Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Self-Inflicted Injury of Emotional Callousness

I’m drinking a cup of coffee right now, having boiled the water with natural gas.  I’m not exactly sure where the fuel I used comes from, but my guess is that natural gas from various sources gets marketed and distributed together.  Therefore as I enjoy my coffee this morning, people in shale gas states now may have combustible household tap water and carcinogenic bathroom showers as a thank you for my convenience.
One of the hazards of environmental inquiry is to see horrors like this hiding behind pretty much everything I do and much of what I own, right down to the cotton socks on my feet.  And my question today is: How did I get to be so callous about it?  And what should be done?
My most recent answer to the first part of this quandary is this:
Step One is to see that I was born into a culture in which emotional callousness is a fundamental coping strategy. 
Step Two is to notice that approaches to solving the basic problems of living that would be unthinkable if we were not so callous are then baked into successive generations of technology, social norms, and institutions.
Step Three (and it’s a short one) is seeing that it’s nearly impossible for an individual to live in a culture thus designed without also becoming callous.
Step Four puts the whole thing on wheels: as conditions get worse and nearly every aspect of our culture holds in its shadow some kind of hell, the motivators are in place for yet more callousness leading to yet greater violations of sensibility in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
So that explains a lot about how we got where we are and why it’s so difficult to change: we’re living a callous morality, and we’re doing it on a global scale. Callous corporate ruthlessness has been part of the mix since these entities were first invented.  Ships bearing cargoes of slaves, tea, and spices started the ball rolling, then coal, petroleum, tobacco and “unsafe-at-any-speed” car companies came to rule; when talking about profits before people, it’s nothing new.  Callous government has been with us even longer than callous corporations.  Consequently, as these entities have come to dominate our lives, we have in response become callous as well.  What’s also becoming apparent is that there are consequences to this trend, and that they are serious ones.
“It’s the law of the jungle! It’s a matter of survival!” I hear.
Yes, this is true.  Cultures that are ruthlessly efficient in extracting resources and developing weapons have overrun and exterminated all others.
And now, I would argue, that game has played out. The idea that power naturally accrues to those who are most ruthless and myopic in the pursuit of their own short-term gain, and that this is the best way to run human society, is about to hit a wall. 
In the long run, callousness and consciousness do not support one another.  Although a certain toughness is required of everyone to meet the rigors of life, the tolerance for and even idealization of loss of feeling is not compatible with any sustainable form of human intelligence, since loss of feeling is a kind of loss of consciousness.  Because of this, callousness and power are also ultimately at odds with one another. 
The emotional callousness currently endemic on the global corporate and political scene, as well as in our consumer culture, works a bit like leprosy.  Contrary to popular belief, leprosy does not cause limbs to fall off.  What happens is that the disease attacks the nerves, resulting in a loss of feeling.  Without the conscious feedback loop of feeling and physical sensation, nearly constant unintentional self-inflicted injuries result.  Chronic infection and continuous scarring further the process, until disfigurement and deformity occur.
I would argue that emotional callousness does pretty much the same thing, and although the inner disfigurement is more easily hidden, at least among others who are similarly afflicted and who thus have difficulty feeling what’s going on, the consequences of it are visible everywhere.  I believe we are fooling ourselves in the often unexamined belief that loss of the feeling sense and the inner connection to reality it can provide would have any better practical outcomes for effective action in the world than loss of physical sensation does for the human body. 
Of course, an unfeeling approach seems to work so well at first.  Then again, so perhaps does heroin.  However, the complications that loss of feelings so efficiently eliminates are, in fact, information.  Feelings are an irreplaceable mechanism for inner guidance and course correction.  To the extent that we allow ourselves to become callous, we lose the holistic perspective feelings would otherwise provide.  So, while emotional callousness can be compared to a kind of numbness, it also results in a kind of blindness.  Either way, depending on the degree of the emotional impairment, nearly constant unintentional self-inflicted injuries result.
If my supposition is correct, it seems likely that the erosion and deformity of the emotional potential of humanity would generate other self-reinforcing feedback loops.  On an individual level, disfiguring inner pain often results in further retraction from the feeling sense that would reveal its true nature and extent.  The typical judgment is that it is simply too much.  On aggregate, social pressures mount not to feel much, since one person’s emotions are likely to trigger and thus reveal another’s.  Fortunately, we have the distractions, drugs, and prisons to handle it, or we wait until body systems fail under the stress and then treat the problem in the form of diseases.  A rather reliable indicator of numbness is the level of stimulation required to generate a response.  Here our culture seems to up the ante with every passing year. 
News flash: Callousness, glamorized by many images in the media as strong and “macho,” is actually form of cowardice.  To choose to be unfeeling on a consistent basis is to choose unconsciousness and death.  When the people of a nation governed by democratic institutions embrace callousness as a coping strategy, that nation will be led by those who mirror this tendency.  In time, and often rather quickly, leaders who embody callousness as an ideal will destroy their nations.  The law of leprous self-inflicted injury will work systemically to debilitate the nation and its capacity to respond effectively to emerging conditions.  This is exactly what we’re seeing.  If we cannot change course at this moment, it is because not enough people can feel what’s going on.  Without feeling, there is neither information nor motivation. 
So, it’s not resource depletion, peak oil, climate change, rising population, corporatocracy or environmental devastation that will be the cause of our demise. Nor is the problem a political stalemate or the stranded costs of our investments in useless, outmoded or destructive technology.  These are the not the problems, really: they are the symptoms.
Our callousness plays a causal role here, empowering all of these immanent threats to humanity.  Change that and we start to change everything.  And the beautiful thing is, we can change that.  We can begin right now by bravely choosing a path of feeling, promoting values and institutions that are consistent with the development of feeling, loudly and clearly proclaiming ourselves to be people of feeling, and recognizing that being a person of feeling requires living a life of profound integrity.  
In consequence, as I continue my inner work to open the doors to the deeply informative world of feeling, I must also for example begin to divest myself my participation in forms of agriculture that poison the land and abuse those who work it, and I must shift away from forms of transportation that ruin the air and pollute land and sea.  The reason is, as I open those inner doorways, I feel my connection with all of these things. As incrementally as necessary and always compassionately, a person of feeling is required to connect precisely where the callous approach to living would disconnect.  This is how we heal the planet by healing ourselves, and this is also the wellspring from which we will draw our strength, our inspiration, and our motivation to continue our work in the world.


  1. Hi Clifford,

    This is an excellent, beautifully written and argued essay. Thank you for taking the time to write and post it. You are right on the mark with how callousness works and it is indeed a form of cowardice.

    I gather your blog is quite new. I wish you much success and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on environmental sustainability and social justice issues.

  2. Hi there Clifford,

    Thank you for a timely piece. I have been working on a project that is looking at barriers to behavioural change, of which 'Cognitive Dissonance' (mismatch between our values and our actions) plays a significant part.

    Your essay explores an aspect of this nicely.

    Environmental psychologists are aware that one of the greatest motivators for change comes when a person is confronted with the fact that their behaviours are not in accordance with their values. This is because we largely act through our unconscious. If we can bring those subconscious drivers out into the open then change happens.

    Thanks again.