The other day, I found myself reading a Japanese book to a child. I cannot read a word of Japanese, so I was entirely reliant on my visual acuity. However, even with my lack of verbal understanding (or perhaps due to my complete dependence on visual clues), I was fascinated by the basic morality portrayed in the story.
The book begins with an illustration of a jolly old man waving to his wife as he sets off on an adventure with a sack of rocks. The old man drops some of these rocks down a hole, and then either jumps or falls in after them. In this hole, he encounters a group of mice creating a substance out of rocks. He interacts with these mice and watches them work. As he is about to climb back to the surface, he is given a mysterious box. He takes this box back home to his wife. When they open the top, they realize that it is full of rectangular pellets of gold.
After this (there is an underdeveloped transition, at least pictorially), the illustrator introduces us to a menacing, disturbed face behind bars. This villainous character somehow escapes or is released from prison, as the following illustration shows him walking down a familiar windy road with a brown sack, a pin-striped shirt, and triangularly vicious eyebrows. He falls down that same hole and notices the singing, friendly mice. The mice greet the man with smiles and invite him into their underground workspace, but he responds to their cordiality by blowing red lines (which I presume to be fire) at them. This, however, backfires, as he is left prone on the floor with a sickly green[i] body. A photo or two more follows, but the last page of the book is of the jolly man and his wife sharing the golden wealth in front of their home, presumably with neighbors.
Anyways, the reason I summarized this children’s story is that it provides powerful insight into modern ethics. At first, I judged the stories moral (which can be summed up as: be kind and share, or end up sickly green and potentially dead) to be an overly simplistic and unrealistic version of the chaotic world we live in. But as I sat and thought over what I had just read, I realized that the story is remarkably realistic, and that the greedy politicians and businessmen so common in our modern society are more akin to the old man than they are the villain, especially in the manner in which they share their fortune. In the story, the old man does give away his wealth, but only with nearby humans whose features are remarkably like his. He doesn’t even give anything back to the mice, those whose work provide him and his wife with the golden wealth.[ii] In a similar vein, the wealthy elite share their fortune amongst themselves by creating laws, norms and social structures that benefit their own social class, ethnicity, gender, and so forth.[iii]
The tendency to share with and give to those who are similar to us is not a malicious trait. It is inherent to our survival, and is not limited to the greedy or wealthy. Furthermore, it is the reason family members, lovers, and close friends support one other, and it is why sympathy is a much easier trait to cultivate than empathy, a trait that allows one to care for living matter and objects outside of their immediate concern.[iv] However, since businesses and political institutions are places where empathy is regularly discouraged, idealizing a political structure that works for the majority when politicians and businessmen are in the minority is, frankly, lofty idealism.[v] Unless politicians live in circumstances like those of their constituents, the problems that we currently face will continue. If those in power don’t use public services (such as public education and transport) why should we expect that they put their tax money into these services? If the powerful and friends of the powerful have high salaries or own corporations and businesses, why should they create a fair taxation system? If their friends and family have access to health insurance, why should they form a comprehensive universal health care system? If the majority are Caucasian males of a particular religion, why should they actively promote female equality, or programs that counter racial and religious profiling? The only incentive would be from an empathetic standpoint, or from a fear of a massive revolution against them and those like them. But many of these individuals are impulsive, disinterested in long-term consequences, and unafraid of chaos,[vi] so the possibility of revolt is an unlikely deterrent. Therefore, our only option left is to diminish their wealth and homogeneity so that they have a personal or sympathetic incentive to help the majority.
This simple conclusion: pay politicians less so that they are at a similar standing as the majority of the population and, in consequence, can sympathize with the public, is one I came to by studying the illustrations in a children’s book. It is time for us to step back and present our personal and societal issues in a stripped down, unornate manner.[vii] Perhaps then we could better understand why the modern world seems so daunting, complex, and messy, and- consequently- be equipped to remedy the bias and injustice in society.
[i] If I remember the color correctly.
[ii] It can be argued that the mice in the story don’t need or desire gold. As simple creatures, they can dandily make gold all day underground for the benefit of others while maintaining a happy constitution. (This argument should sound suspiciously familiar.)
[iii] (As well as evade laws and engender loopholes catering to their needs and the needs of those around them.)
[iv] Sympathy is the capacity to feel for those we can relate to, whereas empathy is the capacity to imagine and prescribe feelings towards those we cannot immediately relate to. The difference between the two is nuanced, and empathy does involve sympathy. An example of empathy is: I can understand the feelings of a person experiencing divorce even if I have never been in a relationship, as I know what it feels like to be hurt, lonely, disrespected, disappointed, ignored, etcetera, and can prescribe those feelings onto the other.
[v] That isn’t to say that it is impossible. Revolutions happen frequently, usually once a disgruntled mass grows to a certain extent. (And it should be noted that an economic revolution will likely result in the United States if current trends continue.)
[vi] Or are so removed from the majority that they are unaware of the dangers inherent in such a biased system.
[vii] (Ironically, unlike this essay.)
It is an easy task to sympathize with those whose circumstances mirror our own, and a hard task to empathize with those whose circumstances differ from our own.
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