Sunday, January 8, 2012

On Community

It's not just my favourite TV show.

Every year I teach the prisoner's dilemma to social science students.  The upshot of the dilemma is, if a person can reduce his/her own problems by screwing over someone else, what will they do.  The best option collectively is for both to take care of each other, but the best option individually is for us to be selfish. And, we can never be sure that other people will take care of us in return.  That the big stopper to  many acts of kindness - a concern that the kindness will not be returned.  But with an expectation of return, that's not so much kindness as a covert bargain without a clear agreement established.  But even if there is an agreement, "I won't rip off you if you don't rip off me," sometimes people lie. And then we get burned.

Tom Slee, a local author, writes about the same scenario but with two people at a divorce lawyer.  If both people can remain amicable and fair, then they won't need a lawyer, and they'll both be further ahead.  The fact that divorce lawyers take up many pages of the phone book is testament to the fact that we tend towards self-preservation at the expense of society, and we do that out of fear of losing ground.  When we try to get ahead, we often get shafted at the same time.  It's a lose-lose game that we play because we believe (and it's sometimes the case) that we'll at least lose less than we would otherwise.

I teach the dilemma early on in the year because it's really the heart of all issues, global and interpersonal.  When we start to worry that others will be one-up on us, we start to get greedy.  We make sure we have way more than enough before we're willing to help another.  If we're able to take advantage of another, we'll do it.  Then we'll look for a way to rationalize that decision:  every one else is doing it; better me than him; they should have been smarter or stronger to avoid being exploited so it's their own fault for getting ripped off; nobody cares about it; nobody's noticing, blahblahblah....   It works whether you're scamming a second piece of pizza before everyone's had their first, or shopping at a big box store instead of locally-owned, or shilling bad mortgages.  We do it because it helps us get ahead in life, helps us get an edge on the competition.

But collectively, as a society, the best possible scenario, the most rational scenario, is for everyone to consider other people's needs as at least equal to their own.  Until everyone has what they need, we can't rest easy.  Slee thinks we'll only stop being selfish with governmental intervention.  My problem with that route is that I don't always trust that politicians are, as Freud says, "persons who possess superior insight into the necessities of life and who have risen to the height of mastering their own instinctual wishes." I want everyone in on it.

Freud is hopeful that as individuals we'll get to this rational place eventually.  One way that can happen is to eliminate expectation of kindness in return.  Sometimes when we're kind, we burn.  Be kind anyway.  It's the path of the Paradoxical Commandments that Mother Teresa was so fond of.

Another way we can get to this rational place is if we see ourselves as part of a collective instead of as individuals.  Then whenever we're begin selfish, because that's in our nature as fallible human beings, at least we're selfishly advancing a group of people.  This is where community comes in.    

Without a church to guide us, community might not happen the way it once did back in the day.  Now we need websites and planned social events to help us recognize our own neighbours.  Putting a name to a face is the first step in relieving our suspicious nature.  But once we're at the starting gate, then collectively we can shift towards seeing each other as part of "us" - a community that helps one another thrive.  And hopefully, once we're feeling stable and secure, that "us" will broaden to include neighbouring communities, then Attawapiskat, then the Ivory Coast in Africa in solidarity.  And soon there is no "them."

We know about mirror neurons and why helping people relieves our own stress.  It's in our biology to help others.  Check out this Ted Talk about preparing the groundwork for collective empathy. (I can't find a way to embed it.)  You can watch this one here on how to inspire people towards action...

(David Hume proposed a similar theory centuries ago - we can only make decisions through sentiment, not through reason.)

If we look at "marketing" community (which feels like a bit of an oxymoron to me), we have to sell the belief, not the product.  So, instead of: we want you to come to our social event; there will be food and games.  If we turn it around it becomes something like this:  We want everyone to feel a worldwide connection until we're all part of "us" (or "we" as in Me2We).  We're offering food and games to help us on the first step in this journey.  Come to our social event.  If people can buy-in to that belief at more than just a surface level, like the Kielburgers have been on about for over a decade, if we can all always keep the big picture in mind then, and only then, will the world shift.

It's all attitude.

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