“Why should we care about each other?”
No one answered.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to answer, we simply struggled to find the best reasoning for it. Perhaps we had never asked ourselves these existential questions before. Perhaps we couldn’t find an answer that wasn’t trite, naïve, or saturated with religious zeal. Perhaps there was actually no acceptable logical explanation at all. At any case, we couldn’t even figure it out for ourselves in our own terms, not in that instant.
Professor B. grew increasingly frustrated with the college Postmodern Criticism class. He paced the room as he poised these questions to us, a rising urgency in his manner, then he came to a stop beside a male student seated in the front. Abruptly, he put his hands around the young man’s neck. He tightened his grip and throttled him slightly. All eyes in the room widened and there were a few gasps, but we were more surprised than frightened. It was clear by the student’s nervous chuckling that B. was only pretending to choke him. The young man was large and muscular, more than double his size, he could easily knock the old man out if he wanted to, but the professor remained fearless and intent.
“Why should I stop hurting this man?!” B. demanded.
“We shouldn’t have to depend on each other,” a young woman answered brusquely, “The point is to empower people so that we don’t have to rely on each other.” Her words seemed cold and brutal. As harsh as that tenet of evolution “survival of the fittest” applied to human society: Proliferation for the strong, extinction for the weak.
“Religion,” another student answered, “Do unto others.” His voice wavered slightly, as if he hardly believed it himself, he didn’t bother to complete the phrase. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The golden rule, preached by nearly every major religion and every wise leader since time immemorial. A universal rule universally disregarded.
“That’s all we have?!” B. said exasperatedly. He released the student’s neck and gave him a pat on the back.
He could choke you back, I thought.He could choke you back. Perhaps not now, perhaps you are stronger than him now, but one day you will get sick, like everyone else, you will eventually become weak. Then he will take advantage of you as you did him. You will be at his mercy.
But I didn’t have the nerve to say it out loud. It struck me as a frustratingly self-serving logic. The idea of bolstering egocentric motivations instead of knocking them down seems essentially corrupt. We don’t love someone only because they love us. We don’t do the “right” thing because we are afraid of being punished otherwise; we say we made the right choice on our own. And no real heroes want to be applauded for the great things they do for themselves. Sacrifice would be insignificant if it didn’t involve an enormous amount of selflessness.
Professor B.’s question remained with me long after the class. Even now, many years later, I keep circling back to it. Why should we care about each other? It disturbs me now, even more than it did then, that most of us did not have an answer for him. And it seems we are not any closer to having an answer now amidst our current global challenges: the growing migrant crisis, the troubling rise of extremist, fascist, and populist groups, the far-reaching impact of economic and environmental catastrophes. The multitudes of problems we have understanding one another and crossing vast divides from the racial, cultural and sexual to the financial, religious and political.
Perhaps we would not have such persistent problems if we were more preoccupied with being empathetic and compassionate than with being wealthy, powerful or famous. Just mentioning the words empathy and compassion now can incite a barrage of hateful commentary against “political correctness” and “snowflake liberalism”. The current political rhetoric has effectively turned these terms into zero sum games: Either you love your country or you don’t. If you care about refugees and illegal immigrants then you must not care about your own people. Rigidly nationalistic stances make empathy and compassion seem like dangerous weaknesses and a subservience to needy “barbarian” hordes at the cost of one’s own nation and laws. While more liberal arguments tend to make empathy and compassion seem like exclusive characteristics the other side does not possess.
Admittedly, I have grown to dislike certain connotations of the terms: That the poor or disadvantaged want or need pity. Or when the self-righteous exploit their own “tremendous” capacity for empathy and compassion for their own aggrandizement (this concerns all political persuasions). This is glaringly apparent when they are quick to heap praise on their idols, berate anyone who opposes them, and diminish people who do not share their backgrounds.
If empathy and compassion have become passé in these highly divisive times. If harshness is the reactionary swing of the pendulum to the supposed “propaganda” of pc culture, then severity in balance can still bring us to a fair understanding of each other. But who is willing to observe themselves with the same harsh lens they use to scrutinize the “others”?
If they did they would find that they actually have many things in common with the people they hate or exclude. There is not a single person among us who is perfect. We all have weaknesses. We are all dependent on others in some way. No one exists in a vacuum. No one is truly independent. We can choose to see the best in people or the worst, either way we would have plenty of examples, but a leader who chooses to see the best in everyone would not bring out the worst in some.
From the most rational perspective, B.’s dramatic example of choking the student was not just an injury to the young man, a blatant disregard for another person’s life, rights and emotional well-being, it was just that, an example for the rest of us. It stipulated a new rule: B. could do whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted without retribution.
What if we applied this rule to ourselves? We could copy his example, in which case, inevitably (as it always does) crime and chaos would ensue. Then perhaps B. would panic and try to reign us in by amending the rule he created (purposely or unwittingly): “He and a select few were exempt from the consequences.” We could either support his actions on account of his being “special or superior” (whatever that means) or see the whole thing as the unfair power dynamic that it is.
“Why should we care about each other?”
Are we not, each and every one of us, alive for the very fact that someone cared for us when we were completely helpless? Someone took care of us when we were at our most vulnerable as infants. If we were lucky it was someone who loved us “unconditionally”. And we will, each and every one of us, inevitably return to that vulnerability again in sickness or old age. All of us should make every effort at an answer even if the logic might be weak, after all, empathy and compassion are associated with the heart not with the intellect.
Amidst our bitter turmoil and intractable divisions, it often feels like the universe is gripping us by the neck and tightening its grip. There is no way of knowing if it is benevolent or indifferent, if it is trying to teach us a valuable lesson or allowing us to act out every vile thing we can conceive of. It seems there is nothing to stop us but ourselves. But we don’t know how resilient the earth can continue to be, if it can survive our constant missteps and repetitions of history, we may be running out of time. What’s your answer?
Text and images by M.P. Baecker.