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 is a social entrepreneur, CNN political contributor and host of The Messy Truth with Van Jones. Famous for his heart-felt election night coverage, Jones showed up as “the voice of reason” for people in red states and blue throughout the volatile 2016 political season. In response to much civil unrest and energy post-election, Jones launched the #Love Army -- a values-based movement that is working for an America where everyone counts.
Jones has founded and led numerous social enterprises engaged in social and environmental justice, including The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, and The Dream Corps.
Jones is a Yale-educated attorney. He is the author of two New York Times best-selling books, The Green Collar Economy (2008) and Rebuild the Dream (2012). The second book chronicles his journey as an environmental and human rights activist to becoming a White House policy advisor.
He was the main advocate for the Green Jobs Act. Signed into law by George W. Bush in 2007, the Green Jobs Act was the first piece of federal legislation to codify the term “green jobs.” During the Obama Administration, the legislation has resulted in $500 million in national funding for green jobs training.
In 2009, Jones worked as the green jobs advisor to President Barack Obama. In this role, Jones helped to lead the inter-agency process that oversaw the multi-billion dollar investment in skills training and jobs development within the environmental and green energy sectors.
Jones has been honored with numerous awards and spotlighted on several lists of high achievers, including: the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leader” designation; Rolling Stone’s 2012 “12 Leaders Who Get Things Done”; TIME’s 2009 “100 Most Influential People in The World”; and the Root's 2014 "The Root 100." In 2017, Van Jones signed a management deal with Roc Nation, becoming the first political commentator & activist in their family. Jones lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife & two children.
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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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
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