Why we need compassionate politics…

Huh? OK, this might be a bit trickier than I planned, but bear with me. If you live in Australia, the USA, or the UK, the concept of compassionate politics is probably alien. Sure, there are a few senators or representatives (or in the UK, Lords or MPs) who get it, the ones who propose bills (that usually don’t make it through either house) that address social justice, environmental moderation, gay rights, freedom of speech, etc. but, for the most part, parliament appears to operate at a similar level to the average kindergarten. I had the great displeasure of seeing Australian parliament time a few months back, and was amazed, then stunned, then sickened by the antics of what appeared to be a bunch of monkeys slinging poo at one another. Worse, it seemed to be an elaborate game in which only the politicians understood the rules. First, someone would get up and say something that had been carefully scripted by his or her staff (and was probably a deliberate mistruth), then the opposition would hoot at them, then there’d be lots of blustering, and then the speaker would call “order”, it would stop temporarily and then repeat. This is how populations are represented.

So, I’m by no means a political analyst, nor do I have a great understanding of the machinations of western government. Even I know, however, that the show and tell that goes on in parliament is more of a side-show, that the real work happens in the public and civil service – they, after all, actually enact the laws of the land and the policies of the governing party. The question is, when it comes to doing something meaningful, like thinking about the future, who is held accountable? Is it even remotely ethical for any governing party to consider only their remaining years in power, and to act only in ways that are likely to extend that reign?

What do I mean be meaningful action? Well, let’s have a look at some of the pressing issues facing the planet and, by extension, its denizens. First and foremost is the (sadly probable and probably inevitable) decline of the biosphere. Temperatures are rising, ecosystems are being irreversibly poisoned, oceans are dying, species die-off has reached terrifying levels (and continues to increase). Amongst these horrors, the population of human beings is continuing to grow – soon it will hit 8 billion and will probably peak at 10-12 billion in less than 30 years. Simultaneously, the expected standard of living among many of us is increasing, and we’re consuming limited resources at a rate that is, frankly, unsustainable. In fact, it hasn’t been sustainable for some time. Unfortunately, we’d need four or five Earths to sustain our ongoing consumption of its resources for any reasonable amount of time.

We all know these facts. If you’re under 40 you grew up with them. Sadly, most of us have habituated to the idea and, in our very human way, we simply can’t see a threat that isn’t right in front of us (snarling with dripping fangs). It’s not our fault, it’s just that we’re hard-wired to respond to danger only when we see an immediate threat and, generally speaking, that threat has to be trying to eat us.

For some time, economists have been suggesting that economies need to take into account more than the relatively simple notion of availability of resources versus consumption. Economic planning should, they contend, include other variables, such as the health and wellbeing of a country’s population, the quality and availability of education, and the sustainability of current practices. These social economic variables are used to understand and model the needs and risks to the population (and wider ecosystem). Nevertheless, our economy remains based on the notion of limitless resource consumption, and involves the daily trading of largely fictional constructs (such as currencies, futures, and shares) that have nothing to do with the wellbeing of the planet or its inhabitants. In fact (and this notion should be considered universally ludicrous, but appears to be taken seriously), people are rewarded (with sickeningly large amounts) for actions that actively hurt others (e.g., the arms trade). Of course, this is basically how it’s been since we were cavemen. A few are rewarded for exploiting many others.

OK, this post wasn’t intended as a Marxist rant. In fact, the whole notion of a political ideology is often what gets us into serious trouble. So let’s look at where and how politics can actually make us better people, how governments and politicians can actually do something meaningful for us (i.e., humanity).

For a start, let’s look at the notion of compassionate politics. By this I mean the idea that politicians and political actions can be motivated by the desire to help the human condition, rather than to remain in power, and to basically repeat the actions of the past. The EU provides a reasonable example of occasional compassionate politics in action (unfortunately mired by an amazing amount of shit), in which political ideology is replaced by a concern for wellbeing. Some areas in which the EU has acted commendably include animal welfare, environmental legislation, public health spending, promotion of psychological wellbeing, and (some) control over financial institutions. Nevertheless, the EU has also burgeoned into a massive bureaucracy, incorporating an intrusion into daily life, pandering to large corporations, and the inevitable corruption, inane spending, and wastage that accompanies any large organisation.

Here’s the rub. If you’ve read my posts to date, you’ll know that humans are hardwired with a whole load of redundant systems based around surviving a dangerous world of things that are trying to eat us. As a result, we’re pretty much exclusively focused on ourselves and a small number of people around us, we’re prone to short-term thinking and violence, and we all believe that we’re better than everyone else (a statistical impossibility). We have poor memory systems, despite the fact that we use these systems to define our ‘selves’, and we constantly rationalise our inadequate, poorly thought out, or plainly stupid decisions. We transmit destructive memes to one another and, once infected by these memes, we act even more irrationally than usual. We try and force our inadequate world views on others. And we bring all of these flaws with us into whatever we do, including (or it seems, especially) politics. It’s simply terrifying to see just how far out of touch with humanity many politicians are – but, sadly, the politics of intolerance is just monkey politics, it’s the same shit as always clothed in a modern context.

Nevertheless, as a reader of this blog, you’ll also be aware that humans are capable of amazing things. We can be compassionate to others, even those we don’t know or don’t like. We can (with effort) project into the future and predict the various outcomes of our behaviour, we can think rationally, and we can change. So, of course, we are capable of bringing these sorts of behaviours into politics and government. This won’t happen, however, when the prevailing meme in political functioning is the lengthening of power and the denigration of the opposition.

Compassionate politics (by extension, the action of politicians who act with compassion) has a long way to go. And it’s a devilishly tricky balance. Laws that help us behave in a more human fashion are potentially useful, but if they’re enforced through regular policing (using a ‘stick’) the message becomes mixed. Worse, telling people what they should do doesn’t result in behaviour change (psychologists have known this for a long time). Likewise, ‘compassionate’ laws (such as allowing active euthanasia and assisted suicide, decriminalising illegal drugs, or even spending large amounts on research in higher education) tend to be divisive (personally, I think these are wonderful ideas and represent a highly compassionate and forward-thinking stance, but there are many who would probably want to do me harm for advocating these things – some lovely irony there).

A balance comes from providing the population with the tools to be able to act more compassionately. Comprehensive, widespread, permissive education becomes, therefore, the most important thing a government can focus on. Compassion is only available to us when we’re not using the majority of our cognitive resources to perpetuate our redundant programming. We need to be able to understand ourselves and each other in order to act compassionately and, by extension, act compassionately within government.

So, no answers today, just a lot of questions. What it comes down to though, is the fact that our current way of life cannot continue for much longer. We need political leaders who are capable of thinking beyond their evolutionary programming, and who possess the ability to attract others with a similar capacity (compassion by stealth?). In Australia, we have an election later in the year. Perhaps instead of letting the political parties push the same crap down our throats, we should be telling them what we think. How about actually contacting your local representatives and those standing for office and discussing what they stand for. Maybe one of you will stand for office…


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