A recent NYTimes article http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/the-science-of-compassion.html?_r=1 by David DeSteno explores some of the scientific studies on the nature of compassion and how to increase it. It corroborates what I have written about in previous blog postings.
When we find commonality with others we experience compassion and caring for them. The Golden Rule evolved out of and from within a specific community of like minded individuals. As human beings we find our deepest sense of connection and caring when we discern anyother human being as being similar to ourselves.
The greatest challenge to this admirable human trait is its evil twin–the tribal impulse. While we view members of our "tribe" as worthy of compassion and altruism, those whom we deem as different are easily dehumanized. When that occurs, and it has occurred with horrific regularity across human cultures and throughout human history, the result are often war, genocide, torture and destruction of other human beings.
Acknowledging racial, religious, political, national differences seem to be the human default mode of being. We seems to actually seek out differences among each other when they may appear minimal or nonexistent to others looking from without. I cannot forget an old Star Trek TV segment in which two stripped aliens seem locked in deadly combat. They each had black and white stripes. When Kirk questions their animosity towards each other they seem stunned. "don't you see the difference between us? He is black with white stripes, I'm white with black ones." Of course the parallel with the American racial divide was the clear message of the show.
When African tribes began slaughtering each other in recent decades, white Westerners were shocked by the aggression they observed. Yet European history is replete with religious and national wars of unspeakable cruelty and barbarity.
It is only when we see others as sharing our own hopes and fears that barriers break down. It seemed apparent to many American that racial differences melted away after 9/11 and the awareness of an external threat to all of us. Science fiction writers have frequently played up this theme when they portray alien attacks on planet earth. Former sworn enemies recognize common concerns.
Israeli singer Rita Jahanforuz with Persian roots sings in Farsi and is embraced by Iranian youth who love her sentiment. Their emails decry their respective political and national antagonisms.
So the message is clear–we need to be open to our common humanity, not our particular differences. We need to teach our children this message. We need to interact with others who represent different backgrounds and recognize we share much more with each other as human beings than we believed to be so.
We need to remind ourselves of this truth when we inevitably react our of fear or anger and begin to label the "other" as different and dangerous.