its obvious inspiration was Plato, who used the description of the ideal state to motivate and teach citizens of his time. Utopia is a product of humanism, a true renaissance of the classics. In the beginning of the 1600’s, writing utopias became fashionable, possibly in response to the fierce social and religious strife of the times.
The sting hidden in utopias is that we have to explain why this ideal state of affairs does not yet exist. This sting is even its raison d’être. Utopias are scorpional. Thus, designers will find reasons: lack of Christian virtues, irresponsible and incompetent leaders (then princes and priests, nowadays industrialists, bankers and politicians), illiteracy, exploitation.
A farewell to fatalism carries a high price in the form of guilt, blame and feelings of general insufficiency. The best way to deal with this cost is to pass the buck, which means scapegoating. Since scapegoats, be they circumstances or people, have the nasty habit of not dispelling themselves upon the sheer act of exposure, in the end the problem returns. We ourselves have to do something to dispel the countervailing powers that be. We have to change the world, and as long that world is not yet changing, we have to carry it.
Therefore, the return of utopia in 1516 gives us the first step toward today’s Atlas syndrome. The last and thus far the most powerful utopia, the classless society of Karl Marx, has long been a challenge of our time. But the end of communism is not the end of utopias. New ones will follow.
The second step toward the modern condition, and possibly the most important single root of modern Western society, is the rise of deism, a more benevolent variety of religion that emerged during the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. In the deistic view, God becomes less a terrible judge of the unfaithful and more the benign creator of the universe. With the emergence of deism, priests began preaching less about the ovens of hell and more about the beauty of nature. Deism offered a truly great step forward in civilization, although it has also led to extremes of sentimentality.
This change toward deism occurred both with the coming of modern science, and with the return of another return of another symbol of civilized society - the gentleman, or in the original expression of the French variety that preceded him, le gentilhomme. We refer to this symbol as returning because here also the classics had preceded us, as had the medieval ideal of chivalry, born from the 11th-century renaissance in the Languedoc area of France.
The most perfect description and manifestation of a gentleman, however, could be found in China. The original Confucianism is purely a gentleman’s religion (7). The Confucian idea of Kung-Tzu serves as the prototype of the gentleman, a true man of the world, being an attentive host to all other people who are not yet there where he is - in a state of civilization. Modern forms of humanistic creeds also relate to classic ideas such as humanitas, the Roman version of Confucianism.
The coming of the gentleman corresponds to a more gentlemanly version of God, and a vision of society that is both critical and benevolent. This vision holds that society should be improved toward more civilization, toward more humanity. It should and it could, and it would. The only things necessary are a more liberal, a more gentlemanly arrangement of society, and plenty of liberal education.
William Penn, after hearing a woman accused of witchcraft and of riding the night air on a broomstick, asked her if this accusation were true. When she acknowledged that it was, he ruled that there was no law against traveling on broomsticks and, as she had disturbed nobody’s night rest, he acquitted her. This is a good story, whether it is true or not, because it illustrates nicely the modern Confucian spirit of the Enlightenment, as we now call this spirit of that time.
An important theme of the Enlightenment, a theme famously exposed by Jean-Jaques Rousseau in Le contrat social (8), is that society is originally based on rational and humane grounds. We do not need to establish the kingdom of light against the forces of evil, but we need only to rediscover our own natural origins. The Enlightenment knew both revolutionary and easygoing, gradual representatives, France having more of the first kind and England more of the second.
Optimism and pessimism foster progressive and conservative political inclinations. These inclinations exist separately from those progressive and conservative tendencies that originate in judgment about the present state of society, and in personal positions and interests. The major result of the Enlightenment was to strengthen the utopian element, but to do so in a way that could be less absolutist, less theocratic and less prescribed; more benign, more defined in terms of humane conditions and relationships, more gentlemanly. Even if there is no ideal society, it is possible to create or recreate a much better society, one that is well-ordered, civilized, in accord with natural human dignity.

Feeling Compassion
The gentleman’s idea of humanity recognizes that many people are not yet civilized. Many people are weak, narrow-minded, selfish, lazy, mean, unreliable, criminal or cruel. Each civilized society knows barbarians. The word ‘barbarian’ stems from the Greek, meaning ‘non-Greek’, not participating in the enlightenment and refinement of Greek culture. This sort of differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was common. Similarly, the Hebrew commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ forbade only the killing of fellow Israelites.
So called ‘barbarians’ exist most conspicuously outside of the geographical borders of civilized society, but they are also present inside. It is very easy to view such people as less human, or even inhuman. Those who maintain such a view may find it very difficult, and even dangerous, to act civilized toward barbarians. Confronted with barbarism or with inhumanity, we have to respond. The easiest response is to consider those wretched beings as less human or inhuman, and exclude them from civilized and humane intercourse and treatment. The Roman idea of humanitas might encompass considerate treatment of slaves, but it would also encompass such treatment of domestic animals, not implying in any sense that slaves or cattle would themselves be partaking in humanitas.
It is not too farfetched to define progress in civilization as progress in viewing other human beings as human beings. This definition would mean that the main steps from barbarism to civilization are steps in empathy, in recognizing other people as fellow human beings. The ultimate test for social empathy is that of compassion, the ability to grieve for other people’s suffering and rejoice in their prosperity. The great forces of barbarism, forces that are also present in the midst of a fairly civilized society (ours, for example), therefore are the emotions that destroy compassion. These destructive emotions are fear, anger, hate, contempt and envy.
Only a few centuries ago, people went to see hangings, burnings, beheadings, and quarterings, and took the children with them on these family outings. With the rise of tolerance and humanity at the end of the 17th century, gradually the Inquisition and witchcraft trials stopped and torture diminished - at least within civilized society. But this move toward tolerance did not generally encompass slaves or the aborigines in the colonies.
The abolition of slavery became essentially a transition away from seeing slaves as hardly human, as lacking human dignity and true human passions. The revised view allowed them to be seen as to equal or at least similar to whites in those respects. An important message of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which must make the book unreadable for blacks, was that Negroes had noble feelings too, even true Christian feelings. Apparently this was an eye-opening notion for many people of that time. It remains amazing to what length people can go in keeping their eyes closed.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers an example of something we take for granted today, but something that was once a very important social invention - the novel. The novel has been and still serves as a major stepping stone toward more empathy, and thus toward civilization. It has been a social invention even more powerful than the concept of utopia.
In 1740 Samuel Richardson published Pamela. This book was revolutionary in that it described the feelings of the heroine. While reading, people could identify with the inner feelings of someone else. How strange, how utterly confounding, how delightful! Many people must have found this change as perverse as other people a century later found the steam locomotive. Another example of one of the earliest novels was Das Leiden des jungen Werthers, which made Goethe famous through Europe.
We are discussing here the evolution of the Romantic period, the younger sister of the Enlightenment. We tend to look at the Romantic period as a period of sentimentalism. This view is mainly a distortion. Just as the Enlightenment overstretched itself during the 19th century in positivistic system-building (think of Auguste Comte and of course of Karl Marx), Romanticism overstretched itself in Biedermeier and Victorian sentimentality.
Our present age is one that is strongly opposed to discrimination. Empathy and understanding of fellow human beings are expected to extend to murderers, rapists, drug addicts and other depraved people. Often, victims receive less interest and attention than do the offenders, although this tendency now appears to be in decline. The accepting attitude of many people toward slavery, an attitude common just over a century ago, has become incomprehensible to most of us. We look upon slave owners, especially the more brutal ones, as we would look upon Nazis. They are demons, which means that they are inhuman.
It seems that when we stretch our empathy in some directions, we run short of it in other directions. The paradox is that we lack empathy and understanding for people who apparently do not share our humane values, and therefore we consider these people to be barbarians. But by considering other people as barbarians we may reveal a streak of barbarism in ourselves. When King William entered his English palaces, being a sensitive Dutch, he ordered that dogs would no longer be permitted to defecate freely in the palace rooms. We can hardly imagine that the great Louis XIV held audience while relieving himself.
Maybe we would appreciate our cultural myopia better if we would stop to consider which of our own activities future generations might find unbelievable. Maybe two centuries from now our practice of wholesale breeding and slaughtering of mammals will be the shocking story told in classrooms. The fact that people used to prepare and eat animal corpses may be as appalling to these future students as stories of cannibalism or slave torture are to us today. Letting our dogs defecate freely on the streets may become as incomprehensible to future generations as it is to us that the same was done on palace floors in the past. The attitudes toward wearing fur, or beating seals to death, or killing off dolphins and whales, are already quite different from those held a century ago.
We are still extending our empathy. Our former attitude toward slaves is similar to our present attitude toward our evolutionary cousins, the mammals. Apart from slaughtering and eating them (something even the Nazis did not do with their human victims), many people even doubt that mammals have feelings (although few will suppose they have Christian feelings). Humanity in this case would not mean seeing mammals as human, but recognizing enough relationship to warrant consideration, and making the habit of eating them barbaric. There are, however, science fiction stories that pose cannibalism as part of a very refined, fraternal culture (9), so butcher shops may stay in business after all.
Still, a tremendous difference exists between people who are cruel and mindless to animals, and those who care. As in the time of slavery, those who care are often viewed as sentimental. For example, an Englishman traveling in France and Italy around 1900 wondered why people there were so harsh to animals. He concluded that it was not out of cruelty, but from lack of empathy (10).
The growth of empathy is the major civilizing influence of the Romantic period. Growth in empathy means growth in humanity. It is a less Confucian, more emotional, experiential way of becoming more gentle.
Although we should be glad that civilization has grown tremendously during the last centuries (no more infants sold, only to mutilate them and send them begging; no more family parties to watch crooks or slaves or heretics get tortured to death), we should not indulge in the ‘reverse ecological fallacy’ (11). That is, we should not equate the relative barbaric customs of former times and other cultures, with individuals who have barbaric minds. Such a practice would mean in a sense a ‘reverse barbarism’. A true gentleman, though discouraging or fighting barbarisms, does not blame others for behaving barbarically, because he recognizes barbaric tendencies in himself. As many ladies have learned, possibly both to their distress and their enjoyment: ‘a gentleman is a wolf who can wait’.
Civilization is a characteristic both of societies and of individuals. Thus we will find in each society, with whatever degree of civilization, less civilized and more civilized people. Just as a civilized society has many people who are rather barbaric, either below the surface or outright, barbaric societies also have civilized individuals, either below the surface or outright. Arnold Toynbee has painted these facts in stark tones (12):

‘But if there have been a few transfigured men and women, there has never been such a thing as a civilized society. Civilization, as we know it, is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbour. No known civilization has ever reached the goal of civilization yet … In the least uncivilized society at its least uncivilized moment, the vast majority of its members have remained very near indeed to the primitive human level.’

This view does not need to make us pessimists, because it also means that in any society there will be civilized individuals who will fight and transform barbarism, though often at great cost to themselves. In terms of Toynbee, there is no advance without creative individuals willing and able to suffer. Civilization may be the main producer of civilized minds, but civilized minds are the only producers of civilization.
Cultures differ in their level of humanitas, civilization. There are many ways to be considerate, and our own ways are not better than those of others, but each culture has many practices that are humane or inhumane. We may understand clitoridectomy (cutting out the clitoris) from its historical roots and appreciate that this practice is part of a culture. But we may still try to eradicate it. Being considerate means only that we should not ascribe personal barbaric qualities to the practitioners. We could do that only to people in our culture who would practice it. ‘Reversed ecological fallacy’, ascribing to individuals traits that are really collective traits, is so common that we seldom recognize it.
What does all this mean for the Atlas syndrome? First, it influences our idea of civilization, and thus the kind of responsibilities we may feel. Secondly, progression in empathy, and thus in humanity and civilization, increases our field of worthwhile action, worthwhile improvement, because it encompasses more people. We can feel sorry and to a certain extent responsible for people at the other end of the globe. Our idea of civilized society is enlarged, and so our task becomes larger. The Atlas syndrome is as much a child of Romanticism as of the Enlightenment.

This is from Chapter 1 from my book on the ten global challenges: Humanity, Civilization ans Politics. It can be read as e-book. See: 

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