Are White Supremacists Neanderthals?

neanderthal-3-spelling

White Supremacists are proud of their supposed genetic superiority, yet what sets European genetics apart is 1-4% Neanderthal DNA.

But the Neanderthals whose children survived; whose descendants are with us today; you and me if you are of European descent; those were the Neanderthals who chose cooperation rather than competition with the newcomers out of African. They made love not war.

Genetically, Yes. White supremacists are Neanderthal. But describing them that way, isn’t that an insult to ancestors far wiser than their racist children?

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Is the bible the only basis for morality?

It is a popular argument in evangelism: without an absolute moral standard handed down from God, all we ever have is an ‘anything goes’ moral relativism. ‘Good’ is simply whatever seems right to each individual. People’s idea of what is right and wrong may be exact opposites. Here is an example of this sort of argument.

While it may sound like a great argument (it’s not1) it simply isn’t what the bible teaches. It’s also pretty insulting to non-Christians too, especially with American Christians voting in such large numbers for a racist, sexual predator like Trump, an irony that isn’t lost on non-Christians.

But the bible is much more positive about other people’s moral understanding. Paul tells us that even without the Mosaic Law, Gentiles who don’t know the bible, show they have God’s law written on their hearts Rom 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires… 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

More importantly, the bible doesn’t teach the commandments as the absolute basis of morality written in stone… well maybe written in stone, but not the absolute basis.

moral-absolutes-3-capture

Paul describes the Old Testament Law as a child’s tutor Gal 3:24. There is a deeper moral principle the commandments themselves are founded on, a deeper magic as Aslan put it. Rom 13:9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Jesus himself said all of the Old Testament commandments are based on two great commandments, to love God and love your neighbour. Matt 22:37 NLT Jesus replied, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’e 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”.

Since we seem to find ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ so difficult to understand, Jesus explained it another way. Matt 7:12 So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them… Again Jesus tells us this principle sums up all of the commandments in the Old Testament …for this is the law and the prophets. But this principle, the Golden rule, or ‘do as you would be done by’ is found in one form or another throughout the world’s major religions and in a lot of our philosophies.

Does it somehow take from Christianity that ‘do unto others…’ is found in other religions?

It shouldn’t. We are all created in God’s image, remember how Paul tells us even Gentiles without the OT Law have God’s law written on their hearts.
Jesus didn’t have a problem with it either. When a Jewish theologian asked Jesus what loving you neighbour meant, Jesus picked an example from outside Judaism, a Samaritan, motivated not by the Jewish Law, but by the gut-wrenching empathy that he felt towards the man bleeding dying on the road to Jericho.

The Golden Rule isn’t based on divine revelation, it flows from our human capacity for empathy. It is how we are made, how we evolved, how God created us. We see someone being suffering or being mistreated, the empathy centres in our brain signal to us how we would feel in the other person’s place. And it’s not just a mental response in our brain. The sensations of deep emotion are sent down the vagus nerve telling our heart to beat faster, our stomach to tighten and our intestines to feel as though they were being tied up in a knot. The way we are built, seeing the pain of a fellow human resonates through our body.

We talk of our heart going out to someone, it may be a metaphor but it is based on the human physiological response when we empathise. The word Jesus used for the Samaritan’s compassion (the tongue twister splagchnizomai) comes from the Greek word for intestines. The Samaritan felt compassion for dying man deep in his very guts.

This is how we know we should treat others as we would have them treat us, to love the as we love ourselves. When we see their suffering, we feel it deep in our gut as though we were suffering it ourselves. We know in our hearts they are a person just like us with feelings like ours to be valued as we value our own life.

Which is why a compassionate humanist or atheist can have a much deeper, much more mature moral understanding than a Christian whose moral framework simply a rule based. And as a friend point out to me when we were discussing this, that was Jesus’ point in the parable of the Good Samaritan talking about the religious people, the priest and the Levite, who walked by, while the Samaritan was the one who stopped and helped his fellow man.

Our understanding of justice and human rights is based on this. We recognise injustice because we wouldn’t want to be treated that way. We know treatment that is fair and just when we see it, and we recognise treatment we would cry out aginst ourselves. This understanding of justice and injustice is shared across all cultures by every religion and none. The only limit to our concept of justice and human rights is the limit of our empathy. For more on the limits of empathy and how it is manipulated by certain politicians to spread hate, see my blog Listening to right wing politicians can turn you psychopathic.

Another moral basis Christians use

This one is closer to the empathy based loving you neighbour as yourself. We love and value our fellow man because they are made in God’s image. Martin Luther King used this as an argument for human rights. In fact, it is used in the bible to prod religious people who are less than perfect in the way they treat others. Prov 17:5 Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker. James 3:9 With (our tongues) we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. This is a pretty good basis for treating people decently, far better than simply following rules because God said so. But like rule following, this moral basis is limited to people who believe in God and believe he created and loves us.

But God wants us to go further than rule following, or loving people because God loves them. God wants us to love others as we love ourselves, because we recognise them as people like us, who have feeling like we do, and we feel it ourselves when they hurt or suffer injustice.

Is there anything that sets the bible and Christianity morality apart?

The Christian version of the Golden Rule is one of higher versions, teaching the positive side of ‘do unto others’. Most other versions only teach the negative side, don’t do what you wouldn’t like done to you. Basically, the higher version of the Golden rules say “help you neighbour when he falls because that what you’d want yourself” the lower version says “don’t kick him when he’s down, you wouldn’t like that yourself”. While the lower version is most common, the higher version can be found also in religions and philosophies like Taoism, Jainism and Islam.

One thing that sets Christianity apart is that God not only calls us to treat our neighbour with love and compassion, but he also demonstrated this love and compassion himself, by becoming human and laying down his life for us in the greatest act of sacrificial love and compassion.

Which of course leads into the biggest difference about Christianity, that our whole relationship with God is based what Christ has done, rather than our own, frankly terrible, efforts at doing the right thing. For a Christian learning to love others better and use our God-given empathy and compassion flows out of that as we walk in relationship with Jesus and are transformed by his Word and his Holy Spirt within us.

And lastly

For those who don’t believe in God the evolution of morality and a sense of justice raises the disturbing suggestion that our material universe comes prewired for it. It is not just humans who evolved it either. Empathy and an understanding fairness keep emerging in social species once they develop sufficient brain capacity. We see it in animals as distantly related as birds, dogs and capuchin monkeys.

They could try to dismiss morality and justice as random side effect of evolution, instincts that are beneficial for group survival but of no intrinsic meaning. But to do that they would have to abandon the fundamental importance of compassion justice and human rights that from the very centre of their being3 their own empathy and compassion is telling them is real.

Either that live with the cognitive dissonance that the basis for justice, morality and the rights of others seem to be written into the fabric of the materialistic universe as deeply as the laws of mathematics, just waiting for organisms sufficiently developed to recognise them.

Notes

1 A major problem with the argument for an absolute morality is, (as any well informed atheist will tell a Christian who tried to use it), it had a massive hole punched in it way back in the time of Plato. It is called the Euthyphro dilemma, where Plato pushed the problem of arbitrary morality one step further back. “Is goodness (piety) loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” If God really liked when we tortured kittens, would that make torturing kittens moral? Which spins off into further philosophical questions, but it is enough to show that this popular evangelistic argument doesn’t work.

How to pronounce splagchnizomai

3 Via the vagus nerve.

How did one photo change the heart of a nation?

Alan Kurdi

How did one photo change the heart of a nation? I’ve blogged before about how hate speech can switch off our ability to feel empathy. Whether it is immigrants, the unemployed or the disabled, for years we have been subject to hate speech from politicians and media describing them as scroungers abusing the system. Immigrants are health tourists abusing the hard pressed NHS and taking jobs from British people.

It’s not about logical argument, immigrants contribute more to the economy and the NHS than they get; they create more jobs. Hate speech works on a much deeper level, changing the very way our brains work, switching off our ability to feel empathy. We may be a decent and compassionate people in every other way, our brains will respond to immigrants like a psychopath does. We feel no empathy or compassion towards them, worse, we are unaware we are feeling no compassion, and agree the harsh measure to deal with the problem. They have been dehumanised. What can humanise them again, or rather what can restore our humanity towards them?

We just have to see the refugees as human beings, people like us, but in a desperate situation fleeing for the lives, trying to protect their families. We aren’t real psychopaths, if their stories can get through to us the spell can be broken. Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels, to feel their pain; compassion is knowing we have to do something about it. We see people like us in terrible situations and know we have to do something to help

It is what lies behind Jesus’ command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. It asks how would we want to be treated if we were in the same situation. Not just compassion for people in our own tribe and community either, Jesus illustrated loving our neighbour with the story of a despised foreigner, a Samaritan reaching out in compassion to a Jew bleeding and dying on the Jericho road. Luke 10:33 NET But a Samaritan who was traveling came to where the injured man was, and when he saw him, he felt compassion for him. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to treat foreigners and immigrants with compassion too, and appealed to their empathy and compassion. Exodus 23:9 NIV …you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.

For some time we have had two stories playing out in the media, Cameron’s ‘swarms’ at our borders, and Songs of Praise with people like us in need of our help. But it was the photograph of three year old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach that seems to have changed everything. Why did this one picture make such a difference? We have seen drowned bodies of refugees before. Perhaps because it is a dead child. It was a photograph of a nine year old girl, fleeing when her village had just been napalmed, that turned public opinion against the Vietnam War.

The photograph of Alan Kurdi is even more powerful, perhaps it needs to be because we see so much horror and death on TV. But little Alan looks as though he has just fallen asleep, he look like one of our own children as toddlers when they’d just fallen asleep…

The battle for compassion isn’t over, the politicians and papers that preached their hate will go back to preaching hate again. We mustn’t let them win. We mustn’t let them take our very humanity.

“Hunger stalks this country” Studies of the damage caused by Benefit Cuts

A really good study of rising hunger in the UK is the Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty in Britain This was set up by the Anglican Church as an impartial cross party inquiry composed of 2 Conservative MPs a Conservative Baroness, 2 Labour MPs and a Bishop.

This simple but devastating fact that hunger stalks this country should confront each of the main political parties with a most basic and fundamental political challenge”

There is another webpage presenting the Evidence it gathered from surveys and studies of poverty in the UK. Not only were the poorest 10% buying less food, they had to cut back on vegetables fruit and meat. According to DEFRA:

“between 2007 and 2010, households in the lowest income decile (the 10% with the lowest incomes) on average bought less food rather than ‘trade down’.*

The energy content of the food they bought fell by 8.7% between 2007 and 2010, as the poorest households tended to cut back on bread, cereals, biscuits, cake, beef, fruit and vegetables.”

To got an idea of what is considered as a basic minimum diet in the UK, the Food Poverty Inquiry turned to research by the Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) project. This looked at what ordinary people considered the bare basics, rather than more optimistic goals dieticians want us to aspire to. This showed that:

”Over 90% of respondents agreed that for children this means: three meals a day; fresh fruit and vegetables every day; and meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent at least once a day.

For adults, over 75% of respondents agreed this means: two meals a day; fresh fruit and vegetables every day; and meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every other day.”

With this as a basic minimum, research showed that:

 “Well over half a million children (4%) live in families who cannot afford to feed them properly.
Over three and a half million adults (8%) cannot afford to eat properly.
In nearly all of the households where there are children going without one or more of the food items*, adults in the household are cutting back on their own food.”

The UK Low Income Diet and Nutrition Survey, published in 2007, looked similarly at these issues:

39% of respondents said they sometimes worried about running out of food because of money;
22% reported skipping meals; and
5% reported sometimes not eating for whole day because of money.”

Malnutrition, especially in childhood is known to have long term health implications, not just for the children going without enough food, but affecting the health of their own children and grandchildren. The penny pinching of the Coalition Government, supposedly for the sake of future generations, though actually to give tax breaks to the rich, are going to do long term damage to the health of those future generation and end up costing them even more in health care and lost productivity through sickness.

Britain isn't eating 4 million

Deaths and suicides following benefit cuts

After a Freedom of Information request by the Disability News Service the DWP has admitted it carried out “60 peer reviews following the death of a customer” between February 2012 and November 2014. After the DWP repeatedly denying it had carried out any, and claiming it ignores benefit related deaths, the 60 it investigated (and denied responsibility for) are probably the tip of the iceberg.

We are unlikely to get any real figures without a thorough Parliamentary Inquiry. Why we do have are the Newspaper reports of people who died or ended their own lives after their benefits were cut. You will find harrowing 6 pages of these accounts here:

Update: The Mirror reports: More than 80 suicide cases directly linked to Coalition cuts claim disability campaigners. The Black Triangle group found more than 80 cases since 2010 and believe even more will suffer and die if David Cameron wins the election.

The Black Triangle campaign lists 69 names of the dead here.

From the Disability News Service (Aug 15, 2014):  UK is first country to face UN inquiry into disability rights violations…These investigations are conducted “confidentially”, so the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) – which is carrying out the inquiry – has refused to confirm or deny that the UK is being investigated. But a recording has emerged [watch from one hour and four minutes] of a former CRPD member revealing that the inquiry has been launched.

What teachers find in their classrooms 

The Teacher’s Union NASUWT carried out a survey of  almost 2,500 teachers: The impact of financial pressures on children and young people. You can read a summary of there findings here: Coalition’s social and economic policies are damaging children’s education

“In total, 2,452 teachers responded to the survey about their experiences over the last year.
Results included:
▪ 78% said pupils are lacking energy and concentration as a result of eating poorly;
▪ 69% of teachers have seen pupils coming to school hungry
▪ 80% said pupils were arriving to school in clothes inappropriate for the weather conditions;
▪ 24% said they had brought in food for hungry pupils themselves and 62% said they had lent or given pupils school equipment;
▪ 56% said they had seen their school give food to pupils.
When asked about how financial pressures affect pupils, 72% said they were more likely to be absent from school, 65% said they were less able to concentrate in lessons, 60% said they caused behaviour problems and 40% said they felt alienated and disaffected.”

Some of the News reports on the NASUWT study:

The Guardian: Children living in Victorian conditions, say teachers
“around a third (32%) of those polled saying they had seen pupils who arrived or left school halfway through a term because they were forced to leave their homes.
The Independent: Union warns that many pupils now arrive at school too hungry to learn
“Pupils are coming to classes exhausted from living in cramped and inadequate housing or unwell because their parents cannot take time off to allow them to recuperate at home.”
ITV News: Teachers: Children are living in ‘Victorian conditions’ are being ‘blighted and degraded by poverty and homelessness’
“80% have witnessed youngsters turning up in clothes that are inappropriate for the weather and similar proportions reported children arriving in unwashed or damaged and frayed clothing. In addition, over three in four (78%) said they have seen pupils without appropriate footwear.”
The International Business TimesUK children living in ‘Victorian conditions’ because of austerity, say teachers
Poverty and homelessness take a physical and emotional toll on children. They often cannot concentrate when they are in school because they are tired and hungry, have no space to do homework and have to travel long distances to get to school from temporary accommodation. They are likely to suffer more ill health and absenteeism.

 Education and health are the most important keys for people escaping poverty. Instead of encouraging families into work, as the Coalition claims, the damage they are causing to children’s education and long term health are trapping families in a cycle of poverty.

Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions

This is a joint report from a group of 4 different denominations and the charity Church Action on Poverty:

punishing minor mistakes extremely harshly is core to the sanctions system. Our society would not tolerate a system where people in employment were subject to such a harsh regime – how can it be reasonable to impose it upon those who are without work?”

Rethink sanctions Mental health

“New data indicates that over one hundred people a day who have been recognised as unfit for work due to mental ill-health are sanctioned. Other groups such as the physically ill, lone parents, homeless people, care leavers and others are also disproportionately affected. These are the people the benefit system is supposed to support – it is simply unacceptable to dismiss their needs on the grounds that they have failed to play by what may for them be unachievable rules.”

approximately 100,000 children were affected by sanctions in 2013/14.”

“a total of almost 7,000,000 weeks of sanctions were imposed in the year 2013-14; up from 1-1,500,000 weeks per year during the previous decade.”

Update: The true number of people with mental health problems being sanctioned may be much higher. The 100 a day figure is an average going back to 2009, and as you can see from the graph, the numbers being sanctioned are climbing steeply. Speaking about the latest figures from March 2014, Insidehousing says:

“In March last year – the last month for which data is available – about 4,500 people with mental health problems on Employment and Support Allowance were sanctioned. The 100 a day figure was an average from data stretching back to January 2009 and took into account overturned decisions, which the 4,500 figure does not.”

That is 214 people with mental health problems a day being sanctioned and it only covers those on ESA not the ones on JSA where 275 time the number of sanctions are applied.

Footnote

* Why aren’t the poorest trading down? In the evidence document Professor Martin Caraher, City University London suggested one explanation.

“Households saved an average of 4% between 2007 and 2010 by trading down to cheaper products. This was accompanied by a change in shopping patterns with many switching to retailers such as Aldi and Lidl. While trading down to cheaper products has helped many people offset some of the food price rises, low-income households have not managed to trade down [as much], possibly as they were already buying cheaper products or shopping in these outlets. “

That is certainly part of the explanation, I think there are other reasons many of the poor may not be able to trade down. The ONS survey showns that 70% of the poorest households don’t own a car, so driving to Aldi or Lidl isn’t an option.

Even before ‘trading down’ became popular, people living in the poorest areas didn’t have access to big supermarkets with their wide range of fresh foods  and the Supermarkets’ cheap value brands. This is part of ‘the poverty premium’, where the poor pay more for food and basic services like gas electricity and basic household items.

Hiding the UK’s real unemployment level

From December to February 2015 there were 29.9 million people of working age (16-64) employed in the UK, and 1.8 million unemployed. 1.8 million people unemployed is pretty bad, but the the true level of unemployment is much worse.

If you work just one hour a week, the Government classes you as employed. People on benefits are considered employed when they are put on Workfare, and have to work for companies like Tesco and Poundland for free. If you are on any Government training scheme you are considered employed.

But there are bigger hole in the economy than that. 8.9 million people of employment age, 16-64 are classed as ‘economically inactive‘. This is made up of people like:
  Students
  Looking After Family/Home
  Temporary Sick
  Long-Term Sick
  Discouraged
  Retired
  Other
Some of this is fairly reasonable. Students and people looking after family and home are not necessarily in the job market, (though students haven’t been helped by the Liberal Democrats failure to keep their promise not to put up tuition fees). The sick used to be listed among unemployed, but were removed from unemployment figures under Margaret Thatcher. ‘Discouraged’ and ‘other’ include include a lot of people who are long term unemployed and have simply given up looking for non existent jobs. This is unemployment at its worst, but they are excluded from official unemployment figures. It will also include long term disabled who have been declared ‘fit of work’ by ATOS or Maximus and take off ESA, but are simply not well enough to work or go on Job Seekers Allowance and face the draconian Sanctions system applying for jobs they couldn’t do anyway.

Of the 8.9 million people classed as ‘economically inactive’, a quarter, 2.2 million, want to work. These aren’t included in unemployment figures. If they were included the unemployment figure would rise to 4.1 million.

Another huge hole is underemployment, people who are working but haven’t enough work. This is the category you find people in zero hours contracts, but it includes other part-time work, and and those in full-time workers who aren’t making enough and want extra hours. A Freedom of Information request to the ONS shows that 3,631,994 want more hours. Scroll down to: “003836 18 February 2015 | Under and Over Employment October-December 2014 (632.5 Kb Excel sheet)” click the link to download the excel document. Although 3,6 million want more hours, the official ONS figure for underemployment is lower, 2.9 million. They don’t, for example, include people unless they can start the extra work within two weeks. The 3.6 million underemployed who need more work are closely matched by 3 million who would like to work fewer hours and are willing to get paid less. It looks like there is scope for some radical job sharing solutions. In the mean time we are left with 3.6 million who are employed but don’t have enough work. *

Between officially unemployed, the unemployed who aren’t counted, and the underemployed, we have a total of 7.7 million people who don’t have enough work, or don’t have any work at all.

Since Thatcher started massaging unemployment figures in the 80’s, successive governments, Labour, Conservative and Coalition have followed that lead keeping their own unemployment record down. What is new is blaming the unemployed, calling them ‘scroungers’ for not finding jobs where there are none. Worst of all are the Coalition’s cruel sanctions to make people search for jobs that don’t exist.

Children are going hungry and at least 60 people have died after having the benefits stopped. The Conservatives claim this about compassion because having work is so important for peoples’ well being. But how can cruel and unjust sanctions lead to one more person in work, one more added to the employed figure? If everybody unemployed tried really, really hard to find a job, would the unemployment numbers, official and hidden, all disappear?

*Note: in a earlier version of this blog I miscalculated the number of underemployed as 5.4 million rather than 3.6 million.

Moses and Ancient Israel’s Social Welfare System

Modern Christianity tends to be very individualistic. Many think the only biblical obligation we have to the poor is personal charity, giving to the poor themselves or giving to charities to distribute it. Some Christians even think it is wrong to have a social welfare system with laws and taxes to fund it. But God expects nations and rulers to look after their poor too, and condemns nation who don’t. Israel was meant to be an example to nations around them, and the Old Testament Law established the nation of Israel with a comprehensive social welfare system to take care of the poor.

Tithes: Levites weren’t given an inheritance of land in Israel, they were meant to look after the Israelites spiritual needs not spend their time farming and herding flocks. As such they were among the poor in the land. They were to be provided for through the tithe,10% of all produce and herds going to 8% (1 in 12) of the tribes. So a generous provision for the poorest tribe. However the tithe was not just for Levites, they were also a provision for other poor people, for widows and orphans, and for immigrants especially those living in cities. Deut 14:27-29, 26:12&13. Unlike the misery of modern tax returns paying your tithe was mean to be a great big party for you all you household too Deut 22:14-27.

Gleaning: The poor living in the countryside were also supported through gleaning. Land owners were not allowed harvest all their crop, only allowed for example to beat their olive trees once, they could not go over them a second time as more olives ripened. The same applied to grapevines and all the grain and sheaves that had fallen to the ground in those pre-combine harvester days. These gleanings were for the poor and immigrants Deut 24:19-21.

Fallow Ground: Every seven years, the Sabbath Year, fields were to be left fallow. But wheat would still grow in wheat fields, olive tree and vines would still produce their fruit. Again this was for the poor and for immigrants. Also included were wild animals, so a very green social policy, Exodus 23:11, Lev 25:2-7. This was a social welfare contribution of up to 14% of harvests on top of the 10% tithe. The Sabbath year of the land should have been an abundant source of provision if the wealthy landowners didn’t cheat on their obligations. Proverbs 13:23 The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.

Redistribution of wealth: The most politically radical of Moses laws were wealth redistribution through the cancellation of debt and return of land and houses. The debts of Israelites were cancelled in the Sabbath Year when the land was allowed lie fallow Deut 15:1.

Every 50 years this went even further in the Jubilee year: Land, the main source of wealth in an agrarian society was redistributed from the rich who had accumulated it over the previous 50 years and given back to the families and clans who owned it before. Houses in walled cities were not included in this, though the houses in cities belonging to Levites were returned. Outside cities, houses were returned in Jubilee years too Lev 25:10-55. All of this was meant to reset the economy every 50 years so the wealth that had been accumulated in the form of land and debts owed to the rich (read: banks) could be turned back to the more level playing field created by the Jubilee 50 years before.

ot-social-welfare-title-capture

Listening to right wing politicians can turn you psychopathic.

The biggest difference between psychopaths and the rest of us is that psychopaths have no empathy, they see people in pain but they don’t feel that pain themselves, the way we flinch when we see someone hit their thumb with a hammer. Psychopaths aren’t all mass murders but can be successful surgeons, salespeople, CEOs and bankers, though perhaps that wasn’t the best idea.

This blog came about when I was trying to read up on the difference between empathy and compassion.* I came across research on what our brain scans look like when we feel empathy. As you might expect, psychopaths didn’t show an empathy response to people suffering, but neither did ordinary people if they thought the person suffering was cheating or was not ‘one of us’.

https://www.cogneurosociety.org/empathy_pain/
…the second wave of empathy studies has shown that this natural capacity for empathic resonance can easily be blocked – not just in psychopaths – but in all of us: Simply because we think someone was unfair or is not belonging to “our tribe”.

Right wing media and politicians justify attacking the poorest and most vulnerable in society, the people most in need to our empathy and compassion, by portraying them as benefit cheats and scroungers, or building up a picture of ‘us and them’ with them portrayed as a threat to us, our own tribe. David Cameron talks of supporting ‘hard working families’ even though the cuts hit many of the poorest working families. Worse still, this in-group excludes the most vulnerable in our society, the unemployed the sick and disabled who are not only outside his ‘hard working families’ tribe, but are constantly portrayed as scroungers and benefit cheats. The Labour party has bought into this rhetoric too by promising to reduce welfare without asking the very basic question how much welfare we need to take care of the poor and vulnerable in our society.

Immigrants are even easier to portray as not belonging to ‘our tribe’ even though it comes with the obvious problem of promoting a racist divide between ‘real Britons’ and foreigners, rather than being our neighbours, part of the rich tapestry that makes up our society, and fellow human beings. Immigrants are also portrayed as taking away jobs from locals (though immigrants create more jobs than people born here). They are constantly being portrayed as a drain on the benefit system and the NHS, so called benefit and health tourism, even though immigrants make a net positive contribution to the economy and pay more in the tax system that funds benefits and the NHS than they claim.

These politicians build support by creating an enemy who they blame for the problems in society, then promising to punish the out-group it has portrayed as outsiders or cheats. The Conservatives use the cuts in funding for the poorest and most vulnerable to pay for tax breaks to the sort of person they really do consider ‘one of them’, the very rich.

And to get you to agree with their harsh and cruel treatment of the poorest and most vulnerable in society all they have to do keep repeating the rhetoric that switches off your natural empathy towards them and turns your response psychopathic. The more you hear the sick described as ‘scrounger’s and the unemployed described as’ lazy’ and ‘benefit cheats’, and blamed for the crash that was cause by banks and big business, the more you hear all of your country’s problems blamed on a ‘tidal wave’ of immigrants, the more you hear the rhetoric repeated by people around you, the less you will be able to feel for them emotionally when you see them being abused. You can still fell empathy and compassion to members of your own tribe, in fact they rely on the compassion and concern you have for your own people, that can be solved by attacking and punishing the scroungers and keeping out foreigners. It is just the out-group, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the immigrants, you will respond psychopathically to. And you will have little or no idea your mind has been twisted that way.

The claims don’t need evidence, they just need repetition, that is what builds and reinforces nerve connections in the brains. “There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.” William James. For those with the stomach for it, here are some Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines.

America’s Religious Right

Writing from across the Atlantic it explains one of the strangest phenomena in the USA, conservative American Christians can be the most caring and compassionate people. They are followers of Christ who taught us care for the poor and love for our neighbour even if the neighbour is foreigner like Samaritans. Compassion for the poor and care for immigrants are taught all through the bible. Yet right wing American Christians vote for tax cuts for the very rich and cutting benefits for the poor, they cry out to deny them health care and demand busloads of child refugees to be turned back at the Mexican border. Part of it is belief in the rhetoric of ‘trickle down economics’, that tax cuts for the rich create jobs and that it is welfare rather than not enough jobs that stops people finding work. But none of this rhetoric would work if American Christians saw the suffering these policies cause the most vulnerable in society, and felt the pain. But to put the psychology and brain scans in biblical terms, their hearts have been hardened.

You don’t need to be a Christian to act morally to others, you just need the empathy to understand other people’s pain and how you actions affect them. Do the 16% of ‘nones’ thinking of voting UKIP realise how Nigel Farage’s rhetoric has stripped them of their ability to empathise, and that they think about immigrants their brain responds psychopathically?

The warrior gene, when society needs warriors

This ability to turn off empathy is a natural reaction that allows groups to defend themselves in wars against genuine threats. In fact the genetics behind psychopaths such as MAO-A the warrior gene, is thought to be selected for this reason and is switched off if children are raised in a stable loving environments.

While this psychopathic reaction is advantageous in times of genuine war, it is terrible for making peace, it leaves people baying for the destruction of the enemy with no regard to cost to the enemy or themselves. Worse the inability to empathise leaves you unable to understand the other side’s point of view, a point of view that is as legitimate to them as yours is to you. Because it is only through understanding how they feel, their fears and how they feel they have been wronged, can we come to a lasting understanding and peace.

There have always been unscrupulous politicians that have know how to blame the ills of society on a vulnerable group and build support and political power by attacking them. Communist regimes used it to justify their ‘re-education’ camps for the “enemies of the people”. Islamic extremists justify their vicious attacks on innocent people by calling them crusaders and infidels.

We now know a bit more about what is going on in our brains when we listen to the words of politicians and media who sow division and hate.. A diet of rightwing media slandering and alienating a whole community affects the brain on a deeper level than any pretence in it of rational argument, it takes our capacity for empathy and dials it down all the way to psychopath.

In 2000AD graphic novels the Judge Dread character Mean Machine has a dial on his head that turns from 1 Surly, through 2 Mean, 3 Vicious all the way up to 4 Brutal, the problem was it kept getting stuck at 4. Thing is we all have a dial like that that can make us treat people as though we are psychopaths, and without us realising, and without even overtly preaching hate, politicians and media can make us think and vote like psychopaths.

MeanMachine2

*while empathy is feeling what others feel, compassion is more a realisation that people are suffering and wanting to help.

Update May 2nd 2015

Just had a letter about this published in the latest New Scientist. It’s the 2nd letter on the Letters page.