Below is an excerpt from
The Politics of Universal Compassion
(forthcoming),
by Joel Federman

One reason why more people do not associate themselves with activities aimed at realizing universal compassion is the commonly-held belief that such a world is impossible to achieve. According to this belief, even if people on an individual basis are capable of universal compassion (an issue that will be discussed in Chapter Six), we are not capable collectively of creating the level of dramatic change necessary to re-order the world along the lines of that ideal. Thus, universal compassion is generally conceived as a purely utopian notion. Compassion is thought of as realizable and practical only within the domain of interpersonal--or, at best, small group--interaction. That the planetary polity could be ordered on this principle appears either as a complete impossibility or as a dim hope for a distant future inconceivable in the lifetimes of the current generations.

This sense of limitation on the possibility of dramatic positive social change does not take the form of a coherent political philosophical position. As with other limiting beliefs, this pessimism is in the "ether," in the ethos of our time. It is not stated as a systematic philosophy, but it is an underlying assumption in much of political discussion. The form it most often takes in American social discourse is what can be called "social cynicism," which is pessimism aimed at society's potential for change. Social cynicism is a form of pessimism that takes itself to be "above" optimism and idealism, as if those were more naive stances rather than merely another choice of perspective. The years leading up to the millennium have been relatively pessimistic and cynical in this sense, and oddly so, given the dramatic positive social change which has occurred during the last thirty years, such as the end of the Cold War, the demise of apartheid, and the beginning of a Middle East peace process. For several decades, there has been a lack of faith on the part of many people that it is possible to make dramatic progress toward the realization of the political values of compassion: human rights, civility, nonviolence, and community. As Rajni Kothari has noted in an article titled, "The Yawning Vacuum: A World Without Alternatives," the post-Cold War period has seen "a basic crisis of vision, a decline of engagement with utopias--in a sense, an end of 'alternatives....'" (Kothari, 1993: 136)

This time of social cynicism can be understood as part of a historically periodic ebb and flow: just as the political pendulum is said to swing from time to time back and forth from "right" to "left," the generally-accepted degree of pessimism and optimism about the potential for large-scale social change waxes and wanes with time, and there are periods of greater and lesser collective optimism. The debate concerning the human potential has been continuous throughout history, and, during various periods of history, the consensus estimate of it in each civilization has periodically risen and fallen. In the more optimistic, expansive, periods, expectations about human beings' individual and collective potential for growth in compassion, responsibility, creativity and integrity lift the range of conceivable political conceptions with them to heights that are seen as purely utopian in periods of lesser enthusiasm. Of course, advocates of all positions along the spectrum are present in each epoch. But, each historical period can be characterized at least in part by the place along the spectrum of social optimism-pessimism that holds sway at the time.

For example, the current period stands in sharp contrast to earlier periods in which there was a stronger belief among many in the potential for major positive social and cultural change. The late 1960s and early 1970s stand as one such period. In the United States during that period, the federal government waged an outright--though eventually abandoned-- "war on poverty." At the same time, the Port Huron Statement that founded the Students for a Democratic Society appealed to a renewed "vision of a democratic society, where at all levels the people have control of the decisions which affect them and the resources on which they are dependent," and to the goal of realizing "the unfulfilled capacities for freedom, reason and love (and the) unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding and creativity" of human beings. (quoted in Sale, 1973: 52-56) The aspirations and goals of African Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and women were given voice in ways that had never before occurred. The environmental movement burgeoned, and the cause of human rights moved from the far periphery toward the center of national foreign policy.

There have been many other periods throughout history when social movements or society as a whole expressed optimism about the potential of human beings to change their collective destiny. For example, the period of the "Enlightenment" which foreshadowed and accompanied the American and French revolutions saw the emergence of such figures as Blaise Pascal, Francois Voltaire, and Denis Diderot who in varying degrees expressed faith in human reason as the fount of continual progress toward the betterment of society (Sabine, 1961: 571-573). Condorcet, for example, wrote that the expansion of reason through universal education will lead inevitably to ever-increasing social contentment, including insurance for the sick and aged, the abolition of war, the elimination of poverty and equal rights for women: "The time will come when the sun will shine only upon a world of free men who recognize no master except their reason, when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical tools, will no longer exist except in history or on the stage. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven!" (quoted in Sabine, 1961; 572).

Another such movement of optimism and idealism in America was led by "Transcendentalists" such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau in the mid-1800s. Thoreau wrote of an enlightenment engendered by reflection and facilitated by solitude. For Thoreau, such enlightenment leads to the fuller expression of individuality in general, and specifically in the political realm. He argued that though such expressions of individuality may be at odds with accepted norms or laws, they constitute a higher law. Acting in accord with that higher law, he contended, is the better part of true democracy. (Thoreau, 1965: 225-253)

It might be said that all of Walt Whitman's writings were about his highly positive vision of the human potential. Whitman wrote of an expansive human nature capable of high levels of awareness, enthusiasm, sexual expression and community. In his Democratic Vistas, Walt Whitman wrote of the possibility of an expansive evolution of democracy, and that for democracy to be fulfilled in its most complete form, high levels of human solidarity would be necessary. For Whitman, democracy has two halves, "individualism" and "adhesiveness, or love;" only when those two are combined in a society can democracy reach its potential. (Whitman, 1945: 414) Without community, he felt, democracy was incomplete: "It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it), that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof." (Whitman, 1945: 454)

Whitman wrote of a vision of a future American democracy embodying strong compassionate "adhesiveness" that would be a beacon of community to the world: "Many will say it is a dream...but I confidently expect a time when there will be seen, running like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown--not only giving tone to individual character and making it unprecedently emotional, muscular, heroic, and refined, but having the deepest relations to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship, as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself." (Whitman, 1945: 454)

Compared to these earlier periods, the common perception of the potential for significant political change at the dawn of the new millennium is relatively limited. Beyond social pessimism, there is today a "cynical chic" attitude that places its adherents "above" or beyond the reach of idealism. This, I would argue, is a psychologically defensive posture, since idealism and hope for the future is a natural condition for healthy human beings, and especially the young. Nevertheless, social cynicism is relatively pervasive in pre-millennial America. When such an attitude is as pervasive as social cynicism is today, it seems to be reality itself. But, it is not. History shows that there are other ways of seeing. A more optimistic vision of human possibility is always available for the choosing.

2002 Joel Federman

 

Back to Top