I took an urban hike with my good friend the composer, lyricist and novelist Kathleen Wakefield yesterday. I live at the base of the Santa Monica mountain range, making for a good hour’s hike from the Los Angeles Basin to the range’s crest on Mulholland Drive and back (even if we only made it to Fountain) (yes, the Fountain of Bette Davis’ famous response to the question “how do you get to Hollywood?” – “take Fountain”) .
Because Kathleen makes her living selling her intellectual property, we were talking about the challenges raised by and opportunities presented to artists as their work becomes more and more their own property and less and less the business of those who “discover” it (A&R), produce it (Viacom, MGM, Capitol Records, etc.), sell it (Madison Avenue) and protect it (ASCAP, entertainment lawyers).
Our conversation naturally ranged to Web 2.0; a world without borders; and, global warming, all of which took me back to the book my friend Ken Cloke is writing called “Mediators Can Save the Planet.”
Why mediators? Because WORLD 3.0 will require that we supercharge our natural cooperative and altruistic natures while dampening our competitive drive without thereby discarding our ambition.
What will it take? A shift from competition to collaboration.
Can we do it? “Yes we can,” says Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth when his audience begins to move from denial to despair.
How? At least one way to get the global cooperation ball rolling will be to school ourselves in empathy, a necessary prerequisite to tackling the problem of collaborative solutions to worldwide problems.
All of which leads us to an old but timely article Empathy, Morality and Otherness by Dr. Douglas Chismar. Before proceeding to suggest art as one of the ways we can increase our ability to identify the injustices done to and suffering endured by “foreign” others, Dr. Chismar identifies three types of empathy triggers: (1) empathizer specificity; (2) situation specificity; and, (3) recipient specificity. He writes:
Empathizer specificity refers to the manner in which individual empathizers vary in their general level of empathic responsiveness as a personality trait. Some people empathize quite often and intensively, others rarely and only weakly.
Situation specificity refers to how empathizers respond selectively to a variety of different empathy opportunity situations. Certain circumstances, for example the Challenger disaster, have evoked widespread empathy, while others, such as the civil war in Rwanda, evoked little response.
Recipient specificity speaks of how empathizers respond differently to particular kinds of individuals. A neighboring family left homeless by fire may evoke considerable empathy while a wino on a street corner may stimulate little concern.
After discussing the many reasons why we understandably misread the injustices visited upon and fail to respond to the suffering of distant and foreign “others,” Dr. Chrismar suggests that we nourish our natural empathy impulses with art. “We need to find a way to take the initial impulse to empathize and nourish it,” he argues,
rather than letting it slide, as it is prone to do, into the rut of selectivity. Humans have discovered at least two strategies for increasing the frequency and intensity of empathy, and overcoming its partiality.
The first strategy is the largely cognitive operation of what is commonly referred to as “universalizability.” This consists of abstracting from one’s particular situation and viewing oneself as one among many. It takes various forms, including reversibility (placing oneself on the imaginary receiving end of an action) and a kind of stripping away of what makes one particular (“judging a man by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin)”.
A second strategy appeals to the arts . . . Through drama, poetry, film, and other arts, imaginative participation in others’ experience is enabled where it would otherwise fail to occur. The arts, through creating a mock reality, thrive upon the sense of fascination with the different while creating situations in which empathy is powerfully and irresistibly generated.
Human tendencies towards curiosity and exploration are harnessed to project the emotions into alien situations. The accepted suspension of cultural norms, which has tended to characterize the artworld throughout its history, permits the feeling and expression of unconventional emotions, unloosing a stream of feelings otherwise bottled up in a business-like society.
There’s much more of interest in this article to anyone engaged in the project of preparing ourselves for the challenges of the coming century, including the mass relocation of people due to the rise in the sea level and the potential for catastrophic species extinction — neither of which is science fiction anywhere but in the Bush White House.
Check it out.
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