Monday, November 5, 2007

Rights: Yours, Mine & Ours

I hate cell phones. I rarely use mine; I only keep it for when I go out of town and I find this generation of cell phone addicts annoying beyond belief. So I can sympathize with anyone driven to desperate measures like these:
He sat down next to a 20-something woman who he said was “blabbing away” into her phone.

“She was using the word ‘like’ all the time. She sounded like a Valley Girl,” said the architect, Andrew, who declined to give his last name because what he did next was illegal.

Andrew reached into his shirt pocket and pushed a button on a black device the size of a cigarette pack. It sent out a powerful radio signal that cut off the chatterer’s cellphone transmission — and any others in a 30-foot radius.

“She kept talking into her phone for about 30 seconds before she realized there was no one listening on the other end,” he said. His reaction when he first discovered he could wield such power? “Oh, holy moly! Deliverance.”

Yeah, that probably felt good; I get why there’s a boom market in these illegal cell-phone jamming devices. But the fun’s all over when a doctor can’t receive her emergency page, or a mother doesn’t get that desperate phone call from her child, or a law enforcement officer doesn’t get that phone call he needs to receive, or a thousand other scenarios, both profound and mundane, that make cell phone jamming devices illegal.

Just because it annoys you isn’t reason enough to keep me from using my phone. And, on the flip side, just because you want to yak, like, ohmygawd, like, everyone does it, doesn’t mean it isn’t annoying.

When did people lose all patience and tolerance for the feelings and habits of their fellow commuter, co-workers, neighbors? When did it become OK to forget about other people in general? When did we decide that our wants and needs were the only ones that mattered? has an interesting story today about the biological basis for altruism. Apparently all primates but especially humans are hard-wired for altruism by something called “mirror neurons.” In addition to allowing us to feel another’s pain, these neurons could be responsible for such human advancements as language and social structure. It might also answer the old question about the evolutionary basis of altruism and empathy.

But back to our cell-phone jammer. How does ones justify this kind of behavior in light of our neuro-biology?

“If anything characterizes the 21st century, it’s our inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of other people,” said James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University. “The cellphone talker thinks his rights go above that of people around him, and the jammer thinks his are the more important rights.”

Ah yes, that old individual rights vs communal good argument. We seem to be having this debate a lot lately. As the Salon article notes,

Alan Greenspan and the rugged individualists may love Ayn Rand's libertarian vision of each person alone against the world, but another set prefers to think of humans as inextricably tied to one another, creating codependent realities and sharing inter-subjective space.

In other words, humans are above all social animals, this aspect of human behavior is hard-wired into our DNA, and it’s why humans have evolved into the dominant force on the planet that we are today.

But I’m not seeing much empathy at work in this country these days. I’d like to ask these neurobiologists under what conditions--fear, for example, or stress, or malnutrition or who knows what else--might these mirror neurons be repressed. We seem to be getting meaner as a society; witness the fact that we’re actually discussing whether or not torture is acceptable, when for centuries we’ve prosecuted those who participate in these activities.

Digby wrote the quintessential piece on this last week. Here’s the thought that resonated with me:

I think the debate is over, folks. Every time they normalize state sanctioned sadism, from tasering to waterboarding, we are one step closer to fully accepting a police state. That's how they do it. It never happens over night. It happens one taboo at a time.

We are a torture culture, immoral, vulgar and profane. We actually think it's fun. If college boys and reporters can laugh about it, how bad can it be? Thanks Dick and George.

Unlike Digby, however, I’m not going to heap all of the blame on Dick and George. I think the blame is ours. It’s been in us all along. Like the frog in the pan of water that heats slowly to boiling, when we indulge in little “punk’s,” can we be surprised that torture isn’t far behind?

When we indulge ourselves like this:

“Just watching those dumb teens at the mall get their calls dropped is worth it. Can you hear me now? NO! Good,” the purchaser of a jammer wrote last month in a review on a Web site called DealExtreme.

can we honestly claim surprise when millions of people scream “nuke ‘em all” about fellow human beings in the Middle East?

When we put ourselves above our community, when we forget our innate connectedness to one another, when we ignore our very biology that enables us to feel empathy for one another, we descend into barbarism. We become animals.