Empathy, bigotry, and the tolerance paradox: Can America solve its social impasse?

There are a lot of tough conversations that stand between where America is now and "liberty and justice for all," says Van Jones.

Van Jones: This whole question around tolerance and empathy and understanding and where the limits are is a very, very tough conversation and I come down in an odd place. On the one hand I think we have to defend very aggressively the most vulnerable constituencies in America: Muslims, immigrants, transgender people, LGBT, women, African Americans, low-income people, and I think you have to be aggressive about it. I think you have to be passionate about it. I think you have to be serious about it.

If we’re going to have liberty and justice for all and not liberty and justice for some, then we’ve got a lot of work to do. And I think that’s important. At the same time there sometimes can be a loss of empathy for those constituencies that may feel that they have to give up something to get to equality.

For those of us who are trying to gain something to get to equality we can be very passionate, and it feels good—we're making up lost ground over generations of discrimination, we’re overcoming that, it feels great. For other people, even just psychologically, they may feel that they’re losing ground, and it’s sometimes hard for us to have much empathy for that and we tend to go into, “Shut up! You guys have had the game to yourselves. You're disproportionally the business leaders and the senators and everything else, and it’s our turn, and shut up.” And that’s totally understandable, it just may not work very well because change is hard for people.

If you’re a liberal—you look at gentrification. Here’s a neighborhood that used to have African Americans or Latinos or whatever, and then you go away for five years, you come back, and the hipsters have come and they’ve set up their kale shops and bike things everywhere, and you’re like, “Hey!”

It’s like Oakland California right now: West Oakland is being completely transformed by its proximity to Silicon Valley, and people who work for Google and all these places are now moving into West Oakland, totally changing the place.

I sometimes look at that and I go, “Hey, hold on a second; I liked Oakland the way it was!” And if I can build a wall around Oakland and make Silicon Valley pay for it, I might consider that, because I liked Oakland the way that it was. Now, that doesn't mean that we should close the borders or that Trump is right, I'm not saying that at all. I think we need more immigration not less, and I think we need a faster pathway for us to steal all the best talent from around the world and the hardest workers, rather than slower. I think America gets to compete better because we get to cheat and get all the good people from everywhere here.

But can I have a bridge of empathy and understanding to somebody who says, “Hey, wait a minute. I liked America the way that it was when I grow up, I liked certain things. I’ve got some grief now. I’ve got some anxiety now. I’ve got some fear now.”

Do we have to call that person a bigot? Do we have to say that person is a morally deficient human being and push them outside of the circle of decent company, or is there some way for us to say, “We don’t agree with you, we see it differently, but we can understand why there might be some anxiety here. And by the way, you might want to prepare yourself, because more change is coming. We’re going to keep pushing for more change on gender, on sexuality, on the demographics. So more change is coming, but we get it.”

Sometimes I think people just want to be witnessed in their struggle without being judged and condemned.

These are tough conversations to have, and if you start talking the way I’m talking, you’re going to get hit from all sides. I’m willing to do it because I just don’t think you can have an honest conversation any other way.

And the benefit of having a democracy with 300 million people in it—every color, every human, every faith, every gender—all of us actually working together, I mean, it’s worth having some tough conversations and going through some rocky periods to get to that outcome.
But our intolerance for the intolerant may actually create more intolerance. Our tolerance for the intolerant may leave in place too much intolerance.

So it’s a catch-22 that you can’t get through with just your brain; your heart has got to lead you to someplace where you can actually hold onto your principles and hold onto your neighbor at the same time. That's the challenge. No easy answer, but that’s what we’ve got to try to do.

For many years now, America has been tying itself into an enormous Gordian Knot. In Phrygian mythology, this was an epic tangle of rope that no man could untie, despite great rewards, until Alexander the Great came along and cut it in half with his sword—or so the legend goes. Cutting the Gordian Knot is an expression that has come to mean thinking outside the box or finding a creative loophole when faced with a seemingly impossible problem. America is in one such impossible tangle right now, struck by political division that has bled into devastating social division. So what is the loophole we aren't seeing, asks CNN news commentator Van Jones? He suggests having empathy and understanding for everyone who is affected by the march of progress—not just those who are gaining ground, but those who are losing it. If someone liked America "the way that it was," are they really a bigot? "I think people just want to be witnessed in their struggle without being judged and condemned," he says. There is a limit to empathy, however: you cannot tolerate the intolerant for too long—but having empathy for those who interpret change as scary, and understanding why they think that way, may be the only inroad to untying this great mess. Van Jones is the author of Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • 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.

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