Across the country and now, thanks to Internet magazines, around the world, there is a conversation going on over the heads of small towns. At the easy end is TED and at the hard end might be Edge or Google Talks. Unless persons in a small town have and use access to the Internet, they never know what’s going on, even if they watch PBS, which is remarkably condescending much of the time.
Currently, people are enthralled with certain ideas — which are quickly shifting and surprising — about what human beings are, how they “work”, what shapes them, and how they interact. This is moving so quickly that many reporters are too young to have caught up with it.
A shift I see that is pretty unidentified so far is one that I recognize from thinking about religion. It is the difference between what is immanent (coming up from inside and life in this world) and what is transcendent (coming down from some supernatural source of creation that is unknowable but absolute). This is deeply relevant when considering “nature” which we are forced to do when our climate become unbearable and our food becomes indigestible. People are rethinking consciousness, and even rethinking thinking itself, now that we can see brains in the act of doing it.
delanceyplace.com, one of my favorite online sources, was quoting today from How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
"The time-honored story of emotion goes something like this: We all have emotions built-in from birth. They are distinct, recognizable phenomena inside us. When something happens in the world, whether it's a gunshot or a flirtatious glance, our emotions come on quickly and automatically, as if someone has flipped a switch. . . .
"Emotions are ... thought to be a kind of brute reflex, very often at odds with our rationality. The primitive part of your brain wants you to tell your boss he's an idiot, but your deliberative side knows that doing so would get you fired, so you restrain yourself. This kind of internal battle between emotion and reason is one of the great narratives of Western civilization. It helps define you as human. Without rationality, you are merely an emotional beast. ...
“When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real -- that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement. This view, [is] call[ed] the theory of constructed emotion.”
The writers on Aeon or Medium have not approached this thinking. Without questioning, Aeon values the reflective philosophy of classical reason, finding that method transcendent, and many Medium writers are totally committed to emotion, no matter how negative and unmanageable. They believe it defines their identity. As far as I see so far, no one has tried applying this idea of constructed emotion to morality.
Now that the media is giving us an unmasked version of the oligarchy that somehow has come to rule us and to use that rule to take all the wealth, how can we keep from trying to figure out what has “constructed” these people? They have made their narcissism transcendent, God-given, explicit proof that they are better than the rest of us. It’s not that the Trumpists know they are doing bad things and don’t care — it’s that they don’t have any idea that it’s wrong to cheat, lie and steal. They don’t know that’s what they’re doing. It’s a kind of ignorant madness and it’s even present in small towns. And on reservations, come to that.
Re-quote: “a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real -- that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.”
In a small town in the West, a kid who grows up in a car-dealer’s or shop-keeper’s family — has a little more than other kids — can come to feel superior, esp. if the family has lost contact with the church congregations that used to keep middle-class successes aware that they have a responsibility to the other folks. That aspect of the transcendent morality is lost.
A kid who spends his time with electronic media, either the endless stories of successful semi-criminals pitched against heroes who break the law in order to catch them, or the many wailing tales of epi-cultures etched out in music, may never quite feel the reality of other people. The immanent side of morality which would otherwise arise from empathy, never does.
So morality is dissolved to be replaced by rules, regulations, and people who come out from the big cities to impose them: engineers, inspectors, consultants, the FBI. It’s pretty natural to resent them and never think about how they work for the greater good. For the amoral there is no greater good than themselves.
In the city people sort themselves out by location and shopping, so one needn’t see the extremely poor or the extremely different/foreign. In a small town that’s not possible and in a rural place a certain amount of brute labor still needs to be done, stigmatized as it may be. Machines and big animals are not human and to some don’t seem to have any moral relevance, so carelessness about their treatment creeps over to people. Carelessness about drugs, drinking, sex, driving, violence, is obvious to everyone — next morning everyone knows what you did last night. Some accept it as an entitlement and some condemn it as preventing any real achievement.
This is provisional, probably at least partly wrong, but exploratory in the way that conversation winds along in cities where people still talk to each other. It used to be part of university life.