A Whole New Cope
With negligible power comes negligible responsibility, but...
When I was a kid in India in the 80s, nobody around me was ever perturbed by conflict in the Middle East, or by ups and downs in US-USSR relations. You would maybe read about it in the paper, make a philosophical remark, and move on. If you were a nerdy kid like me, you’d maybe try to remember key points for use in quiz contests.
I assume the same was true everywhere else. If you were alive and living in the Middle East, US, or USSR in the 80s, I assume that sort of shrugging indifference was your reaction to the assassination of Indira Gandhi (1984), an event that definitely did perturb everybody around me.
Today, a significant chunk of the world gets seriously perturbed about all sorts of remote global events; feels involved in distant events rather than being apathetic spectators. I’m in that chunk, and you probably are too.
Should we lean into that sense of perturbed involvement, or strive to return to the old sense of uninvolved equanimity? And in either case, how do we do it effectively?
I think there are clear right answers here.
At least part of the explanation for the growing sense of perturbed involvement in everything seems obvious: Thanks to globalization and the internet, we now feel a modicum of agency (and therefore responsibility) where we previously felt none. Even though your conscious individual actions have a vanishingly small chance of making any difference in distant events, it’s not zero. Your tweet or heartfelt Facebook post just might cascade virally into consequentiality. Your little contribution to a GoFundMe somewhere just might make a difference.
For almost everybody, there is now a small, but growing amount of entanglement in a much wider world, at the level of consciously exercised personal agency.
For a much smaller globalist subset of humanity, there is an additional amplifying factor: Personal connections. As a kid, the only non-Indians I knew were a couple of American Jesuits who taught at my school. Now, I count Arabs, Jews (both Israeli and non), Chinese, Russians, and even Pakistanis among my friends and acquaintances. I’m married to a Korean-American. Far fewer categories of people are easy-to-dehumanize faceless anonymities to me now.
What was true of only a few groups in the 80s — high-flying diplomats, international athletes, sailors, New Yorkers —is now true of a much larger and much less elite chunk of humanity. It’s still a tiny fraction (perhaps a single-digit percentage), but it’s orders of magnitude bigger than it used to be. For the globalist subset, having flippant, cartoonish, apathetic opinions about distant geopolitical matters is no longer a cost-free option personally. The imperative to humanize a vastly larger part of humanity is much stronger new.
And for conservatives living in relatively homogeneous milieus, with no friends or acquaintances who are not like themselves, the internet and globalization have brought the rest of the world much closer, even if they haven’t made it much more personal. The worldwide mass ethnonationalisms of today would have been fringe movements a few decades ago. The imperative to dehumanize threatening others, who loom much closer, is also far stronger now.
But this doesn’t seem to be the whole story. I doubt any of us think we have serious agency in global affairs. We’re definitely not in great power/great responsibility Spider-Man territory (and even he tried to modestly remain a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man).
At best you could say: With negligible power comes negligible responsibility. So why are we all acting like we’re Marvel superheroes and supervillains with the weight of the world’s fate on our shoulders?
Being considerate within your personal circle, and being a bit more empathetic and cautious in your takes about distant events, is not that emotionally taxing.
Nor, on the flip side, is it much more emotionally taxing to increase any existing hostility towards foreigners, and being a bit quicker to dehumanize them.
On both sides, moderately heightened versions of previous reactions seem indicated, but radically heightened reactions are evident.
Slightly increasing entanglement does not seem to explain the extreme reactions to distant global events some seem to have all the time, and all of us have some of the time. It’s like something got pushed past a tipping point.
Worlds in Disequilibrium
I think what explains the rest is this: We are used to there being a particular enduring balance between constraint and agency in our worlds, and when that balance is threatened by a sense of developing general disequilibrium, we react in ways that seem like overreactions to the particular events that trigger them.
We read events that reshape personal patterns of constraint and agency not in isolation, but as signs and portents of our entire world beginning to come apart.
Normally, and this is perhaps the definition of normalcy, we do not expect our sense of constraint and agency to change at all, in response to news of distant events. Within our means, and in accordance to our personalities and need for felt agency and equanimity, we each find our personal equilibrium within the larger equilibrium, which we then take for granted for as long as we can.
But when the larger equilibrium gets disturbed, regardless of whether it adds constraints or increases agency, our personal equilibria get disturbed as well. And that can be way more stressful than any increase in felt responsibility through entanglement going from 0 to δ.