Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jeremy Rifkin Takes Us from Me to We, or Does He?

According to Jeremy Rifkin, empathy is busting out all over. Civilization has moved from "me-first" to "we-are-all-in-this-together." From individual consciousness, national identity, and religious affiliation we have arrived at biosphere consciousness.

It would probably be more accurate to say that Rifkin wants to move us from Enlightenment clarity and to sloppy thinking.

I consider it reasonable to expect that an author demonstrate some minimal command over his central concept. Yet, Rifkin has butchered the concept of empathy.

Even in psychology there is empathy and there is empathy. Some believe that empathy involves feeling someone else feelings, a somewhat dubious definition.

Others believe that empathy is the basis for human decorum and civility. For them empathy involves showing respect and consideration for the feelings of others. You do not have to feel someone else's feelings to know what they might be and to know not to trample them.

Either way, empathy is fundamentally an interpersonal concept. Not for Rifkin, however. He wants to paint the world with empathy; he wants us to feel for the human species, for the planet, for the universe, for the ecosphere and biosphere.

At which point the concept of empathy has been reduced to mush. Most especially because, in everyday relations, this sort of biosphere consciousness leads to zealotry and is used as an excuse for incivility.

More than a few people grant themselves the right to be rude and disrespectful toward those who do not share their ideological zeal. Having overcome Enlightenment reason, to say nothing of the rules of decorum and civil debate, they believe that their feelings about the biosphere are not subject to doubt or debate. After all, their superior consciousness has led them to empathize with the feelings of minnows and ferns. How are you going to debate that?

You will not be surprised to know that Rifkin is directing his message toward adolescents. Take college students, away from home and community for the first time, having difficulty making friends and forging new social ties... and then do as Rifkin does... prey on their anomie.

Convince them of the superiority of biosphere consciousness, relieve them of the responsibility to make new friends or to become part of the college community, and you can induce them to join whatever cult you want. In Rifkin's case, the cult involves environmentalism, but it may be another.

In his words: "A younger generation is fast extending its empathic embrace beyond religious affiliations and national identifications to include the whole of humanity and the vast project of life that envelops the Earth."

But if you cut adolescents off from community membership you are going to produce mass identity crises. These people need to embrace their friends, not the biosphere. They need to construct social networks not fling themselves into mindless utopian cults.

How does Rifkin attempt to manipulate adolescent anomie? By fear-mongering, of course. He asks: "Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?" Perhaps it is not quite as apocalyptic as our leading prophet of doom, Al Gore, but it is disgracefully manipulative nonetheless.


vanderleun said...

You give him too much credit and way to much time. The man is a hustling gas bag. Three paragraphs of his spench convinced me of that.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree with your assessment of Rifkin's work, yet I fear that impressionable minds-- his target audience-- will be taken in by the intellectual veneer. And the book is being hyped by the Huffington Post, among others.

So I felt it worth a few paragraphs to provide a serious debunking to something that seems to be perfectly reasonable and intelligent but that is really a high level of gas-baggery.