Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Caring and Power

The holidays sometimes intensify my wonder about how little the privileged care about those with less. I don't exempt myself, feeling somewhat poor this season when I am also incredibly privileged.

New research seems to indicate that people who have a sense of personal power have less compassion for those below them. As I've argued earlier, it is precisely this sense of personal, individual, power that is a key component of middle-class culture.
The fact that many cultures emphasize the concept of “noblesse oblige” (the idea that with great power and prestige come responsibilities) suggests that power may diminish a tendency to help others. . . .

[In this study,] individuals with a higher sense of power experienced less compassion and distress when confronted with another’s suffering, compared to low-power individuals. In addition . . . high power participants showed more autonomic emotion regulation, which buffered against their partner’s distress.

[P]owerful people were not motivated to establish a relationship with distressed individuals.
This makes me wonder whether a central aspect of middle-class education--the effort to build a sense of individual confidence and empowerment--may also help produce a reduced tendency to want to collaborate with the less powerful.

In other words, two of the central components of middle-class, professional progressivism may be in direct conflict with each other. The desire to actualize unique individuality may corrode efforts to encourage collaboration with other individuals across different power levels. This may intensify the tendency of middle-class professionals to want to work only with other similarly positioned middle-class professionals.

Ironically, visions of caring focusing on actualizing the individuality of others, a la Nel Noddings, are themselves fundamentally middle-class constructions, differing significantly, as Audrey Thompson among others has noted, from the "caring" of those with less privilege and power.

This may also relate to the disgust middle-class people often feel for members of the working class (h/t our own Jane VanGalen's Education and Class blog).


Craig A. Cunningham said...

Fascinating stuff, Aaron, and it jibes with my own intuitions about these things. "Individual responsibility" means, then, not only taking responsibility for oneself but expecting others to do so. Successful attainment of economic autonomy leads most people to lose compassion for those without such autonomy.

So what is to be done? (I know, what a "middle-class" response!)

Aaron Schutz said...

y, I hadn't actually thought of the relationship between individual autonomy and it's relationship to a loss of compassion. Interesting. Actually, though, a tendency to have disdain for poor people without jobs is also widespread among the white working class. It's not that the working class (generally speaking) disdain's individual responsibility--in some ways it values this more highly. But it does not tend to see "power" in the same individualistic manner. Which doesn't mean your point does not contain some truth. (I say "white" because of Michele Lamont's disussion of differences in the nature of "compassion" between white and black working-class men.)


"What is to be done" is not a middle-class response. "How" something should be done is what can give action a class valence.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't the whole history of the civil rights movement contradict the central thesis?

Valedict86 said...

Having come from the "lower class" (i.e. having lived in FEMA Trailer, received food stamps, gotten Christmas Toys from the Marines) and risen to the "middle class" (i.e. home ownership, knowing the difference between pinot grigio and pinot noir) I'm not convinced that those in the middle class become hardened to the needs of the poor as a result of being more enfranchised. Is there really an imbalance between developing oneself personally and the general community effect of becoming a more educated and productive individual? If the overall group benefits from an individual becoming more skilled, accomplished, and/or successful is there a contradiction between individual goods and public goods for education?