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Fragment 171, word count: 780.

There is a western consensus that the rapid launch of mathematical science in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe drew the decisive line in human history, the crossing of which heralded a future with unlimited improvements in all human affairs. There was some speculation that after understanding the energies of nature humans would use them first to perform essential production work and then venture on to accomplish our fondest hopes. It was thought to be self-evident that ingenious mechanisms for channelling energies far greater than human and animal muscle power would free people from the physical burden of work and create such abundance that none would suffer privation. This, roughly, was the theory of science for a better world, material progress. It didn’t work out because understanding the energies of nature did nothing to change the cultural limits on how the wealthiest groups distributed empathy toward other breathing beings. The result is that now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the idea of progress, Better World Theory, is confused and seriously disputed. Developments in digital technology over the last half-century have given a new boost to STEM-based hopes for a better world, although weapons of mass destruction and climate change loom larger than ever and technology still doesn’t break down the cultural barriers to expanding empathy.

The reasons for intractable and extinction level problems in this age of mathematical science, which promotes itself as the means for solving all human problems, cannot be discovered by scientific research. Materialist science cannot settle the culture war between the core values of patriarchy from feudal Christendom along with other antique societies which similarly control strictly and sparsely licensed empathy, over against an emerging conception of culture and society based on a universality of empathy. Nostalgia for an imagined past along the lines of feudal Christendom is still widespread and a characteristic feature of fascism, a worse dystopia than what we have. From this perspective, what makes a society dystopian, a mortal danger to itself and others, is a poverty of empathy.

Populist Sense of Loss: Birthright and Patriarchy

The sense of loss that drives right-wing populism results from progress made in extending empathy, bringing with it some degree of dignity and equality, to previously denied people, and especially from the successes of feminism and its inexorable drift of values toward nurture and away from the masculine culture of dominance-derived pride. Right-wing populism is nostalgia for misogyny, racism, celebration of masculine strength, patriarchy, and terror of a supernatural masculine mind in the universe at large which decrees all those dystopian arrangements and certifies their eternal endurance.

There is also a populist rage against the elite status and honour of education and scholarship, of expertise, study, scribal skills and their culture, because they override the tradition of birthright. Birthright claims to be the decree of nature or the almighty creator, in which people are born to a certain social status as a man or as a person of the dominant race, a meaningful niche with a certain richness of rights, privileges, and dignities. In a world of education, there is no birthright. Everyone must accomplish what they can through effort and ingenuity. That has given women, racial minorities, and marginalized groups generally, a way to bypass birthright in dominant cultures.

The broadening of empathy is not an accomplishment of science or technology, and not likely to be helped by artificial intelligence. It is instead a product of the two culture engines identified as threats by the political right-wing: the culture of nurture and attachment cultivated mainly by women, and the scribal culture of broad literacy, inquiry, and scholarship. The posture of inquiry that is philosophy, for example, covering the whole of culture and experience, arises from a judgement, beginning from Socrates, that generally accepted cultural assertions are poorly supported by evidence and are often mere superstitions or misconceptions.

Early on in the twenty-first century, the political left-wing might be desperate in its struggle against advances by traditional patriarchy in a conservative, neoconservative, and neofascist onslaught, but in a long historical perspective the political right-wing is at least as desperate because people generally have become and continue to become more nurturing and to embrace nurturing ethics and values. Violence is less tolerated in many cultures than it was even one generation ago, although there are still forces striving mightily to legitimizing authoritarian patriarchy and top-down human-on-human macro-parasitism, brandishing and glorifying the tools of violence. The truth about individual human spirituality is that the potential for empathy is inherent and as near universal as we need for a better world.

Embedded links:

Fragment 165, July 5, 2020, The Genius of Ephemerality (word count: 595)

Fragment 99, November 2, 2016, What is Patriarchy? (word count: 3,700)

Copyright © 2020 Sandy MacDonald.