Big Think Interview With Glennda Testone
Glennda Testone is a women's rights and gay rights activist and the current executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of New York City. The 34-year-old was selected to lead the LGBT Center in 2009 after a nationwide search, becoming the first woman to run this center and one of the youngest leaders of a major LGBT organization. Founded in 1983, the center is the second-largest LGBT community center in the world after the center in Los Angeles. Previously Testone severed as vice president of the Woman's Media Center for three years and the senior director of media programs at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation before that.
Glennda Testone: I’m Glennda Testone. I’m the Executive Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center here in New York City
Question: What was the first time you realized you were attracted to a woman?
Glennda Testone: You’re gonna make me blush. I do. I was working for a gay organization. I was in a lesbian bar in Texas – Dallas. And I was up until that point, had a boyfriend and thought I was completely straight and she hit on me. And I remember feeling very flattered and surprisingly interested. She was confident. I think it was the confidence that really pulled me in.
Question How did you respond to these feelings?
Glennda Testone: They surprised me because I have a Masters Degree in Women’s Studies. When I was in graduate school, I lived with a troupe of drag kings and I had been around the lesbian community for years and was never interested in anyone in the community, so when this happened, I thought the question had already been settled for me, that I was a straight ally working for a gay organization, was working for GLAD at the time, and so it surprised me. And I went home and I called my sister and I said, “This woman hit on me, and I don’t know. I think I kinda liked it.” And she was like, “Oh, it’s no big deal. I kiss lots of girls, who cares.” So, and she was straight also, so that was surprising too. I didn’t know about her. And you know, I remember at the time, it was a little – it was probably a little scary and nothing happened that evening. But it got me thinking. And it got me thinking in a very different way. And it sounds cheesy, but I really started – I can remember driving down the street and envisioning my life completely differently; envisioning getting married to a woman and envisioning having a life, but with a woman, and coming home to a woman. And I really, you know, I don’t know. It’s like this door opened that hadn’t been opened before and I thought, “Huh, that could be my life.” And it seemed really exciting and really right. It just made sense.
Questions: How did you come out?
Glennda Testone: I had different experiences I think than most people because I was working at a gay organization and they, for a couple of years, have gotten used to me being you know, the straight ally working for a gay organization. So I had to go there and sort of come out in a reverse sense and say to everybody, “Look I thought I was straight too, but I’m now. I’m actually gay.” And it was surprising. A lot of people were really – I remember being very nervous and very – I felt a lot of, you know, I was proud to be a straight ally and working for a gay organization. And I felt really – I carried a lot of responsibility to sort of educate other straight people and bring people in, and so I felt – I think there was some part of me that felt like I was maybe letting people down and then I got over that pretty quickly and felt, well this is the whole point. This is what we’re fighting for. This is who I am and it’s okay.
There were some people at work that were sort of like, that’s fine, you’re experimenting. Just you know, test it out. Which sort of irked me a little bit because I thought, “No, this isn’t just you know, a fling. It’s like; I really think this is who I am.” So, it just feels that we all have our own biases and assumptions that we carry around.
And then when I came out to my parents. I was very naive and my parents are very liberal. My dad was a retired as a school superintendent, and my mom was a social worker and worked at a black community center up in Syracuse and they were very liberal compared to every other, you know, all of their friends, all of our neighbors. So I thought this would be a non-issue. And they had gay friends. You know, my mom was the person at work who would stand up for the gay guy. And I’ve never heard my dad tell an anti-gay joke or anything like that. And when I came out, you know, I was very surprised because my mother had such a traditional like reaction, and she is not a traditional person. And it was like, “Oh my God, you’re never going to have kids. You’re never going to have a husband and have this life.” And you know, I was like, “Who are you? This is not—I’ve never heard you say thinks like this.” And it took many years for here to eventually become okay with that. So, it was a process and I didn’t expect it to be. So that was surprising.
Question: Do you come out to everyone you meet or let them assume whatever they want?
Glennda Testone: Yeah. I traditionally do come out to everyone. And there is so many ways I can come out. You know, professionally gay, I’m personally gay, I’m pretty gay. And I actually enjoy that because I think a lot of people look at me and you know, if they don’t know me at all, may assume that I am straight and I sort of like challenging their assumptions and say, actually I’m not. And I have a girlfriend and I run an LGTB organization and you know, I’m an activist for other LGTB people. So, I either talk about my job, talk about my girlfriend, talk about being a big lesbian, you know, all of those. And I really you know, it’s usually not even something that I think about.
But when I was first coming out, it took me a long time to tell my girlfriends from high school, like my friends who were girls. And I think it was exactly what you were talking about, it was about really letting go of the stories that we create for ourselves. And I was the Homecoming Queen, I was the Prom Queen, and you know, Student Council, and Class Secretary, and all of these things. And I didn’t realize that narrative was sort of influencing me and created my image of myself. And I think telling them was – it felt really scary because it felt like shattering everything they thought about me and saying that I was something different. And I worried that they wouldn’t accept me, and I had a generally, you know, I didn’t have an experience where people weren’t you know, “Stop talking to me,” or anything. And I was worried that they might.
And I think I was more worried about you know, I think it was my own internal homophobia and hesitation sort of projected on them, that I was worried that they would look down on me. And when I did come out to them, it was, you know, as soon as it stopped being an issue for me; it wasn’t an issue for them. Like as soon as I got comfortable really being who I was, I noticed that all of them are fine and accepting and embracing and it’s not an issue. So that’s been really great.
Question: Is there significant overlap between the women’s movement and the LGBT movement?
Glennda Testone: I certainly think that, you know, this is probably the toughest question for me. There are certainly – there is certainly an overlap in terms of issues. Women face a lot of pressure around gender expression and certainly get punished if they step out of line, whether they’re straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender normative, there’s a certain pressure on women to really fit certain molds and be very clear about our gender and our sexuality. And so I see a lot of overlapping issues. I wish there was more overlap between the movements themselves. Sadly, I think it’s pretty siloed. There might be some gay or bisexual or queer women working in the women’s movement, not necessarily on those issues. There might be, and there are, straight women who work in the LGBT movement and I don’t see the feminism brought into that as much.
So, at the center, we actually had a program called Causes in Common which built bridges between the Reproductive Justice Movement and the LGTB Rights Movement. And it was really exciting and it was a rare moment where there was an overlap and there was a conversation about we’ve got common enemies. The legislation and issues, they impact us both. When we’re talking about health care and reproductive rights and access, this really impacts LGBT people if they’re trying to build a family. And so I wish there was more collaboration.
Question: How has the situation for LGTB youth changed in recent years?
Glennda Testone: There’s a lot more visibility. You know, I was thinking about, prompted by this question, well what was it like for gay folks when I was growing up? There were no gay folks. There was no one that was out at my high school. I think there was one woman at college. And this was not that long ago. I mean, we’re talking about the ‘90’s. And it just wasn’t talked about. You just didn’t see it. People made gay jokes, anti-gay jokes in high school. And I remember, you know, my boyfriend and I at the time were both really pretty progressive compared to other folks we went to high school with. And so we would sort of stand up to people and it was, you know, we were in the minority, definitely. But no one was out.
And I... the young people that I see at the center and the kids that I see that come to the center, they run the gamut. You know, what I see really surprises and inspires me is the kids who are so confident and so secure and so like, “Yep. I’m gay. I know it. Here I am. Love me.” You know. And whether it’s a front or it’s real, the fact that it even exists is fabulous and something to be nurtured.
And then there are other kids, you know, I do sit on the Mayor’s Commission, which ended recently for LGTB runaway and homeless youth, and it’s a big problem. You’re an LGTB young person, not living in New York City and you’re not accepted by your family and you don’t have a supportive environment, a lot of those kids come to New York. And it’s expensive here, it’s challenging, it’s isolating. We see a lot of them at the center. We serve a lot of them at the center. And they really need our support and our, you know, they need resources. They need a place to sleep. They need someone who tells them that they’re okay. That it’s okay to be who they are. So, I really see the entire spectrum when it comes to young people.
And you know, I met recently for Pride Week, one of the Grand Marshals was Constance McMillan, who is the lesbian woman who wanted to bring another woman to her prom and wear a tux and the school said, “no.” And they cancelled the prom, and then they faked a prom so she would not be able to go to it, and just this horrific story. And she is so confident and so inspirational. Every step of the way and wants to go to college and get her PhD. and counsel other gay kids and support them, and that’s just amazing.
It’s terrible that we still have to deal with that kind of blatant, almost proud bigotry from her school and her classmates, but it’s amazing that she is standing up and not backing down and saying she deserves to be treated equally. So, I think the young people today, the young LGBT people are really an inspiration and a reason why we all need to engage in the fight to achieve basic rights and protections and treatment.
So, no, I appreciate that. So, in the media, there is such pressure for everybody to conform, gays, straight, you know, you should be beautiful, you should be thin, you should be rich and you should be endlessly interesting. I mean that’s what reality television and some of the media in general is telling us. So, I think it’s up to all of us to be who we are and present a different picture and show the world in all of it’s many facets and support that and find ways to really support that because things do get very homogenous and very anesticized through the media. Everything does. And it’s why I think we need to look outside and build our – outside of the media, build our own communities, talk to real people and just create a world where we can all be who we want to be.
Recorded on July 16, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the director of the LGBT Center in New York.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?
Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."
Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.
Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.
The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."
That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"
The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.
Some back story
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.
The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.
Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.
There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.
A Dunbar Correlation
Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?
"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.
I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.
Professor Dunbar's response:
"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."
I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:
"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."
In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.
Friendship, kinship and limitations
"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."
These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.
"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.
As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."
We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.
In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."
This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.
If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.
Gray matter matters
One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."
It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷
It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."
(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.
In the end
Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.
Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.
Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.
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