Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained. (Helen Keller)
My husband and I were enjoying dinner at a local pub restaurant recently when a woman’s voice pierced the cozy bubble of our conversation.
“I have no social conscience.”
This admission, calmly stated, shocked me profoundly. That there are people who have no social conscience, who feel no concern for the suffering of others, is certainly not news to me. My inbox and the nightly news supply ample examples of cruel indifference:
- GOP efforts to pull the plug on children’s health insurance (CHIP).
- Paul Ryan’s campaign to bankrupt Medicare and privatize Social Security.
- Police officers gunning down black teens “armed” with nothing but a smartphone.
- The governor of Michigan leaving Flint residents to drink lead-poisoned water after he changed the city’s supplier to save money—a serious health crisis now in its fifth year.
- The blind eye the Trump administration turned toward the residents of Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricane disaster—a blind eye that ratcheted up an initial death toll of 17 to a now-staggering 1,000+ by the most conservative counts.
Clearly, far too many people don’t give a rip. Our Congress is filled with them.
No, what shocked me about this statement, I have no social conscience, is that someone would admit to such callousness casually, publicly. I turned in my seat as far as I dared to see the speaker: a well-dressed woman in her fifties, eating dinner across from a man whose slack-jawed expression suggested he, too, was startled by her confession.
What is Social Conscience? What is It Not?
What is social conscience?
Collins Dictionary defines it as “the state of being aware of the problems that affect a lot of people in society, such as being poor or having no home, and wanting to do something to help these people.”
Collins appends this arresting note: “The social conscience, or more correctly the social heart, has come to regard the survival of the fittest as a barbarian conception.” Exactly.
Wikipedia distinguishes between the personal and the social:
“While our conscience is related to our moral conduct in our day-to-day lives with respect to individuals, social conscience is concerned with the broader institutions of society and the gap that we may perceive between the sort of society that should exist and the real society that does exist [italics are mine].”
So, the person who pays her bills and takes dinner to a neighbor recovering from surgery; who contributes to the local playground used by her children and doesn’t cheat on her taxes—she considers herself an icon of morality.
But she tips her hand when she votes for someone like Georgia’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who among other atrocities, brags “I’ve got a big truck in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself.” (Note: You really owe it to yourself to watch his new campaign ad here. It beggars belief.)
Conscience, in this instance, is all about the personal, the tribal. I, me, mine. Totally missing is any feeling of connection to people one doesn’t know, a sense of common humanity.
Which is why we now have children being torn from their parents in alarming numbers by U.S. border control agents. (One would be alarming, but there are HUNDREDS, soon to be thousands.)
People fleeing political violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala arrive at our southern border, having traveled up to several thousand miles, only to have the children they sought to protect snatched from them by border agents and driven off to god knows where. These parents tell beyond-horrific stories of being restrained while a stranger carries off their terrified child. The children old enough to talk, scream, “Mommy! Mommy!” The infants can only sob.
Some, maybe most, of these children will never see their parents again. Detention facility operators for non-U.S. citizen kids admit it’s often impossible to locate the parents after the children are taken by agents. This violence happens so quickly, there’s no time (or effort made) to create proper records. An infant can’t even reveal her name. And there’s no real plan for the future of these kids. They are simply regarded as the ‘casualties’ of a war on immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says of Trump’s new “zero tolerance” policy “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
What Does a World Devoid of Social Conscience Look Like?
In her 2017 book Democracy in Chains, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean gives us a well-researched look at the people who would transform our democracy into a dog-eat-dog world of predators and prey, devil take the hindmost. At its center is the vision of a man named James Buchanan for whom the 1955 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education (calling for the end of segregation in public schools) was the last straw, a government incursion too far in what he believed should be the freedom of the minority (the rich) from the needs and wishes of the common rabble (the majority).
An economist, Buchanan joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in 1956 where he founded the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy. Sounds patriotic, doesn’t it? Very Founding Fathers and all. But its aims were to undo representative democracy and scrub the public from every institution. It is the direct antecedent of today’s far-right, Koch-funded Heritage Foundation, American Legislative Exchange (ALEC), Cato Institute, and dozens of other Orwellian-titled think-tanks and foundations where a democratic name has been purposely selected to disguise the very anti-democratic philosophy of its members.
Buchanan & Friends’ targets include: ending public education; privatizing or eliminating Social Security and Medicare; shutting down the U.S. Postal Service; eliminating the minimum wage and laws against child labor; closing the EPA; cutting off all foreign aid; scrubbing employer-provided pensions; a total nix on rules that would constrain how a person gets wealthy, and a prohibition against taxing that wealth other than for military expenditures.
That is the short list.
So, who will pay for the interstates, highways, and bridges required to transport the goods made in the factories of the rich that increase their wealth?
Far more important, what becomes of the 90% of America’s children who attend public schools if public education is axed? That’s millions and millions of kids.
No public schools, no minimum wage, no prohibitions against child labor. What is the “dream” for this brave new world, devoid of all social conscience? Five-year-olds working for fifty cents an hour? For how many years? Until they die? It certainly eliminates any need to worry about retirement savings, Social Security, or Medicare. I can hear Betsy DeVos and Paul Ryan salivating right now.
The Nazis had an assembly plant buried deep in the Harz Mountains, Mittelwerk, where slave labor—Jews, Communists, homosexuals, Poles, and other Nazi targets—manufactured the weapons used against the Allies. The system was simple. A person was worked day and night in the underground tunnels until they dropped dead. Then they were tossed into an incinerator. As the Nazis liked to point out: Labor was expendable. There were always more where they came from.
It should come as no surprise that James Buchanan was the architect of the new constitution for CIA-backed dictator General Pinochet’s authoritarian regime in Chile (1973-1990), a constitution Buchanan liked to brag was unbreachable, a template of the one he hoped to write for America when enough states could be “bought” in elections to demand a rewrite of our constitution. (As of November 2017, 28 GOP-dominated states are calling for an Article 5 constitutional convention to review and rewrite our founding document. Only six more states are needed to begin this process.)
Buchanan died in 2013, but his vision lives on and is well-funded thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, a decision that made it a slam-dunk for dark money to buy politicians. Your representatives are now, in many cases, their representatives.
The Great Divide
The question in all this that really nags at me—has been nagging me as far back as these lines I penned at age 14—is this:
What motivates one man to plant a garden
And another to build a bomb?
The Great Divide between those who care about the welfare of other people on this planet—who believe because we are all human beings, we are all connected—and those who blatantly don’t is a very hot topic these days, judging by the headlines in my Google search. For instance, relative to polls in the 1990s, Business Insider reported, Republicans are now much more likely to say poor people have it easy, while Democrats are less likely to say so.
And people who don’t take a “one-world” view of humanity are much easier about “letting it all hang out” than in recent decades. Perhaps they are feeling empowered by having a nationalist, racist, sexist, homophobic, war-junkie at the helm.
What motivates one man to plant a garden
And another to build a bomb?
Why do some of us look at news footage of Syrian parents weeping over the dead bodies of their children and, knowing what agonizing trauma it would be to lose our own child, feel their grief? More frighteningly to the point, why do some of us not?
The Great Divide. What is it? Where does it come from? Perhaps the most telling answer to this question was given by Baptist minister and former Republican congressman J.C. Watts while he was campaigning for Senator Rand Paul in 2015: “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good.”
I think that assessment can be stated more broadly, beyond general party lines that are specific to the U.S., because social conscience or lack of it is a global issue. I would say: The person with a social conscience believes people are intrinsically good and we are all connected, whereas the person without a social conscience believes humanity is basically corrupt and it’s everyone for themselves.
When I shared this with my daughter, she mentioned an observation her dad once made: The divide can also be seen as those who believe there’s enough for everyone versus those who see life as a zero-sum game. “If you get something, I lose something. So piss off and die.”
The Business Insider article also mentioned that decades of research has shown that feeling threatened makes people more conservative. If the Great Divide were that simple, though, every progressive, liberal, and middle-of-the-roader in America would be wearing a John Birch Society button right now because, absolutely, make-no-mistake, we who have a social conscience feel threatened.
Perhaps Dr. Seuss nailed the problem perfectly in his book How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
“The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”
But if, Baby, You’re the Bottom, I’m the Top
No one wants to be at the “bottom of the barrel.” And people feeling the threat of that slippery slope can be dangerous. Before the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment, the poor whites of the South comforted themselves with a false sense of superiority—at least they were “better” than black people who had to be slaves—but when slavery ended, these people got real nervous. What if freed to reach their true potential, black people turned out to be just as smart, talented, and capable as the smartest, most capable whites? Frightened they might find themselves at the bottom of the bottom, these poor whites became the roots of the Ku Klux Klan.
This fear permeates everything. Happens everywhere. In Michigan, where I grew up, the Upper Peninsula had very few black people but some number of Native Americans. Every slur that is directed toward blacks elsewhere in the U.S. was slung at these Native Americans—dirty, lazy, irresponsible.
Race and ethnicity are the major hammers fearful people throw, but religion can also be a weapon to suppress others, to keep someone else at the bottom of that barrel. The misery that is ISIS was egged on by Al Qaeda to exploit the struggle for supremacy between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Who will be relegated to the bottom?
Question: Why does there have to be a bottom?
Answers I have heard all my life:
Because there’s always been one.
That’s just the way people are.
But people are a lot of ways. They dash into burning buildings to rescue strangers. They save fleeing refugees when their boats capsize at sea. They volunteer at homeless shelters. They place a Black Lives Matter sign in their yard. They understand that if we don’t all work together and take care of each other, we and the planet are doomed.
What Part of “People Don’t Throw People Under the Bus” Isn’t Clear?
Little by little we’ll go,
No matter how far the distance is
We are not shaken.
Little by little we’ll go
And meet our destination.
That’s the beginning to a poem written by Joyce Chisale, a Malawian girl who dreams of becoming a doctor (and poet). Girls in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, are only given free basic education to the age of 13. After that, parents must pay the school fees—$100 USD per term. Joyce’s father makes $40 USD a month, painting, welding, and offloading cargo.
Joyce’s great-uncle stepped up to pay the first two terms of her school fees, but was unable to continue funding her education. He had his own children to provide for. So, Joyce—a student her biology teacher calls “an exceptional girl”—was forced to leave school. She was heartbroken.
And then someone with a social conscience—MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell—in conjunction with a whole lot of people with a social conscience, UNICEF, stepped in to help Joyce realize her dreams. The K.I.N.D Fund was established to provide, among other things, scholarships for girls to go to school. Many hundreds more people with a social conscience have since donated to this fund, and thanks to everyone involved, Joyce and many other girls are continuing their education. (To see what Joyce is doing now, watch this May 2018 interview with O’Donnell here. It will make your day.)
Thankfully, wonderfully, the gift that is Joyce is being opened. But what about the millions of children around the world who could be “exceptional” if only they weren’t being bombed, shot, and starved?
We throw so many, many people away. Because they are poor or of another race or another religion or another “tribe” or a girl or … We throw people away. Day after day.
Syria, Feb. 2018: A heavy bombardment kills at least 100 civilians, 20 of them children, in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to be preparing for an imminent ground assault.
According to the Middle East Children’s Alliance, 1,518 Palestinian children were killed by Israel’s occupation forces from the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000 up to April 2013. That number means that one Palestinian child was killed by Israel every 3 days for almost 13 years. In the following year, 2014, nearly 600 Palestinian kids were killed.
Headline in The Guardian, January 16, 2018: Yemen war: 5,000 children dead or hurt and 400,000 malnourished, UN says
We throw people away. We throw children away. To lack a social conscience is to be okay with this. To be like Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life: “They’re not my children.”
But we cannot afford to look away. The problems we face—environmental chaos, pandemics, undrinkable water, famine, chemical warfare, nuclear threats—will require we ALL work together, that we care for others as ourselves. Indifference, or worse, is not viable.
“I have no social conscience.”
In that sentence, this one echoes: “I am liberating man from the degrading chimera known as ‘conscience.’” The speaker is Hitler.
Wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, do what you can. Now. The world desperately needs you. It has never needed you more.