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What Morgellons Disease Teaches Us about Empathy

photograph of hand lined with ants

For better or for worse, COVID-19 has made conditions ripe for hypochondria. Recent studies show a growing aversion to contagion, even as critics like Derek Thompson decry what he calls “the theater of hygiene,” the soothing but performative (and mostly ineffectual) obsession with sanitizing every surface we touch. Most are, not unjustifiably, terrified of contracting real diseases, but for nearly two decades, a small fraction of Americans have battled an unreal condition with just as much fervor and anxiety as the contemporary hypochondriac. This affliction is known as Morgellons, and it provides a fascinating study in the limits of empathy, epistemology, and modern medical science. How do you treat an illness that does not exist, and is it even ethical to provide treatment, knowing it might entrench your patient further in their delusion?

Those who suffer from Morgellons report a nebulous cluster of symptoms, but the overarching theme is invasion. They describe (and document extensively, often obsessively) colorful fibers and flecks of crystal sprouting from their skin. Others report the sensation of insects or unidentifiable parasites crawling through their body, and some hunt for mysterious lesions only visible beneath a microscope. All of these symptoms are accompanied by extreme emotional distress, which is only exacerbated by the skepticism and even derision of medical professionals.

In 2001, stay-at-home mother Mary Leiato noticed strange growths on her toddler’s mouth. She initially turned to medical professionals for answers, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with the boy, and one eventually suggested that she might be suffering from Munchausen’s-by-proxy. She rejected this diagnosis, and began trawling through historical sources for anything that resembled her son’s condition. Leiato eventually stumbled across 17th-century English doctor and polymath Sir Thomas Browne, who offhandedly describes in a letter to a friend “’that Endemial Distemper of little Children in Languedock, called the Morgellons, wherein they critically break out with harsh hairs on their Backs, which takes off the unquiet Symptoms of the Disease, and delivers them from Coughs and Convulsions.” Leiato published a book on her experiences in 2002, and others who suffered from a similar condition were brought together for the first time. This burgeoning community found a home in online forums and chat rooms. In 2006, the Charles E. Holman foundation, which describes itself as a “grassroots activist organization that supports research, education, diagnosis, and treatment of Morgellons disease,” began hosting in-person conferences for Morgies, as some who suffer from Morgellons affectionately themselves. Joni Mitchell is perhaps the most famous of the afflicted, but it’s difficult to say exactly how many people have this condition.

No peer-reviewed study has been able to conclusively prove the disease is real. When fibers are analyzed, they’re found to be from sweaters and t-shirts. A brief 2015 essay on the treatment of delusional parasitism published by the British Medical Journal notes that Morgellons usually appears at the nexus between mental illness, substance abuse, and other underlying neurological disorders. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the ailment isn’t “real.” When we call a disease real, we mean that it has an identifiable biological cause, usually a parasite or bacterium, something that will show up in blood tests and X-rays. Mental illness is far more difficult to prove than a parasitic infestation, but no less real for that.

In a 2010 book on culturally-specific mental illness, Ethan Watt interviewed medical anthropologist Janet Hunter Jenkins, who explained to him that “a culture provides its members with an available repertoire of affective and behavioural responses to the human condition, including illness.” For example, Victorian women suffering from “female hysteria” exhibited symptoms like fainting, increased sexual desire, and anxiety because those symptoms indicated distress in a way that made their pain legible to culturally-legitimated medical institutions. This does not mean mental illness is a conscious performance that we can stop at any time; it’s more of a cipherous language that the unconscious mind uses to outwardly manifest distress.

What suffering does Morgellons make manifest? We might say that the condition indicates a fear of losing bodily autonomy, or a perceived porous boundary between self and other. Those who experience substance abuse often feel like their body is not their own, which further solidifies the link between Morgellons and addiction. Of course, one can interpret these fibers and crystals to death, and this kind of analysis can only take us so far; it may not be helpful to those actually suffering. Regardless of what they mean, the emergence of strange foreign objects from the skin is often experienced as a relief. In her deeply empathetic essay on Morgellons, writer Leslie Jamison explains in Sir Thomas Browne account, outward signs of Morgellons were a boon to the afflicted. “Physical symptoms,” Jamison says, “can offer their own form of relief—they make suffering visible.” Morgellons provides physical proof of that something is wrong without forcing the afflicted to view themselves as mentally ill, which is perhaps why some cling so tenaciously to the label.

Medical literature has attempted to grapple with this deeply-rooted sense of identification. The 2015 essay from the British Medical Journal recommends recruiting the patient’s friends and family to create a treatment plan. It also advises doctors not to validate or completely dispel their patient’s delusion, and provides brief scripts that accomplish that end. In short, they must “acknowledge that the patient has the right to have a different opinion to you, but also that he or she shall acknowledge that you have the same right.” This essay makes evident the difficulties doctors face when they encounter Morgellons, but its emphasis on empathy is important to highlight.

In many ways, the story of Morgellons runs parallel to the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. Both groups were spear-headed by mothers with a deep distrust of medical professionals, both have fostered a sense of community and shared identity amongst the afflicted, and both legitimate themselves through faux-scientific conferences. The issue of bodily autonomy is at the heart of each movement, as well as an epistemic challenge to medical science. And of course, both movements have attracted charlatans and snake-oil salesmen, looking to make a cheap buck off expensive magnetic bracelets and other high-tech panaceas. While the anti-vaxx movement is by far the most visible and dangerous of the two, these movements test the limits of our empathy. We can acknowledge that people (especially from minority communities, who have historically been mistreated by the medical establishment) have good reason to mistrust doctors, and try to acknowledge their pain while also embracing medical science. Ultimately, the story of Morgellons may provide a valuable roadmap for doctors attempting to combat vaccine misinformation.

As Jamison says, Morgellons disease forces us to ask “what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion. It’s about this strange sympathetic limbo: Is it wrong to speak of empathy when you trust the fact of suffering but not the source?” These are worthwhile questions for those within and without the medical profession, as we all inevitably bump up against other realities that differ from our own.

True Crime and Empathy

photograph of coroner and officer hovering over body

True crime is a prism through which we understand a myriad of social concerns, including race, gender, class, and mental illness. It’s an arena where the political is made personal, where structural inequalities are boiled down to or made manifest through individual acts of stunning violence. It’s also infinitely versatile in terms of form (podcast, documentary, online forum) and tone (prestigious, comic, sensational). There are many obvious pitfalls for the investigative journalists and television producers that peddle true crime stories. They might influence public opinion about a case, or even change the course of an investigation, as happened with both the podcast Serial and the hit show Making a Murderer. But what does the popularity of this genre teach us about empathy, and what ethical dilemmas are faced by its adherents?

Those adherents, as Rachel Monroe says in her 2019 book Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Crime, Women, and Obsession, are overwhelmingly women (one 2019 study says that women make up about 85% of true crime aficionados). These women, as Monroe explains, “reinvented themselves, finding personal meaning through other people’s tragedies. They used [true crime] as a way to live out other kinds of lives, ones that were otherwise unavailable to them.” Monroe argues that those with an active interest in true crime (men and women alike) tend to identify with an archetypal figure; they can be the analytical detective who seeks justice within the judicial system, the battered victim, the avenging vigilante, or even the murderer.

We can even identify with the archetypal true-crime reporter. The success of the podcast Serial, Alice Bolin says, depends on how relatable the host is: “Like the figure of the detective in many mystery novels, the reporter stands in for the audience, mirroring and orchestrating our shifts in perspective, our cynicism and credulity, our theories, prejudices, frustrations, and breakthroughs.” This process of identification is the driving thrust behind true crime fandom. It isn’t enough to see the facts laid out, we want a narrative to project ourselves into, and the form that projection takes is rooted in our deepest needs and desires. Though the stereotype of true-crime fans is that of the addict, the passive consumer, it’s virtually impossible to get invested in crime without some element of it speaking to you.

In the world of true crime, the line between creator and consumer is tenuous at best. This is most evident in the Elisa Lam case, which was the subject of a recent Netflix documentary. Lam died tragically on the roof of a hotel after going off her medication, and a surprising number of people (many of whom are featured in the documentary) became obsessed with “uncovering the truth” behind her death. Internet sleuths constructed an elaborate web of conspiracy, positioning themselves as authorities over her story, while also consuming it voyeuristically. Some claimed she was the victim of supernatural forces, others harassed members of her family. This case exemplifies that identifying with the victim is not the same as showing empathy for the victim.

Narratives, more broadly, give us a sense of justice and stability. Kevin Balfe, the founder of the wildly popular true crime convention CrimeCon, explained to Time that “most of these stories represent what all great stories have. There’s a hero. There’s a villain. There’s usually a mystery. There’s oftentimes a traumatic event. There’s usually a resolution.” The question is whether or not immersing ourselves in such narratives can make us blind to reality, as the almost fairy-tale narrative structure described by Balfe suggests.

At the same time, it’s difficult to prove concretely that true crime reinforces negative stereotypes or stirs up undue fear of violence. How do you draw a straight line between a true crime documentary and a person’s heightened anxiety about serial killers, or their blind support for the judicial system? And such concerns can easily veer into baseless moralizing, which is especially troubling given how many true crime fans are women. Women’s interests are so often trivialized and policed, and any critique of true crime should take this into account. Anyone with critical thinking skills can love true crime as mere entertainment, without over-investing their identity into their favorite stories, and there is nothing inherently wrong with an interest in the macabre.

Content creators have obligations to research their stories thoroughly, and present the story without sensationalizing or cheapening tragedy. But those who consume true crime also have obligations to remain empathetic, and not massage a real tragedy into a more cohesive or alluring narrative. When we do this, it is an injustice to ourselves, to the messiness of reality, and most importantly, to the victims true crime fans are meant to care about.

Morality Pills Aren’t Enough

close-up photograph of white, chalky pill on pink background

Here’s a problem: despite the coronavirus still being very much a problem, especially in the US, many people refuse to take even the most basic precautions when it comes to preventing the spread of the disease. One of the most controversial is the wearing of masks: while some see wearing a mask as a sign of a violation of personal liberties (the liberty to not have to wear a mask, I suppose), others may simply value their own comfort over the well-being of others. Indeed, refusal to wear a mask has been seen by some as a failure of courtesy to others, or a general lack of kindness.

We might look at this situation and make the following evaluation: the problem with people refusing to take precautions to help others during the current pandemic is the result of moral failings. These failings might be the result of a failure to value others in the way that they ought to, perhaps due to a lack of empathy or tendency towards altruism. So perhaps what we need is something that can help these people have better morals. What we need is a morality enhancing pill.

What would such a pill look like? Presumably it would help an individual overcome some relevant kind of moral deficiency, perhaps in the way that some drugs can help individuals cope with certain mental illnesses. The science behind it is merely speculative; what’s more, it’s not clear that it could ever really work in practice. Add concerns about a morality pill’s potentially even worse moral consequences – violations of free will spring to mind, especially if they are administered involuntarily – and it is perhaps easy to see why such a pill currently exists only in the realm of thought experiment.

But let’s put all that aside and say that such a pill was developed. People who were unempathetic take the pill and now show much more empathy; people who failed to value the well-being of others now value it more. Also say that everyone was happy to get on board, so we put at least some of the bigger practical worries aside. Would it solve the problem of people not taking the precautions that they should in helping stop the spread of coronavirus?

I don’t think it would. This is because the problem is not simply a moral problem, but also an epistemic one. In other words: one can have as much empathy as one likes, but if one is forming beliefs on the basis of false or misleading information, then empathy isn’t going to do much good.

Consider someone who refuses to wear a mask, even though it has been highly recommended that they do by a relevant agency, or perhaps even mandated. Their failure to comply may not be indicative of a failure of empathy: if the person falsely believes, for example, that masks inhibit one’s ability to breathe, then they may be as empathetic as you like and still not change their minds. Indeed, given the belief that masks are harmful, increased levels of empathy may only strengthen one’s resolve: given that one cares about the well-being of others, and believes that masks can inhibit that well-being, they will perhaps strive even more to get people to stop wearing them.

Of course, what we want is not that kind of empathy, we want well-informed empathy. This is the kind of empathy that is directed at what the well-being of others really consists in, not just what one perceives it to be. A good morality pill, then, is one that doesn’t just supplement one’s lack of empathy or altruism or what-have-you, but does so in a way that it is directed at what’s actually, truly morally good.

Here, though, we see a fundamental flaw with the morality pill project. The initial problem was that since those who refuse to follow guidelines that can help decrease the spread of the coronavirus refuse to listen to the evidence provided by scientific experts, then we should look to other solutions, ones that don’t have to involve trying to change someone’s beliefs. The problem with focusing on one’s moral character instead, though, is that bettering one’s moral character is a project that requires changing one’s beliefs, as well. The morality pill solution, then, really isn’t that much of a solution at all.

The morality pill, of course, still exists only in the realm of the hypothetical. Back in the real world we are still faced with the hard problem of trying to get people who ignore evidence and believe false or misleading information to change their minds. Where the morality pill thought experiment fails, I think, is that while it is meant to be a way of getting around this hard problem, it runs right into it, instead.

Can Spiritual Needs Be Met by Robots?

photograph of zen garden at Kodaiji temple

Visitors to the 400-year old Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto, Japan can now listen to a sermon from an unusual priest—Mindar—a robot designed to resemble Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. In a country in which religious affiliation is on the decline, the hope is that this million-dollar robot will do some work toward reinvigorating the faith.

For some, the robot represents a new way of engaging with religion. Technology is now a regular part of life, so integrating it into faith tradition is a way of modernizing religious practice that also retains and respects its historical elements. Adherents may feel increasingly alienated from conventional, ancient ways of conveying religious messages. But perhaps it is the way that the message is being presented, and not the message itself, that is in need of reform. Robotic priests pose an intriguing solution to this problem.

One unique and potentially useful feature of the robot is that it will never die. It is currently not a machine that can learn, but its creators are hopeful that it can be tailored to become one. If this happens, the robot can share with its ministry all of the knowledge that comes with its varied interactions with the faithful over the course of many years. This is a knowledge base that no mortal priest could hope to obtain.

Mindar is unusual but not unique among priests. A robotic Hindu priest also exists that was programmed to perform the Hindu aarti ritual. In the Christian tradition there is the German Protestant BlessU-2, a much less humanoid robot programed to commemorate the passing of 500 years since Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses, by delivering 10,000 blessings to visiting faithful. For Catholics, there is SanTO, a robotic priest designed to provide spiritual comfort to disadvantaged populations such as the elderly or infirm, who may not be able to make it to church regularly, if at all.

To many, the notion of a robotic priest seems at best like a category mistake and at worst like an abomination. For instance, many religious people believe in the existence of a soul, and following a religious path is often perceived as a way of saving that soul. A robot that does not have an immortal soul is not well suited to offer guidance to beings that possess such souls.

Still others may think of the whole thing as a parlor trick—a science fiction recasting of medieval phenomena like fraudulent relics or the selling of indulgences. It is faith, love of God, or a commitment to living a particular kind of life that should bring a person to a place of worship, not the promise of blessings from a robot.

To still others, the practice may seem sacrilegious. Seeking the religious counsel of a robot, venerating the wisdom of an entity constructed by a human being may be impious in the same way that worshiping an idol is impious.

Others may argue that robotic ministry misses something fundamental about the value of priesthood. Historically, priests have been persons. As persons, they share certain traits in common with their parishioners. They are mortal and they recognize their own mortality. They take themselves to be free and they experience the anguish that comes with the weight of that freedom. They struggle to be the best versions of themselves, tempted regularly by the thrills in life that might divert them from that path. Persons are often the kinds of beings that are subject to weakness of will—they find themselves doing what they know is against their own long term interests. Robots don’t have these experiences.

Priests that are persons can experience awe in response to the beauty and magnitude of the universe and can also experience the existential dread that sometimes comes along with being a mortal, embodied being in a universe that sometimes feels incomprehensibly cold and unfair. For many, religion brings with it the promise of hope. Priests are the messengers of that hope, and they are effective because they deliver the message as participants in the human condition.

Relatedly, one might think that a priest is a special form of caregiver. In order to give effective care, the caregiver must be capable of experiencing empathy. Even if robots are programmed to perform tasks that satisfy the needs of parishioners, this assistance wouldn’t be conducted in an empathetic way, and the action wouldn’t be motivated by a genuine attitude of care for the parishioner.

One might think that human priests are in a good position to give sound advice. Though that may (in some cases) be true, there is no reason to think that robots can’t also give good advice if they are programmed with the right kind of advice to give. What’s more, they may be uncompromised by the cognitive bias and human frailty of a typical priest. As a result, they may be less likely to guide someone astray.

Of course, as is often the case in conversations about robotics and artificial intelligence, there are some metaphysical questions lingering behind the scenes that may challenge our initial response to the appropriateness of robotic priests. One argument against priests like Mindar may be that the actions that Mindar performs are, in some way, inauthentic because they come about, not as the result of the free choices that Mindar has made, but instead as a result of Mindar’s programming. If we think this is a significant problem for Mindar and that this consideration precludes Mindar from being a priest, we’ll have to do some careful reflection on the human condition. To what degree are human beings similarly programmed? Physical things are subject to causal laws and it seems that those causal laws, taken together with facts about the universe, necessitate what those physical things will do. Human beings are also physical things. Are our actions causally determined? If so, are the actions of a human priest really any more authentic than the actions of a robotic one? Even if facts about our physical nature are not enough to render our actions inauthentic, human beings are also strongly socially conditioned. Does this social conditioning count as programming?

In the end, these considerations may ultimately point to a single worry: technology like this threatens to further alienate us from ourselves, our situation, and our fellow human beings. For many, the ability to respond to vital human interests like love, care, sex, death, hope, suffering, empathy, and compassion must come from genuine, imperfect, spontaneous human interaction with another struggling in a similar predicament. Whatever response we receive may prove far less important than the comfort that comes from knowing we are heard.

The Moral Messages of Violence in Media

Season two of the The Handmaid’s Tale returns with darker themes and more overt torture and sexual violence directed at the majority female cast. The dystopian drama depicts the practical consequences of misogynistic theocracy that takes power in the face of environmental collapse and widespread infertility, set in an eerily similar near-future America.

The violence in The Handmaid’s Tale is often compared to another hulking series, Game of Thrones. Both use liberal amounts of violence against women to keep their plot moving, but to different effect:

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t glamorizing atrocities against women, exactly, or sanitizing them in the way that Game of Thrones or other prestige dramas might sanitize rape. The brutality is the point—the show wants us to experience the logical extension of institutionalized misogyny and theocratic governance.”

Indeed:

In shows like True Detective and Game of Thrones, the focus on female debasement is often criticized precisely because female suffering is positioned as entertainment. What happens on The Handmaid’s Tale is different, as violence against women plays out as a kind of morality tale.”

Visceral scenes in books, TV, and movies are a way of conveying the lived experiences and realities that audiences might struggle to relate to. In speculative fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale, showing in detail what would result from misogynist value systems and authoritarian, theocratic regimes can bring home how horrible the lives of the oppressed would be.

Art helps us to relate to experiences and realities that are different from our own, and can have a positive moral impact for this reason. People that read more novels have been shown to have greater emotional intelligence. However, when the perspectives and experiences are particularly graphic and violent, or run the risk of normalizing or sanitizing the persecution or rate of violence against an oppressed group, this raises questions about the ethics of continuing to portray the experiences of violence in detail.

Should we need to experience the pain of others to have their suffering be morally salient to us?

Legislators who become more feminist when they have daughters occupy an interesting dialectical space. While it is a positive step of course, it is good to adopt policies that recognize the fundamental equality of people the fact that they had to care for a daughter in order to tap into the moral reality is more than a bit distressing.

A further complication is the notion that there may just be an epistemically unbridgeable gap between communities that rely on one another for support regarding their experiences. It may just not always be possible to fully grasp another person’s everyday reality. It would be a great misfortune to discover immovable obstacles might bar someone from fully sympathizing with another person and experiencing the appropriate moral emotions regarding their plight.

Moral emotions such as sympathy, indignation, care, and regret play different roles of significance depending on the ethical theory you favor. Consequentialist views such as utilitarianism focus not so much on the emotional or motivational landscape that leads to action, but rather the result of our behaviors. If you make people have a better life out of indifference or kindness, it amounts to the same thing from an ethical perspective for utilitarians. Other views on morality heavily favor the emotions; care ethics and feminist views focus on our relationships to one another and tending to our roles appropriately. A behavior done out of sympathy would have a different moral assessment than the same behavior done out of indifference.

Given these considerations, we could reflect on art that attempts to bring pain and suffering into view in different ways. If the value in question is one of developing the appropriate moral response to suffering, we may ask: is this really necessary? (Isn’t this a case where we should really be able to get to the moral emotions on our own, as in the case of the legislators realizing women are people only when they’ve faced a daughter of their own?) Or, are there countervailing concerns, such as those raised in the discourse around the sexual violence in Game of Thrones? (Is this violence normalizing an already troubling reality?)

There are rich and nuanced questions regarding the consumption of art that includes graphic and detailed violence against marginalized groups. It puts pressure on how we conceive of our moral burdens in relating to one another, and how we experience the messages media sends us.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Trump’s America Needs a Buddhist Ethics of Care

In the beginning weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, people of all faiths all over the world are asking the question, “How should our faith respond?” Buddhists are no exception to this. With important religious precepts centered on nonviolence and compassion, Buddhists are asking how they can apply their code of ethics to help those in need. Unique from other religions like Christianity and Islam, Buddhist texts and teachings make little reference to organized political or social activism. However, past historical figures like Mahatma Gandhi have used Buddhist precepts to dramatically change society. Gandhi used the profound principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence, to dismantle the British occupation of India. Once again, a turn to Buddhist principles is needed to encourage compassion in the unfolding months ahead.

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Demographics, Refugees, and Immigration: What of the Expanding Moral Circle?

Anxieties over changing demographics, immigration, and refugees have been a key theme in Western politics over the past couple of years. A central flashpoint in the political debates leading up to the Brexit vote was a controversial poster from the “Leave” Campaign, depicting a line of Syrian refugees. In the United States, reports of racist taunting and vandalism have increased since the recent election. France will vote in presidential elections in 2017, and the National Front’s candidate Marine Le Pen is projected to have a strong showing. The National Front has also been associated primarily with its opposition to immigration, specifically immigration from Islamic countries. More generally, political sentiments that reject multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, in favor of nationalism and isolationism, have grown in popularity in both the United States and Western Europe.

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Feel This

Much has been written about the appalling, depressing and infuriating case concerning Brock Turner and his unnamed victim. I won’t rehearse the case, nor the dialectic it has sparked between those sympathetic to the victim and those outraged that sympathy can ever be extended to crime perpetrators, especially when such perpetrators are member of a hyper-privileged class such as that to which Turner belongs.

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Diversity in Medicine

Issues of race and discrimination transcend social interactions and permeate important institutions in the U.S., and the field of medicine is no exception. Recently, concerns about how patients of color may be receiving treatment differently, and less effectively, than white patients have become more frequently studied. Medical schools have implemented diversity initiatives in cultural sensitivity and awareness of subconscious bias to combat these issues and decrease the prevalence of racism in the medical field. However, according to Jennifer Adaeze, medical school student and writer for Stat News, these initiatives are not enough .

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Freedom and the 2016 Electoral Season

‘Tis the season for politics, once again, in the United States of America. And while some surprising new topics, like the size of candidates’ hands, have cropped up in this cycle, some of the mainstays of American political rhetoric are also at the rendez-vous.

Take Donald Trump, for instance.

In January, one of his campaign rallies featured the following performance:


While it features somewhat dated nationalist lyrics (including verses like “Come on boys, take them down!”), slightly updated for promoting Mr. Trump’s bid in the 2016 presidential contest, it also highlights a theme that is about as central to American political rhetoric as apple pie is to American cooking: freedom.

Whether freedom has been invoked as an empty rhetorical trope, as in this case, or whether it has been used more substantitvely, it has so completely permeated electoral discourse as to become inescapable.

Whether they have talked about government regulation, trade, national security, tax reform, education, abortion, or immigration, freedom has been Republican candidates’ preferred frame of reference.

Meanwhile, on the left of the political spectrum, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been quite as single-minded. While Clinton has spent a great deal of her time trying to square away her commitments to free trade and to an equalitarian progressive politics, Sanders has explained his commitment to democratic socialism as meaning “that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person one vote.” “True freedom” according to Sanders, “does not occur without economic security. People are not free, they are not truly free, when they are unable to feed their family.”

And yet, these invocations are largely based on outdated conceptions of what freedom is. The idea at the back of Sanders’ viewpoint, that economic independence is the necessary precondition for democratic citizenship harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s glorification of the yeoman farmer, as historian Eric Foner was already noting in his book, The History of American Freedom. And as sociologists have been observing since the 1950s, such an ideal of economic independence is woefully inadequate to the corporate economy in which we live.

But it is just as true that the thesis that deregulation of international trade or of the labor market will result in greater individual freedom is based on the idea, first defended by classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, that government power threatens individual liberty. Mill’s disciples in the twentieth century, intellectuals like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, argued that the crux of liberal freedom consists in the absence of coercion of the individual, either by private monopolies or by government power, so that the smaller the size of the government is and the less active it is in citizens’ lives, the greater will their freedom be.

But as early as the 1960s, the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram actually found, in a series of now famous experiments, that most people do not need to be coerced into doing things they don’t want to do, including engaging in actions which they are convinced will most likely result in the death of an innocent person: they will do these things of their own free will – a situation that suggests that “free will” and freedom may not be the same things after all.

In fact, a growing body of evidence has been produced in the human sciences over the past 40 years that suggests that the notion of a free-willing individual, who can make decisions independently of social and cultural contexts is a figment of our imagination. What this research reveals is that it is not the absence of context that enables individuals to act freely (whether it be the absence of a monopoly or the absence of a state bureaucracy), but on the contrary the presence of one.

This scientific research reveals several very surprising things about human nature that directly contradict the vision of human beings as rational, egoistic individuals, driven by an unquenchable lust for pleasure, money, or power, which we inherited from classical liberalism. The most recent of the great apes, it turns out, is a hypersocial being, whose subjective experience of the world is profoundly shaped by its empathetic openness to others, an openness that is not premised on any sort of fundamental or primitive goodness, but rather on the evolutionary mechanics of communication. Social psychologists, for instance, have discovered that in order to understand what someone else is saying we have to imitate the motion of their vocal chords (though in a much reduced fashion). We have to, in other words, become them. Neuroscientists have also found a specific type of neuron which corresponds to this process in the brain itself, the so-called “mirror neuron.”

Our identities, and therefore our desires, are profoundly affected by our cultural, social, and political contexts. To be free thus necessitates participating in the formation of the communicational contexts that affects and form us all. Freedom requires not only the freedom of expression cherished by classical liberals, but a certain freedom of connection – the power to shape the contexts in which this free expression happens. The freedom of choice advocated by classical liberals and their twentieth century followers confuses the fruit of freedom, the will, with its root. Likewise, those social liberals and socialists who emphasize economic independence while ignoring the other complex dimensions and processes involved in the creation of a free personality seem to be missing a significant component of the reality of the process of freedom.

This conception of freedom, if we examine it closely, suggests that democracy is not just a matter of elections or of constitutional rights (though it undoubtedly includes those concerns). Nor is the issue that of how “big” government bureaucracy will be. More fundamentally, political freedom consists in individuals and communities having the power to mutually affect each other and form each other. Democracy, understood from this perspective becomes a way of life rather than a formal mode of government, one that has consequences not only for the way in which ownership of the media of mass communication is organized for instance (a frequent complaint of the Sanders campaign is that this ownership structure is creating a bias in its coverage of politics), but also for every aspect of our lives, from the workplace to the bedroom, its fundamental principle being “equality of participation.” The aim of a “politics of freedom” in this context would be neither decreased regulation of the economy or increased government intervention but the creation of increased opportunities for participation by all members of society in both economic and political decision-making, regardless of their wealth or income level. Beyond the public funding of elections, one might imagine this agenda including decreased mediation of the mechanisms of political representation. Currently, for instance, the average ratio of representatives to represented in the US House of Representatives is something like 1: 290,000, making it extremely difficult for any but the most powerful interests to gain a hearing, regardless of the way elections are funded. And yet, there seem to be few technical impediments to cutting that ratio in half for instance. Any number of other reforms could be proposed that would enable greater citizen participation in the polity, from making congressional office-holders into recallable delegates in order to increase accountability, to instituting worker and consumer co-management councils in private corporations, legally entitled to raise concerns about the social and environmental consequences of business policies (corporations being legal entities to begin with, there seems to be little weight in the argument that this would be “undue government interference”).

Now, wouldn’t the transformation of everyday life from the standpoint of such a principle of “equality of participation” be the basis for a genuine “political revolution”?

The Nuances of the Death Penalty

In the wake of a violent crime and loss of a family member, complicated decisions often must be made in an attempt to find a suitable resolution. In 2013, Darlene Farah’s 20 year-old daughter, Shelby, was murdered in Jacksonville, Florida by 24 year-old James Rhodes.  After security camera footage and Rhodes’s confession made the case clear-cut, Rhodes and his attorneys came up with a plea deal for him to get two consecutive life sentences plus 20 years in state prison with no trial or chance of his appeal. Despite Darlene Farah’s desire to accept the plea deal and allow her family to begin healing, the Florida State Attorney’s Office has decided instead to seek the death penalty for Rhodes.

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Teaching Children about Tragedy

In the wake of tragedy, the issue of rhetoric often moves to the forefront of public discourse. The framing of an event and the way it is discussed has a powerful impact on public knowledge and understanding of an event and its aftermath. When it comes to situations such as these, one particularly difficult task is to cope with finding the proper rhetoric for discussing tragedies with children. Is there a “right way” to talk to children about these events?

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