Reclaiming the Spirit of Liberalism

It’s always comforted me to know that nearly all of our great sages, spiritual leaders, and ethical theorists have converged upon a fundamental ethic, The Golden Rule, that they urge us to follow in relating to our fellow human beings: Treat other people the way you want to be treated. It’s that simple. Be kind, be empathetic, be compassionate toward “the Other”. But in the contemporary metropolis, a world full of strangers with varying identities, this principle has become increasingly difficult to follow, for reasons we will discuss shortly.

Many political theorists have proposed their visions for how this basic precept might be enacted at a more macro-level in our social contracts. Such is the essential basis of political liberalism, defined here in the Rawlsian sense, in which we ideally remove self-interest from our political discourse. In the United States, great strides have been made in manifesting the Golden Rule in our legislation, seen most plainly by the abolishment of slavery and, a century later, the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Certainly these immense, structural measures have signified crucial progress in our realization of the Golden Rule. But, clearly, racism has not been eradicated. While a black man in the Deep South might not be denied service at his local diner, he very well may receive lackluster service and antagonistic glances from the staff.  We have become more explicitly and cosmetically equitable, but our implicit, lived ethics—what could be called embodied liberalism—has sorely lagged behind.    

Marginalized groups at Dartmouth, a microcosm of the ethnically heterogeneous metropolis (albeit far less diverse along every metric than your prototypical city), have recounted countless instances of the implicit racism—what has been termed “micro-aggressions”—that they face on a daily basis. While fraternity parties might be “open” to everyone, the hostility and lack of hospitality that many minority students experience at these venues has made them steer clear of these spaces. Such behavior delays the arrival of another articulation of the Golden Rule—cosmopolitanism, the belief that all human beings belong to a single community based on a shared morality. It is the idea that we ought to be citizens of the world, united in our humanity in a way that transcends national, ethnic, religious lines.  In his book On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Jacques Derrida offers a more specific articulation of the Golden Rule that he believes should guide inter-personal relations in a world full of strangers (or a multi-ethnic metropolis). True ethics, he believes, does not just entail a right to visitation, but a duty to host. It is not enough to merely grant your visitor entry and oblige his request for a keystone, and leave him/her content with your peaceful coexistence. Rather, if we are to be truly ethical, we must be charitable and merciful toward the Other in his/her vulnerable state, able to genuinely care about his/her well-being, as we do our own, and make him/her feel at home.

The limits of ethics are thus reached, however, when its theorists issue a call to action, a normative request, that is not accompanied with help in showing us how to embody what it is that we “ought” to do. How does one become capable of living the Golden Rule, of treating the Other as Self? Surely many of us, including myself, struggle mightily to uphold this ideal. Fortunately, some findings dispatched from the scientific exploration of human nature offer some clues to help us understand the apparent difficulty of living Derrida’s injunction. 

Perhaps the most formidable obstacle to the realization of the cosmopolitan ideal comes from the innate human proclivity for tribalism, descending from a time when we lived in hunter-gather tribes that competed against one another for resources. We are an inherently group-ish species. To the evolutionary biologist, racism might constitute an ingrained part of human nature. Though there exists much debate about the “innateness” of racial bias specifically, the in-group/out-group bias undoubtedly has its roots in our evolutionary past, instantiated in the brain in ways the neuroscientists are beginning to understand. One study found that both white and black participants exhibit greater amygdala activity, a brain region responsible for triggering a state of fear, in response to the faces of out-group members.  This heightened amygdala response ignites the sympathetic nervous system, priming the body for a “fight or flight” response. Interestingly, the degree of amygdala activation correlated with participants’ scores on a test of implicit bias—the kind of bias that many of us are not even aware of.

Thus, the evolutionary basis for our out-group bias should be an occasion for compassion for those who are subject to innate forces that no longer serve them well. What, then, can be done to combat this undesirable fear response? At Dartmouth, the Real Talk group has proposed that an answer might lie in greater education of the Dartmouth community regarding sensitivity to the systems of racism, classism, and homophobia that undoubtedly plague the campus. Indeed, studies show that increased exposure to other races and cultural ideals helps to suppress the brain circuitry of racial bias. Education will certainly be part of the on-going solution, but as Wesleyan president Michael Roth diagnosed in his recent New York Times Op-ed, “Young Minds in Critical Condition,” academia’s emphasis on foisting criticism upon our authors, along with our generation’s ever-waning ability to sustain attention, has greatly impeded our students’ capacity to be inspired and transformed by a liberal arts education. I think that there is a more direct form of therapy than help transfer our ethics from books and ideas to lived behavior. 

The feelings of compassion and empathy, which the Golden Rule commands, but doesn’t necessarily enable, naturally arise out of the practice of mindfulness, an ancient Buddhist practice that has recently evolved into a powerful psychotherapy technique in the West. Mindfulness can be broadly defined as “a kind of non-elaborative, non-judgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.” Mindfulness exercises help us to shift from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, characterized as a “fight-or-flight response,” in which we see others as potential threats (recall the amygdala activation to out-group faces), to a state of more parasympathetic activation, the “rest and digest” mechanism. As psychologist John Christopher notes, it is this launch of the parasympathetic nervous system that fosters a “tend-and-befriend” attitude toward others, in which we see “a sense of identity shifting a little bit…And interpersonally feeling a little bit of a shift, moving from a place of being more anxious, seeing others as a little bit of a threat, to feeling safer, a greater sense of interconnectedness.” In this state of spacious awareness, in which the recognition of interconnectedness crystallizes, there exists a subtle but pervasive compassion toward all beings.

These practices in attending to our present experiences—including yoga and mindfulness—help us to notice when we move into a stressful or reactive response to others for no good reason, and equip us with the tools to halt the sympathetic activation arising from the sight of the Other and engage the parasympathetic, allowing us to remain open to and accepting of ourselves and others. It might be precisely this state of mindfulness that provides the necessary conditions for the enactment of Derrida’s hospitality. For in the realm of mindful awareness, we feel no “obligation” to be hospitable; rather, this fundamental ethic emanates naturally from the body, as we feel compelled, desirous of lavishing compassion onto the Other, reveling in the interconnectedness that mitigates the apparently strict boundary between our bodies. As neurospychologist and mindfulness guru Rick Hanson teaches, mindfulness practices help to uncover our “fundamental nature”, which is “pure, conscious, radiant, loving, and wise.”

The march of cosmopolitan progress will surely require further macro-level efforts to remove systematic and institutional forms of oppression. However, as the lived experiences of marginalized groups indicate, liberalism de jure does not necessarily entail de facto liberalism, in which our actual inter-personal experiences align with the compassion that supposedly motivates our liberal legislation (see: affirmative action, socialized health care). In the words of John Christopher, many of us are living lives disconnected from “what goes on beneath our shoulders,” where our ethical cores reside. If we are not in touch with our bodies, we cannot internalize, or embody, the ethics that a liberal arts education attempts to impart.

We live in an age where technology mediates our connection to our ourselves and others, wreaking havoc on our ability to be present with our bodily thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The person who votes Democrat and reads the New Yorker, but remains glued to their iPhone and unable to confront the unfamiliar Other on the Dartmouth campus, does not embody the true spirit of liberalism. We must ensure that the ethics of our beliefs and our laws also inhabits the very experience of ourselves and our connection to others. Mindfulness, I believe, can help us get there.