Sunday, May 29, 2016

On Pain and Perception

I forgot to blog about something that bothered me a while back.

It seems a few medical students at the University of Virginia actually believe that blacks feel less pain than whites. Maybe they are projecting their own lack of empathy, but I suspect culture has a hand in it. Only a culture with a guilty conscience could construct such a notion to excuse routine institutional violence.

It makes you wonder how these medical students think. If blacks feel less pain, how effective did these future physicians think whipping slaves was back in the day? I guess they think it wasn't all that bad. 

And white society has often portrayed blacks as "oversexed," but how does that work with less-sensitive nerve endings?  I suppose they imagine black sexuality is all hormones with a disappointing payoff - which sort of sabotages related fantasies many whites have if you stop and think about it. Fortunately, bigotry stops all thought on the topic of its target, so those fantasies are quite safe.

Bigotry and ignorance form a feedback loop. The very definition of the word "prejudice" means judging without evidence. The less we listen to others, stubbornly fortifying our assumptions and cementing our mistakes, the less information we have. It is a callous cycle,(1) which frequently becomes a vicious one.

By contrast, empathy makes us more objective because it makes us step outside ourselves and consider others' experience and perspective. In 
my book, I argue that reason and compassion often go together and that this combination summed up the goals of both the Enlightenment and the Progressive Era.(2) I note that the word "understanding" has two definitions: compassion and comprehension. Likewise, "thoughtful" means both contemplative and kindly - ditto with "considerate."

Of course, this is an oversimplification. Although liberalism rises with education, it does not inoculate you against the more complex malady of bigotry. The authors of this study argue that spending time with those different than yourself is the best tonic against racism. Yes, but you can still spend time around those who are different and be a bigot. I see a combination of factors. Time with others is more likely to activate compassion (if you have any), and an alert person is more likely to learn from the experience. After all, experience is just an opportunity to learn - unfortunately, an often wasted one. But the linkage between compassion and intelligence has been shown because reading literature improves both.

Obviously, doctors need both to perform competently in their chosen occupation.(3) The first study is shocking because doctors should be smarter, but also because treating pain is essential to their profession.

EDIT 02/27/17:

This issue is getting a little more attention.


Thinking about this dynamic has taken me on some tangents. A few weeks ago, I mused that the Dunning-Kruger Effect applied to compassion as well as competence. Exhortations to be more compassionate tire callous people and, playing out the jukebox theory of emotions, they read their fatigue as evidence that they have already done enough for others.

(2) "
Ayn Rand's 'Objectivist' label is contradictory. Both logic and compassion require looking beyond our subjective perspectives and selfish interests. In fact, combining logic and compassion was what the Enlightenment was all about. It advocated taking in the big picture to improve the common good. In short, you cannot be selfish and objective at the same time because of bias. The word 'objective' sounds trustworthy, so Ayn Rand used it. Likewise, some religious cults incorporate the word 'science' into their names. But a self-interested, narrow mindset is not objective any more than a religion is scientific."

This isn't just a question of medical ethics. Compassion is no less critical to citizenship than intelligence. I explore this point more in the chapter entitled "Liberty, Equality, and Empathy" and here on this blog. Obviously, I do not think that conservatives make model citizens. But perhaps that can change. Appeals to human decency haven't had much of an effect on them, so perhaps we should try patriotism. We should hammer home the fact that being intolerant is unpatriotic. They don't mind being called the former, but the later gets their attention. Of course, nice liberals are loathe to question others' patriotism and that is exactly what enables conservatives.

1 comment:

  1. Nice blog Jerome. I hadn't heard of the UVA controversy. But, I guess they take a 'Cavalier' attitude about Neurophysiology and such! LolZ!!