Friday, June 23, 2017

Cultivated Callousness: Is This What We Want?

Philando Castile

The problem with our contemporary culture isn’t that people can often be callous and irrational.  That’s our lot as imperfect creatures.  The problem is that we seem to have given up the idea that we can do any better. 

In fact, being callous toward others seems to be increasingly worn as a badge of honor.  It can be a form of powerful moral grandstanding to be callous toward a particular group of others.  Even our entertainment often celebrates individuals who obtain what they want through callousness to everyone else.

Many white Americans have a cultivated callousness toward black Americans, demonstrated most recently after the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castile.  Although this case also has to do with structural legal issues that make it almost impossible to convict police officers, I see no sense in denying that responses would be different had Castile been white, especially from white Americans who say things like, "He didn't comply!" (with the implication that he thereby deserved to die) or the NRA's near silence in a case that ought to be a rallying cry for Second Amendment defenders. 

People cultivate geographical callousness: blue states vs. red states, north vs. south, urban vs. rural vs. suburban, America vs. the rest of the world.  There’s socio-economic callousness: rich vs. middle class vs. working class, everybody vs. the poor.  And of course some people seem determined to become deliberately callous toward GLBTQIA+ people, immigrants, disabled people, people of various religions, ethnicities, genders, educational levels, body types, attractiveness, accents, and so on.  People can even become callous toward those who don't share their entertainment preferences.

In 2016 political callousness seemed to become the standard, even toward those with whom we have relatively minor disagreements.  Even trying to understand each other without agreeing became impossible for many of us.  We’ve retreated to pre-vetted social media circles, where our cultivation of callousness proceeds untainted by contact with the other, emerging only for the occasional shouting match disguised as conversation.

It's as if we've forgotten the humanity of others, and in doing so, our own.

I’m not trying to be judgmental here.  I’m not even excluding myself.  Nor am I aiming for a false equivalency - I think the right has generally cultivated callousness more effectively than the left, but there's an alarming amount of it on the left, too (listen to the way many on the left smugly denigrate Trump supporters or entire states or regions).  

I don’t mean to engage in moralizing condemnation. This usually doesn’t work, and it works even less today, as moralizing condemnation often encourages the object of condemnation to dig in and double down as an act of defiance.  Indeed, I wonder how much of our political discourse today is fueled more by willful defiance than policies born of honest reflection.

Rather my point is to ask: Is this really where we want to go?

As a philosophy professor, part of my job is to encourage people to think.  And that’s what I’m trying to do here (I emphasize trying; as a friend of mine used to say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it think!”).

Where do we think we’re going with all this?  What kind of future are we making?

I don’t know how to answer these questions.  I don’t know if I have any better alternatives. Maybe we’re too far gone already.

But I wish we could take a time out from our shouting matches, step out of our echo chambers, and stop to think for a minute.  Is this really what we want?