Last week, Indymedia journalist Brad Will was shot dead in the streets of Oaxaca, Mexico, during a demonstration against economic and political oppression. Will's death was remarkable because he was an American and he cared enough about freedom and democracy to be present in Oaxaca.
His life and death remind me of Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death in the Gaza Strip in 2003 by an occupier driving an American-made bulldozer. Corrie died because she chose to be present with Palestinian families who were being brutalized by American-subsidized Israeli forces.
And let us not forget Marla Ruzicka, killed last year by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, where she was advocating for Iraqi victims of our military industrial complex.
Many Americans are appalled by the violence we export to the Third World, yet are paralyzed into inaction by an incomprehensible demoralization. I often hear the lament, "What our country is doing is horrible, but there is nothing I can do about it." Implicit in this despair is an acknowledgement that it will take more than voting for a Democrat to reverse the militarism and government-sanctioned thievery that befouls America.
But Will, Corrie and Ruzicka were not content to be limited by the disempowering electoral lesson preached in high school civics class. Witnessing the injustices wrought abroad by American foreign policy and market economics, they went forth in the spirit of "This I can do."
These young Americans somehow escaped being programmed to hate the Other by the daily dose of television "news" that sculpts the collective brain of mainstream America. They used the Internet as a tool of political communication, not as a source of instant gratification. They were not pixilated by electronically delivered memes of fear, sex and gluttony engineered to transform survival instincts into commercial impulses. How did these activists manage to learn empathy for their fellow human beings?
Seeking answers, I visited Bonnie River, the director of education at the Live Oak Charter School in Petaluma, which uses the secular-style Waldorf method of teaching. River specializes in the neuropsychology of learning.
River says that empathy develops experientially as a link between antipathy (hot stove! Ouch!) and sympathy (let me kiss the hurt). Empathy allows us to feel what the Other feels. She says that the brains of empathetic people tend to have neural pathways in their prefrontal lobes that have been developed through direct physical interaction with reality. All information is physical. Ethical thinking is a bodily function.
On the other hand, research shows that the myelination, or wiring, of pathways channeling rational discernment is stunted when brains are bombarded by photons streaming out of television and computer screens. All images are taken as real at the lower brain levels. Thus, if you receive a violent image, you really do sense a life-threatening situation before you are able to rationalize that it's "just television" or "just a video game." Fear stimulates the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, which flood the midbrain, disrupting memory and the ability to link cause and effect.
The bottom line, River says, is that "reality does not happen inside of a box." Watching screens is addictive and disembodies our engagement with reality. Our brains become disconnected from the real world; we become observers, not participants. We become incapable of experiencing and mirroring the pain and suffering inflicted upon the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Mexico, for example.
Unfortunately, many who do feel empathy can become frozen by depression, incapacitated by feelings of powerlessness. A lifetime of absorbing consumer and political advertising from electronic bursts etches mental patterns that reward passivity and detachment, not activism.
The good news, River says, is that the brain is adaptable, or "plastic." Damaged and underdeveloped brains can be repaired through physical therapy and by the creation of neural pathways through contact with the real world. In other words, our passive-aggressive culture can be dehypnotized by turning away from the ubiquitous screens.
River envisions a positive role for television. "What if a program juxtaposed the fears and hopes of an Israeli family and a Palestinian family?" she asks. Caught between processing information about two cultures, an observing brain might create new neural pathways, enabling the emergence of empathy for the wounded in both societies.
"My life purpose," River says, "is to educate children to discern, to think, so that we will not allow our society to become truly fascist."