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If there were any remaining doubts, the behavior of a large sector of our population toward their fellow citizens under the ravages of COVID-19 confirms that our culture is empathy-impaired, even bordering on the psychopathic. The widespread, willful refusal to wear masks and social distance confirms that, indeed, the United States is “exceptional.” We inhabit the most exceptionally selfish, callous and indifferent society on the face of the earth.
We have reached the point were large sectors of the population implicitly accept that the muting of empathic impulses is simply the human condition. Society, as such, doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense and to act as if “the common interest” exists is not only futile and irrational but risks being an object of ridicule.Our culture of rugged individualism has privatized the idea of caring and minimized the emotional needs of others. It allows for individual expressions of concern but brackets off any notion of social empathy. This exemplifies what sociologists term “feeling rules” that are shaped by ideology and class and include the idea that thinking only about oneself is just “common sense.” We know that a chief function of the capitalist state and its minions is to desensitize the public’s empathic capacity; eliminate any notion of the “collective good;” and foster the belief that one “gets ahead” only through the pursuit of “rational self-interest.”
This is facilitated by the neuronal plasticity of the brain which is culture-ready organ. Although all brains are essentially the same, repeated cultural practices result in significantly different notions of the “self” and how emotions are regulated. Over time, older working class values like solidarity and collective aspirations were destroyed, along with eradicating all thoughts in people’s heads that cooperative action can improve their lives.
However, it’s a mistake to privilege culture as the determining factor, as the explanation for our situation. Empathy or the lack thereof doesn’t occur in a vacuum and our culture is the legacy of the capitalist system’s ideology of unfettered greed and commodification of everything — even morals. That is, cultural explanations are faulty because, as Michael Parenti has made clear, cultural explanations are closer to tautologies than to explanations.
Our culture of rugged individualism has privatized the idea of caring and minimized the emotional needs of others. It allows for individual expressions of concern but brackets off any notion of social empathy. This exemplifies what sociologists term “feeling rules” that are shaped by ideology and class and include the idea that thinking only about oneself is just “common sense.”. What is needed is to explain the origin of our culture, wherein the United States, powerful groups and their enablers have created an empathy-devoid culture. In this case the genesis could not be more clear, as famed primate scientist Frans de Waal asserts, “You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.” What we are seeing all around us is the feral neoliberal capitalist order having almost realized its penultimate goal.
Clearly, fundamental changes in our social and economic institutions are necessary if an ethos of caring is to be anything more than an episodic individual act. I want to believe, that before it’s too late, our current economic crisis will provide the impetus for undertaking this revolutionary transformation. Neoliberal ideology is most vulnerable and open to scrutiny when trapped in its own contradictions and linked to unvarnished economic, social and political realities.
We are witnessing those realities now as the reopening of the economy has shown us both the problem and the solution. Much depends on whether the capitalist system is correctly perceived, whether the corporate duopoly can stave off revolutionary threats from below and what we do to expose the truth. If we don’t, our “American exceptionalism” will cause the needless deaths of tens of thousands more of our citizens.
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ALL CAPTIONS AND PULL QUOTES BY THE EDITORS NOT THE AUTHORS