Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 4, 2010

Simple and Sensible

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on August 4, 2010

Over the weekend, Peggy Orenstein, writing in The New York Times Magazine, cited a study out of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan that got me thinking about empathy. President Obama has cited this as an important quality shaping his choice of nominees for the two most recent openings on the Supreme Court of the United States. And commentators have suggested that contrasting views of the part empathy should play in judicial decisions (much less everyday policy debates) represents one of the bigger points of disagreement among political partisans. So, I wondered, what does this mean for us in the fields of homeland security and emergency management?

When we think about the plight of those experiencing disaster, we usually think in terms of sympathy not empathy. We are moved to feel and express compassion for their situation, but only occasionally see ourselves in their position and ask what we would do ourselves or expect of others. Doing so would require us to accept our vulnerability, which for many of us suggests admitting a certain sense of powerlessness. But is this really a correct sense of the situation?

I think it is clear enough that we tend to have difficulties approaching troubling topics like our vulnerability to terrorist attacks or natural disasters with a positive frame of mind, that is beyond noting how positive we are that the occurrence of these events is a question of when not if. When we do think about these things, we often find it difficult to get past our deficiencies and shortcomings. After all, who has looked at these problems and not seen opportunities for improvement?

But empathy, unlike sympathy, asks something more of us. It demands that we ask what can we do for ourselves and others to make the situation better. Now clearly there are at least two ways we can answer this question. One starts with an assessment of our resources. This approach asks, “What can I do with what I have to offer?” The other takes a slightly different approach by asking, “What can I learn from this situation that will help make me and others better off now and in the future.” Learning without doing in this instance is inadequate. Practical knowledge requires engagement as opposed to observation and criticism.

The first approach reflects what Carol Dweck of Stanford University calls a fixed mindset. The fixed mindset leaves us prone to defeat and depression when what we have is not enough to get what we want or what we think others expect of us. Too often, the fixed mindset discourages rather than encourages us to act by suggesting anything we do will be too little or too late. The fixed mindset ignores the cumulative effect of many small contributions or the meaning others find in our willingness to give what we can even though it’s all we have.

The growth mindset offers us hope that our example will lead others to help. It affords us the opportunity to exceed our expectations and abilities by extending ourselves in unknown directions. It opens us to the possibility that a little bit of effort can alleviate a lot of anxiety or injustice even if it does not make the world a perfect place to live.

Perhaps more important to our recent discussions, though, the growth mindset insofar as it reflects empathy, embodies resilience. When we engage empathy, we offer ourselves and one another the opportunity to make things better by changing what we can even it it’s not all that is needed.

Orenstein’s article speculated about the reasons for the Institute of Social Research’s noted decline in empathy among college-aged students. She suggested that the superficial hyper-connectedness of social networks like Facebook and Twitter have edged out the sort of genuine engagement that leads to the sorts of lasting relationships that build a sense of community. I’m not so sure I buy her argument, especially in light of the way I see my teen-aged daughters using these tools every day.

Maybe the answer lies in another New York Times article I read the week before. David Leonardt reported on a study that suggested kindergarten produces a pretty big bang-to-buck ratio by giving kids skills they will need throughout their lives. This comes as pretty big news, especially as others begin to question the benefit-cost ratio of sending their kids to college.

So, what is it kids learn in kindergarten that serves them so well in later life? Well, somebody already wrote a book about that. Robert Fulghum’s whimsical but wise little book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten dominated the New York Times’ bestseller list in 1989 and 1990. His prescription was as simple as it was sensible:

  • Share everything.

  • Play fair.

  • Don’t hit people.

  • Put things back where you found them.

  • Clean up your own mess.

  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

  • Wash your hands before you eat.

  • The list went on, but you get the idea. When I watch my kids relate to their friends on social networks, I see them making efforts to reinforce many of these norms among their friends. And that behavior extends to the sorts of interactions I see them having with their friends when they get together, which is pretty often around our place.

    Now, I am not suggesting that disasters do not involve a substantial degree of complexity. Neither do I suggest that the things we have to do to put things right again do not involve many complicated steps. But I am saying that our ability to resolve this complexity and engage the complicated steps needed to create a better world involve simply accepting that we can make a difference even if we cannot accomplish the whole thing by ourselves. This is what community is really all about.

    Developing the capacity to safeguard ourselves and our communities can be as complex or complicated as we want to make it. Or we can accept that simple, sensible steps can make a difference if we engage others to join us. Applying our kindergarten lessons to life, whether we’re online or face-to-face would be a good start toward seeing this become reality.

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    7 Comments »

    Comment by William R. Cumming

    August 4, 2010 @ 3:42 am

    Great post! And by the way now looking like 10’s of thousands of oil spill responders will be suffering major health effects as another catastrophe demonstrates that OHSA, EPA, HHS, CDC have no clue what is necessary. See RAND Study a few years back May-June 2006? on need for safety standards for professional response community. Hey non-enforcement by DOJ of OSHA requirement for training, protecting, equipping response personnel being a felony might shape up some of this arena. FEDS also can be prosecuted as we learned at Aberdeen Proving Ground a few years back.
    So sympathy, emphathy, and complying with the law all might be necessary ingredients.

    Comment by Dan O'Connor

    August 4, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    Thanks for posting Mark;

    You bring up many interesting points and there is a continuation of themes broached by Phil Palin in some of his recent posts.

    Empathy is a powerful emotion; it covers a broad spectrum of definitions ranging from feeling or an emotional concern for other people that creates a need to help. It also creates a bridge of sorts, creating the situation of shared feelings and pain. President Clinton’s famous line, “I feel your pain” was directed at an unemployed man in a town hall meeting. Many felt this was a crucial turning point for him and his election. Are we as a Nation empathetic or simply self interested in our needs and desires?

    Does being empathetic make us weak or prone to attack? Is it empathy or victimization that drives our outrage? Or, is it a defining quality that makes a Nation great? Are people and/or Nations taught victimization? Is it an expectation brought on by a degree of self righteousness and/or excess? Do we learn to be victims of circumstance? Are we quietly glad when it’s “the other guy”? Are we a strong Nation or a fearful one? I do believe these factors and lack thereof color our National security posture, our Homeland Security posture, and our interaction with the world. And I also don’t think posing these questions diminishes my patriotism or love of country.

    By the same token do we learn to be resilient? Resilience is what separates survivors from the casualties’; adaptors from the fixed mindset. Physics tells us that resilience is a property, the capacity of some material to absorb energy and respond elastically so as to retain its integrity and not become deformed by the impact of the energy. The emotional equivalent is a person’s ability to absorb, deflect, rationalize and/or realize stress and not be broken by it. So is resilience a learned behavior, much like empathy? Have we lost our ability to be resilient because of our perceived victimization complex? Are we a resilient Nation?
    Does resilience and empathy coexist? It would seem somewhat paradoxical to be morally satiated with drone and UAV attacks, killing more than simply the intended target while having empathy for those who were “innocent”. Are there no longer innocent civilians, but guilt by proximity? I am not being trite or flippant here. This has to be part of the discussion.

    As we move towards a more detached robotic, machine centric warfare, where our risk aversion to human loss is a key driver? Where pilots in a CONEX box in Nevada are killing in Peshawar and Kandahar? Does the loss of human interaction and risk, diminish humanity, thereby remove empathy from the equation?

    And in complete honesty; how can one see the world and its many trouble spots and not feel a sense of we are all one people? The contrast of “have” and “have not” crisscrosses the empathy line. Are we as a Nation more vulnerable to terrorist attacks or natural disasters than others? Do we want life and death decisions made while being empathetic?
    How much empathy do we want our Marines and Soldiers on the frontier steppes of Afghanistan displaying? This is the struggle. I don’t have answers per se, but there has to be a contrast brokered between an “us and them”. Bad people will continue to do bad things until good people stop them… or “badder” people do. It really does play into nationalism, chauvinism, jingoism, etc.

    Your fixed mindset comment reminds me of Admiral James Stockdale and the Stockdale paradox. Stockdale was the senior Naval aviator shot down and captured during the Viet Nam war. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage and leadership. In Stockdale’s paradox, he postulates that one must retain faith that they will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. What’s different or what differentiates this from mere optimism is to accept, embrace or confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. When Jim Collins interviewed Stockdale for his Good to Great book, he asked Stockdale who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
    “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.

    There is also a twinge of existentialism involved too. There are simply things you cannot control and to accept them; again, a recognition of the facts.

    So, at the 50,000’ level; have we confronted the most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be? Not ideologically but pragmatically? Are we victims of circumstance or simply losing sight of what it takes to be resilient? How bad to we want to fix our “stuff”?

    Until we come to understand consequence for action, personal behavior, and our hand in our own situation, we’ll continue to wonder why bad things happen. We do not live in a perfect world where everyone plays fair and shares. My spiritual being would want that and desire that world. My pragmatic being, my reality one, knows nothing is fair and just because something is right doesn’t make it happen. Our inability to grasp the most brutal facts and confront them is OUR reality. Until we’re able to do that, Nationally and as a people our capacity to safeguard ourselves and are communities will not be fully realized.

    A bit of a ramble and perhaps a tangent argument, but salient comments provoke a variety of thoughts.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by William R. Cumming

    August 5, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    Perhaps Stockdale had read Viktor Stenkel, a holocaust survivors guide to his survival.

    Comment by 66

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:42 am

    We have 100,000 houses with toxic Chinese drywall.

    “New Federal Guidelines Say Homes Aren’t Safe; Drywall Linked to Corrosion of Wiring, Health Problems.” CBS News We built a drywall plant here. It costs more.

    Comment by William R. Cumming

    August 6, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    Does any organization have standard setting authority over construction materials? Certainly not HUD except perhaps in Manufactured Housing under 1974 HUD act! Formaldehyde? Abestos?

    Comment by 66

    August 12, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

    Carbon Fiber? “Throw it into drive. Stomp on the accelerator. Launch. Pinned to the back of the seat. 30, 60, lights, 90, 110. As we slow to a stop the automatic license plate recognition device checks for 28s and 29s. After making contact with a violator, dispatch calls a cover unit for me and asks if my mic is secure. Adrenaline rush. Returns show felony warrant for registered owner vehicle. ID provided matches. Confirm warrant. Cover unit on scene. Warrant confirmed. I step out of the vehicle, draw my weapon, and take cover behind the bullet resistant door. Felon safely taken into custody.

    Open the rear-hinged coach door and secure the suspect in the rear passenger compartment.”
    http://www.carbonmotors.com/blog/3/Anticipation

    Sounds simple. Better cars, better security.

    Comment by 66

    August 14, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

    “Logotherapy was developed by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. It is considered the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”[1] after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology. It is a type of existentialist analysis that focuses on a will to meaning as opposed to Adler’s Nietzschean doctrine of will to power or Freud’s will to pleasure. Rather than power or pleasure, logotherapy is founded upon the belief that it is the striving to find a meaning in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans. A short introduction to this system is given in Frankl’s most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he outlines how his theories helped him to survive his Holocaust experience and how that experience further developed and reinforced his theories.” Wikipedia

    I had the chance to do logotherapy. I can survive anything. It turned out to be good preparation for 9-11-01.

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