2005-12-25

Rude times we live in...

Following Nadia's advice, I started reading "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door" by Lynne Truss. It is not a guide to good manners, but more of an exhibition of the rudeness ruling today's lifes, with a focus to the UK. Comparing with Victorian times, it seems that indeed we are going downhill. But if you go before, let's say French Revolution... I don't think that the aristocrats were polite to the paisans, nor vice versa... (Exquius mee, monsieur, vould iu bee zo keind too ghemoove iugh hat beefough enteghing de guillotine?).

All this made me think of what José Emilio Pacheco and other mexican authors said some months ago about empathy. Adding a bit of spice from my own sack, it was something like: "Empathy is lacking in our present society. This is a cause of crime and violence (and rudeness), because people cannot put themselves in the place of others. Otherwise, they would not be able to do it, since empathy would make them feel what their victims suffer. Reading is a way to cultivate empathy, and it should be promoted. Like this, increasing empathy, social problems could be solved much better than with repression, zero tolerance, or increasing the number of policemen."

I think that this phenomenon can be explained neurophysiologically with mirror neurons. These neurons are activated when one is performing some action (e.g. grasping), but also when one observes somebody else performing that action. If there are mirror neurons that become active with emotions, these should become active both when we experience the emotion, and when we observe some others experiencing that emotion. Now, with a bit of training, observing the emotion in others will trigger, via the mirror neurons, the same emotion in ourselves, and thus, empathy. When we read, we are forced to put ourselves in the shoes of the characters, so that we can feel how others feel, feeling at the same time. This trains us so that we can be empathic with others, and will not attempt to be rude with them, because if we offend them, we will also feel the offense. I am sure that mirror neurons are a big piece in the puzzle of the evolution of cooperation, but that's another story...

Now, it seems more than a coincidence that in Victorian times people tended to read more, independently of their class (no TV, you know). It should be tested, but there seems to be a very strong correlation of the average number of books read with the social problems of a country. Not only rudeness, but also violence, murders, rape, thefts, etc. Reading increases empaty and consciousness to others in a way that TV simply can't. Now, I wonder if in the Internet there could be some things that could cultivate empathy? The same for games... I suppose that kill'em all games will not help in this aspect, but probably some web-based games that require social interaction could take our societies out of the hole they are digging themselves into...

I don't have precise numbers, but I know that in the USA and Mexico the reading rate is very low, as well as the quality of life. I heard that in Iceland, to cope with those long and dark winters, people basically read and have sex. Result, one of the highest qualities of life in the world, in spite of not the best weather... In Scandinavia things seem to be similar, though I am not sure about reading, and I know Swedish have a drinking problem... In the Soviet Union, people also read a lot, and there was no crime at all (not that there weren't problems). After it fell, reading promotion stopped (and many many other problems came along), and crime rates are something to speak about... skinheads in St. Petersburg kill foreign students every now and then, and the police seems to be indifferent about it...

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