Monday, May 31, 2010

21st Century Society: The Empathy Deficit, Children & The Rise of Narcissism...

"A morality practiced without empathy squanders the conscience." -Howard Hall

College students who hit campus after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them, according to a stunning new meta-analysis presented to at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science by University of Michigan researchers. It includes data from over 14,000 students.

Although we argue in "Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential--and Endangered" that modern child-rearing practices are putting empathy at risk, this is the largest study presented so far to quantify the decline.

Previous research done by psychologist Jean Twenge had measured what she labeled a "narcissism epidemic," with more students showing selfish qualities and with increases in traits that can lead to a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. That is a condition in which people are so self-involved that other people are no more than objects to reflect their glory.

But I was less than convinced by that data because some of the measures of narcissism--statements like "I am a special person," might reflect a lifetime spent in classrooms aimed at raising self-esteem rather than a true increase in self-centeredness. The survey on empathy used in this study--which you can take for yourself: HERE however, is another matter.

While it so obviously measures empathy that you could easily game it to make yourself look kinder and nicer, the fact that today's college students don't even feel compelled to do that suggests that the study is measuring something real. If young people don't even care about seeming uncaring, something is seriously wrong. Another survey in the research found that people also think that others around them are less compassionate.

Why might today's students be less empathetic than their elders?

One of the culprits we identify in "Born for Love" is the way that they spent most of their time early in life. Today's kids play outdoors much less, and they spend far less time in unstructured activity with others than prior generations.

Without unstructured free time with playmates, children simply don't get to know each other very well. And you can't learn to connect and care if you don't practice these things. Free play declined by at least a third between 1981 and 2003, right when the kids who hit college in 2000 and later were growing up.

Worse, much of the time that used to be spent playing outdoors is now spent in front of screens. Television, obviously cannot teach empathy. Even nonviolent kids' TV, research finds, is filled with indirect aggression and linked to increased real-world bullying. Though social media is an improvement on passive TV viewing and can sometimes aid real friendships, it is still less rich than face to face interaction. This is especially important for the youngest children whose brains are absorbing social information that will shape the way they connect for the rest of their lives.

Another factor is the "self esteem movement" and its pernicious notion that "you can't love anyone else until you love yourself." Today's kids grew up with parents who were taught by therapists and self help groups attended by millions that caring too much for other people or having your happiness tied to theirs was "co dependence," and that people should be able to be happy on their own, needing no one.

In reality, we need each other to be both mentally and physically healthy. Solitary confinement, in fact, is one of the most stressful experiences someone can undergo: this wouldn't be true if most people were happy without social contact. Normal people kept in complete isolation can become psychotic in as little as a few days.

Further, unless you have been loved well from infancy, loving others is difficult--children who are resilient to early trauma are those who find others to care for them to make up for abusive or neglectful caregivers. If the only love they get is from a therapist or teacher who tells them to love themselves before trying to make other connections, they are extremely unlikely to recover.

Perhaps an even larger factor is the merging of the left's "do your own thing" individualism with the right's glorification of brutal competition and unfettered markets. You wind up with a society that teaches kids that "you're on your own" and that helping others is for suckers. A country where the mystical new age "Secret" is that the rich deserve their wealth and got it by being positive and good--while the poor, too, get what's coming to them because they didn't try hard enough.

At the same time, deregulation and reduced taxes on the wealthy from Reagan onwards produced massive growth in economic inequality, which is probably also a critical part of empathy's decline. Empathy requires an ability to understand others--it's easiest to do this when you spend time them regularly and know how to read them.

Economic inequality, however, by radically separating the rich from the poor and shrinking the middle class, literally physically isolates us from each other and provides few opportunities for connection or understanding. If you spend your time in limos and gated communities and first class, you aren't likely ever to meet poor people who aren't there to serve you; outside that context, you won't know how to relate to them.

And then, if you know nothing about someone's real situation, it's easy to caricature it as being defined by bad choices and laziness, rather than understand the constraints and limits the economy itself imposes. Seeing yourself doing so well and others doing poorly tends to bolster ideas that "you deserve your wealth," simply because guilt otherwise becomes uncomfortable, even unbearable.

In reality, self esteem doesn't come from thinking positive or telling yourself that you are special or worthy, though telling kids they are rotten and selfish can surely destroy it. And, sadly, you can be optimistic all you like in an economy with 20% unemployment and still not get a job through no fault of your own.

So what can be done about what President Obama as a candidate presciently labeled the "empathy deficit"?

The key thing is to recognize the value of relationships and the fact that we are not independent but interdependent. We all need each other. We're actually both happier and healthier if we're kind.

Countries with high economic inequality tend to have high crime, high corruption, low levels of trust, high infant mortality and lowered life expectancy-- as well as difficulty growing their economies. In contrast, those with lower inequality have higher happiness, greater health, lower crime, better growth and longer life.

And so, if, say, health care for all or better unemployment benefits or higher quality schools means that those lucky enough to have well-paying jobs have to pay higher taxes, well, is that really so terrible?

If we continue to believe that it is, if we continue to split into "us" v. "them," "haves" v. "have nots," the empathy decline will undoubtedly continue and we will face a meaner, nastier world in which ideas about humans being selfish and competitive rather than caring become a self fulfilling prophecy by crushing the tendency toward kindness with which we are all born.

CREDITS: -Maia Szalavitz, ("Shocker: Empathy Dropped 40% in College Students Since 2000", Psychology Today, 5.28.2010. Image:- LitteredGlass, "Children Playing Marbles, Flickr, 1970).

Thursday, May 27, 2010

THE GOD OF WAR: "Not With A Bang But A Wimper...

THE GOD OF WAR doesn't dine on raw shank bone or bellow orders quite like he used to. When he talks to Congress, it goes more like this:

"And, oh, while you're up, I'm going to be needing, uh. . . $159 billion this go-around, you know, for the troops. Thanks."

It works.

With the war on terror in its 9th year and disappearing from even the pretense of national debate, let alone outrage and protest, and with the President of Hope prosecuting it so quietly most of us no longer notice, we could be at an eerie national transition point, beyond which war is no longer controversial or a big deal but just the way things are: "normal," like background noise. And the enormous transfusions of cash it requires - well, nice people don't talk about it.

Oh Lord.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Then along comes Alan Grayson freshman congressman from Florida, who has some fresh ideas about how to forestall this Orwellian transition. He introduced one of these ideas in the House last week. It's called H.R. 5353: The War Is Making You Poor Act. It's steeped stunningly in common sense and common knowledge, appeals in a blatant, teabagger sort of way to self-interest and everyman's taxation phobia - and strikes me as the focal point, almost Gandhiesque in the clarity of its outrage, of a reborn movement to end our wars in Asia and halt the spread of American hubris.

"The purpose of this bill is to connect the dots, and to show people in a real and concrete way the cost of these endless wars," Grayson wrote. "War is a permanent feature of our societal landscape, so much so that no one notices it anymore."

H.R. 5353 directly addresses the war's current "emergency" spending bill, which is about to come up for a vote and will - of course! of course! - pass as usual, with little debate, with perfunctory media mention. The current White House request, part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2011, is for $159.3 billion.

The War Is Making You Poor Act plucks that number out of anonymity and screams, "Wait a second!" This is an enormous amount of money, almost beyond calculation, and we must not make a decision about it transfixed in financial numbness.

The bill mandates that our operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan be funded out of the regular Department of Defense budget, which in 2011 is $549 billion. The $159.3 billion in special funds would be used instead to eliminate the federal tax on every American's first $35,000 of income (or $70,000 for married couples). And that still leaves $16 billion for paying down the national debt.

Yeah, I know, it's crazy. You can't mess with the system like this. The War God's funding machine grinds with bipartisan inevitability. I've watched the process over the years in mounting despair. Our elected reps are, at best, helplessly polite in the face of this inevitability. Dissent is token. We're on a permanent war footing in this country and will be till hell freezes over. Thus it is written. Read the New York Times.

Grayson's bill comes from so far outside the Beltway consensus I felt instant enthusiasm for it. My guess is that others will, too. Within a few days of the bill's introduction, nearly 24,000 people had signed the congressman's online petition endorsing it. For starters, I'd like to see that number hit six figures. Why not seven?

The bill right now has seven co-sponsors: Dennis Kucinich, Lynn Woolsey, John Conyers, Barbara Lee, Bob Filner and two Republican mavericks, Ron Paul and Walter Jones. Call your rep and urge him or her to support it as well. This is the only way it's going to happen, folks - we have to make our numbers felt on Capitol Hill. We have to break the unwritten rules that make even honest debate over these hellish wars impermissible.

Mainstream coverage of Grayson's bill has been skimpy and dismissive. The big news outlets crossed over long ago into Orwell's nightmare and, at their privileged remove, fully embrace it. As Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald notes: "The decree that we are ‘at war' has been repeated over and over for a full decade, drummed into our heads from all directions without pause, sanctified as one of those Bipartisan Orthodoxies that nobody can dispute upon pain of having one's Seriousness credentials immediately and irrevocably revoked."

I submit that it's time to reclaim our country - $159 billion at a time.

-Robert C. Koehler, "Stopping Orwell's Nightmare",, 5.27.2010. Image: "The Monolith" from "2001: A Space Odyssey," directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1968 ).

Monday, May 10, 2010

THE PATRIOT GAME: America's Perceived Invulnerability Is Gone Forever....

"With Faisal Shahzad's failed plot, we got lucky. Again. But sooner or later, our luck is going to run out.

Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old Pakistani-American charged with attempting to blow up a carload of explosives in Times Square, is the latest of many 9/11-II hopefuls. He left a trail of clues about his intentions, many missed by those charged with keeping America safe and secure.

He bought the car with cash, spent five months in Pakistan (probably for terrorist training) and reentered the States without inquiry. Headlines naively ponder whether he is part of an "international plot." This is like wondering if the oil spill in the Gulf is related to offshore drilling.

Shahzad is -- formally or informally -- tied to millions who hate America for what they see as military aggression and religious bigotry. They want to destroy the U.S., city by city, bridge by bridge, tunnel by tunnel. And they will do whatever it takes: kill our children, destroy our physical, economic and technological infrastructure, poison our food/water supplies -- anything.

Just remember:
  • On Jan. 4, an unidentified and unauthorized man was seen returning from a secure area at Newark Liberty Airport into the public area. All passengers in the secure area were rescreened. Delays of flights lasted more than six hours. The man who caused the alarm disappeared.
  • On April 8, LAX flights were delayed when a man selected for secondary screening grabbed his bag and vanished into the terminal.
  • On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a plane he intended to destroy after his father warned U.S. officials, and after paying $2,800 cash for airfare. He never made the no-fly list.
  • On Jan. 7, New York Post reporter Lorena Mongelli, testing metal detectors that failed to recognize a passenger's 14-inch titanium hip replacement, took an 8-inch rod of titanium (used in knives, guns and brass knuckles) through security at Terminal 7 at JFK -- twice
More chilling is the alarm sounded in February by CIA chief Leon Panetta, who told the Senate Intelligence Committee that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil is inevitable. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked if the next attack might come within six months: Panetta and the other intelligence officials with him agreed with Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who called such a timeframe "certain."

America needs to face this reality. No agency or individual can permanently halt the boundless opportunities for successful attacks that today's technology provides. Experts say we were fortunate to thwart several close calls, but every gambler knows luck doesn't last forever.

Our vulnerabilities, like our enemies, take many forms. Radicalized Muslims, enraged by a American disrespect for Islam, by U.S. foreign policy, and by wars and occupations in their homelands, are now most likely to blow up our dreams. But they are not alone: They have the support (and sometimes sympathy) of those who hate the U.S. for other reasons.

In 2009, Pew researchers counted 1.57 billion Muslims in 200 countries -- 23 percent of the world's population, mainly in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, a short 10- to 15-hour flight from New York or Los Angeles. If only a tiny fraction of them become radicalized against the United States, it could spell serious trouble.

Americans, so many of them focused on being a "Christian" country and wrapped in their flag, are often blind to their country's image in the world. Enormous foreign debt threatens to destroy our economy and sovereignty; the World Health Organization ranks the U.S. healthcare system at 37th in the world -- behind Saudi Arabia (26th), Morocco (29th) and even Colombia (22nd) -- and security in U.S. airports is worse than in Israel, Canada or India. Still, Americans speak of U.S. "superiority" and reject that their country could be flawed and hated.

But today's playing field has been leveled by technology, and no amount of patriotism will restore U.S. invulnerability. It's gone forever, if it ever existed. America's survival depends on its willingness to accept the world as it is now, reject xenophobia and develop foreign policies that rein in extremists worldwide while returning the U.S. to a position of global respect, rather than disdain."

-Mary Ann Sorrentino ( EXCERPT: “In This Era, "Homeland Security" is an Oxymoron,”, 5.6.2010. Image: -Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, (A Humbler) "Captain America," Created in 1941 during WWII, Captain America served as an effective propaganda tool).