More and more lately, I have an impression that the results of parliamentary elections across the world partly reflect the percentage of population who admire power/money and individuals who have power/money. The desire for power and admiration for those who have power is one of human biological instincts, and is often in conflict with the instinct of empathy.
For a long time I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that most people on Earth seem to ignore blatant lies, abuse, corruption and lack of ethics in their leaders, and continue to follow them and vote them back into power even when they have better options. I was raised in a family that rejected and condemned greed and violence, and, on top of that, in a socialist country that (at least theoretically, within the school system) promoted solidarity, fairness, equal rights and equal respect for everybody, regardless of how they are born, the type of work they do, or how much power and money they have. The importance of those values was obvious to me even as a child, and it’s still difficult to comprehend how many people don’t seem to share them, especially in light of all the violence and injustice throughout human history.
Then that system fell apart, and people voted in a political party that showed itself amazingly greedy, corrupt and blatantly criminal. But people kept voting them in. With each electoral victory, the governing party showed itself even more shamelessly corrupt and shady. Still people voted them in. Said party is good in manipulating nationalistic feelings (and, perhaps more importantly, undeserved social benefits) and is heavily promoted by corrupt religious leaders, so I kept hoping that people were mostly badly informed and manipulated to vote for them, and if they were only better informed, they would vote differently.
Yet I can see all over the world that, even when corruption and lack of ethics become blatantly obvious, it doesn’t seem to matter enough. Too many people still not just vote for, but admire and find various justifications for criminal leaders, as long as they show enough confidence and hunger for power (or as long as people perceive them as members of their “tribe”). No “red flags”, no obvious lies, arrogance, violence and lack of compassion is enough to deter a significant number of people. I found this difficult to even acknowledge, let alone accept as reality.
Yet we can see the urge to seek/follow power already in children’s playgrounds and schools, where a fair number of children either seek power, or follow and suck up to popular kids and bullies, just because they have some external power. Seems that many adults are not so different after all.
Whether we seek advantage over others, or just increased security and protection, this attitude brings with it the need to disdain more kind and warm human emotions, including empathy (emotions often associated with femininity; thus misogyny, too) and to blame victims rather than violators, often with ridiculous excuses and blatant hypocrisy.
The only explanation that makes sense is that there are many people whose instinct to seek power is stronger than their instinct of empathy, whether it is inborn or culturally enhanced. Those people are likely to seek and follow power, even if they suffer merciless exploitation by the powerful people they follow. They might create and believe justifications even for lies and abuse they themselves are exposed to (and even more if it’s somebody else rather than themselves who is abused and hurt) and may feel visceral discomfort and threat if their values or the power they follow are threatened. This is also reflected in cults and often individual relationships.
The need for safety and ideology of justifying selfishness
Worse, it’s not only the need for power itself, but the need for safety in power/following power that makes people follow predators. The need for safety is perhaps an even stronger instinct, or at least more common than the need for power. It can feel like a perfect justification, consciously or unconsciously, to disregard empathy and human concern.
Speaking of cults, it seems that the ideology of justifying greed and lack of solidarity is becoming just as extremist as communism was, and might create just as much damage, perhaps more insidiously. Since nature hates imbalance and strives towards balance, every extremist ideology sooner or later collapses – but usually not before it reaches its peak and creates enough damage that people are forced to abandoned cherished beliefs.
Tribal instincts, greed and selfishness are powerful urges, some of the basic biological instincts, and people will easily embrace and enjoy any ideology that enables justifying them, especially if their parents and their culture keep telling them it’s not only OK but actually ethical.
Many, if not most, power-seeking people dismiss compassion as weakness (which can even become a part of the culture, such as USA conservative ideology with its laughable claims that solidarity makes people lazy and dependent). Of course, just like everything on this Earth, compassion and solidarity can also be used in unhealthy and extreme ways (and sometimes, yes, the other person can try to exploit it), but that is easily prevented with some sense of balance. In its healthy essence, compassion is a crucial strength of humanity. It enabled humanity to survive through many hundreds of thousands of dangerous years. It is the primary force that, ever so slowly, keeps making the world a better place. It also shows mental strength.
Complex thinking and balance vs. oversimplifying
Perhaps the key problem of humanity, through centuries as well as today, is that instinct to seek power doesn’t require work. It also enables one to feel “above” others, which is tempting especially for people who didn’t get enough love and reassurance by their early families (i.e. most of us). Paired with the need for safety and tribal instincts, it requires even less work – it can be a strong automatic response.
Empathy and solidarity, on the other hand, require work, self-restraint, self-questioning and some sacrifice. It requires you to put some parts of your own interests aside, identify with another person and see them as equally human and worthy. It requires you to recognize long-term consequences of selfishness, not just on the individual, but on the global scale. Empathy also brings pain and sadness, often sense of helplessness in face of others’ suffering. Many people habitually avoid painful emotions, and that can include empathy. Yet the key to inner strength is to be able to feel such emotions.
You can recognize how people’s lives are influenced by their upbringing, environment, and others around them, while also recognizing one’s own responsibility. You can help people while preserving your own boundaries. You can give them some wind in the back rather than be a crutch. You can be fiercely self-reliant, and yet recognize the importance of empathy and solidarity. That requires wisdom and complex thinking. Yet simplified thinking is way easier and often more emotionally rewarding.
Cultural and environmental influences
My current impression is that the percentage of people who instinctively follow power is about 25-40%, depending of country and culture, and in some societies, especially undeveloped ones where people feel less safe, it might be higher. I also notice that rational intelligence and exposure to information in adulthood don’t seem to influence those numbers much. This is because the problem is on the level of values, which is much deeper than individual beliefs or lack of information.
Good news is that family upbringing and cultural influence can dramatically reduce that percentage, but the culture needs to be developed enough to recognize the value of empathy and solidarity, not just in words, but in deed. Usually, the more people feel unsafe, whether realistically or because of an unhealthy family history, the bigger the need to follow somebody powerful.
The feeling of lack of safety might be growing with increasing automation, just like the industrial revolution in 18th century brought along temporary loss in hand-production employment and social unrest. Just like unemployment benefits serve to avoid social unrest and diminish crime today, I believe sooner or later guaranteed minimum income (GMI) will have to become a widespread practice to offset the effects of automation. In the meantime, though, the quality of social and political life will probably decrease – as it’s already happening – as more people turn to powerful predators in futile hope to be safer.
How can you help?
You can’t do much for already formed adults, except to provide a different perspective when possible, which might hopefully sway those people who are somewhere in the middle between empathy and urge for power (make sure that such a different perspective is not expressed in oversimplified, prejudiced ways). You can donate to NGOs which promote education, science and human rights. You can encourage people to feel safer or to find ways to make themselves safer.
It’s particularly important to find and work against faults and hypocrisy within your own tribe; the groups you belong to whether by birth or by choice. Common sense and research show that people are much more likely to value and consider criticism and arguments from somebody belonging to their own tribe than from somebody from a different tribe. So if you want to make a positive change, you need to first work on making your own group better and more ethical; call out exaggerations, hypocrisy and prejudice in their thinking and provide a different point of view.
Men need to work on improving men, women on improving women, conservatives with conservatives, liberals with liberals, tea lovers with tea lovers… you get my point. Few people have the integrity to do so, though, and more often than not, tribalism encourages extremism. Extremism from one side encourages extremism from the other. The more you can help your own group become more moderate and more balanced, the easier it is to promote its values.
As many of our basic feelings, including the feeling of lack of safety, stem from our primary families, my hope lies in the fact that more and more young parents are aware of children’s emotional needs and child development stages, and so they are more likely to give their children the essential feeling of safety. Something similar, I believe, was the result of the invention of the contraceptive pill: it enabled parents to love their children more and give them more, because people who could plan for children could be better emotionally and otherwise prepared. This enabled the new generations to create (slightly) more tolerant and compassionate societies. (Truly, I think the inventors of The Pill should have gotten a Nobel Peace Prize.) Sadly, there are many groups lately that try to promote unwanted births by reducing education about and access to birth control. Let’s hope reason will eventually prevail.
In the end, educating parents and promoting mature parenthood is probably the most important way to increase global empathy. Children learn through what they experience, especially by their parents.
Last but not least, do not forget do be an example of what people can be when they have healthy compassion together with healthy boundaries. In the world we live in, such people are beacons of light.