Empathy note #1: Reconceptualizing Security (on Interdependence Day)

As increasingly destructive capabilities become available to smaller and smaller groups, empathy and generosity are becoming increasingly precious and practical qualities in human relationship and in social policy.

“How to build a happy society,
happy human beings on this small planet?
We have to care about others’ well-being.”
— The Dalai Lama
in Portland, OR, May 12, 2013

Our security as Americans depends on our
ability to “crown our good with brotherhood,
from sea to shining sea” – which encompasses
the world.
— Tweet @TomAtlee June 29, 2013

Empathy – the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes – has been an ideal of many if not most religions for millennia. Some call it compassion. Some call it love. Its moral imperative can be found in the numerous versions of the Golden Rule. In its most extreme form we find it in the admonition to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And today, after thousands of years, empathy has become a practical necessity, a matter of enlightened – and even not-so-enlightened – self-interest. Many reasons for this could be cited, but here’s a major one that has yet to blossom in public consciousness:

The 21st century presents us with a volatile reality consisting of two elements:

  • On the one hand we find widespread resentment, shame, anger, injustice, domination, conflict, and suffering. This, of course, is nothing new. The new element that changes the whole game is this:
  • Increasingly powerful technologies of death and destruction are increasingly available not only to official militaries and police but to private individuals and small groups.

This combination of increasing suffering and increasingly accessible destructive power feeds do-it-yourself violence around our interdependent world – from organized crime and terrorism to unhinged lashings-out of disturbed individuals.

For hundreds of years, random and grassroots violence have been kept at bay in civilization by the state’s theoretically legitimate “monopoly on violence” as exercised by its police and military forces.

However, new technologies – from assault rifles and improvised explosive devices to chemical, biological, radioactive, and even more exotic forms of attack – are changing that. Top-down state force and regulation – while still one factor in healthy public order when governments are answerable to their people – are no longer the potent controls they once were since the people they are trying to control are increasingly able to render their efforts irrelevant. Significantly, military strategists now talk about “asymmetric warfare” in which grassroots militias are more than a match for well-armed professional militaries. And because grassroots violence can show up anywhere, it is becoming increasingly difficult to track and prevent, even while the seemingly necessary surveillance to track it undermines the foundations of free society.

This problem is not going away. Technological developments will continue to undermine the ability of centralized force to defeat grassroots and random violence. In 2000 techno-guru Bill Joy envisioned a worst case scenario made possible by converging developments in nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics and computing power. He predicted that within decades small groups and individuals would become able to craft tiny self-replicating entities that could consume and rapidly destroy civilization and even much of the natural world. He suggested that such unconstrained technological developments would make human extinction inevitable – even though only a tiny proportion of the world’s population might be crazy, upset, or careless enough to unleash such destructive power.

In light of that extreme future possibility, perhaps we should be grateful that today we are dealing with mostly localized violent capabilities like plastic semi-automatic guns that can be made by anyone with a 3D printer and can slip through airport security systems.

But let’s step back for a moment. Is it not becoming clear that 3D printed plastic guns, asymmetric warfare, self-replicating nano-robots, master hackers and whistleblowers are taking us rapidly into a world where top-down regulation, policing, surveillance and security systems will simply not be able to track and control this complex and evolving threat? Is it not becoming obvious that giving up our civil liberties in exchange for surveillance-based safety will prove as futile as it is pathetic?

The writing is on the wall. We can no longer depend primarily on state force and surveillance – or even personal threat of force (as through gun ownership) – as our primary sources of security. The real problem – the deeper cause of threats to our security – the leverage point where we can make a real difference and transform ourselves and our world in the process – is the injustice and suffering in the world that feed insanity, inspire outrage, and kindle grassroots violence. That’s where our attention and resources would be most effectively invested.

The new direction we need is thus clear. The conditions for our security now depend – however paradoxically – on empathy, generosity, effective caring, and social systems that help people meet their needs, fulfill their best potential, and pursue their most passionate aspirations.

So, on this Interdependence Day 2013, let’s choose to help people everywhere have good lives. Let’s decide to make it easy for people everywhere to love us, no matter who they are. Let’s take seriously the idea that their fate is bound up with ours, and invite them to join us in that understanding and work together to make a world that works for all.


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