On Blood and Altruism

Scene 1:

The other day, I was walking down Santa Fe towards my usual bus stop and I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned my head and came face-to-face with a man, probably 6’2″, muscular, who was literally covered in blood. I kid you not, there was blood all over his face and hands, with fresh red rivulets dripping from one of his eyelids and his impressively disfigured nose. His face was not even swollen, indicating that he had recently acquired his facial adornments. I nearly shat my pants.

He asked me for money.

“Por favor, ¿una moneda señor? Para el bebé, tiene hambre y no puedo encontrar trabajo.”

Deer in the headlights. I’m sorry, what? Is there a tacit, “or I’ll pulverize you” at the end of that humble plea? Is this some kind of asshole tactic to get money from people, or did you just kill somebody?

Not knowing exactly how crazy this guy was, I fished quickly for a coin in my pocket, handed it to him, and watched as he broke into a wide smile and thanked me profusely.

This is so confusing. So you’re not going to pulverize me or demand my wallet (or take my backpack with my laptop in it?).

I asked him why he had blood all over his face.

“Perdón, em— por qué … el sangre?”

He answered: “El boxeo.”

Boxing. 

I’m just going to believe that. Whatever you say, fella.

***

Scene 2:

The other day, I was on the 132 going from Córdoba to Rivadavia, listening to the cumbia blasting from my bus-neighbor’s headphones, when a homeless woman boarded the bus. She was an older lady, dark skinned with wild hair, dressed in an enormous quantity of oversized shirts and baggy olive-green pants. She wore no shoes. In her hands was a stack of paper- small ripped pieces of newspaper, arranged in a stack which she held carefully between both arms as one might hold a baby. She surveyed her audience and said nothing. She turned around and walked to the front of the bus, and started handing out the slips of paper.

One by one, she offered a ripped piece of newspaper each person on the bus, extending her arm gently and retreating quickly if someone waved to signal disinterest. She worked slowly through everyone at the front of the bus, then through the people standing in the center, and eventually arrived at my seat, the first of the seats in the back of the bus.

She offered me a slip of paper. She offered it to me slowly, cautiously, as if I might reach out and strike her arm away. We made eye contact. I took the slip of paper.

She kept on through the back of the bus, shuffling slowly through the crowd. She reached the last person, straightened up, put the remaining papers into one of her many pockets, and walked back towards the front of the bus.

One person in front was already holding a two-peso bill and waved it in her direction. She approached him, received the money, and dipped her head a little.

“Gracias, señor.”

Other hands were outstretched holding coins or bills. She went from person to person, dipping her head each time as she received their offering.

I looked around at my bus-neighbors. Almost all of them were holding or fishing for money for when the woman came their way (except for my bus-neighbor, who was still with his cumbia and whatever was outside the window).

I, too, retrieved a 2-peso bill from my wallet and sat waiting, watching, almost excited for my turn to give my money to this woman.

Well, she eventually did come my way, and I gave my pesos to her, as did almost everyone else on the bus. She thanked me and each other person, and then everyone at once— “Gracias a todos”— and then God— “y gracias al dios”— and then got off at the next bus stop. Her pockets were literally bulging.

***

I do have a few thoughts about what was going on here, but I’d love to hear your ideas as well, my dear readers, as I’m still somewhat perplexed by these two situations.

First off, bloody-man.

Lets first assume that he was actually boxing and then decided, immediately after being thoroughly defeated and not winning any money, that he needed to find a way to feed his baby.

Why didn’t he clean himself off first? He literally had not wiped his face or stopped the bleeding, and his nose was clearly in bad shape. Did he consciously understand that his menacing state would result in an easy few pesos?

I suppose that’s somewhat logical, although perhaps ineffective, as I imagine people would be likely to either run away or give the bare minimum to get him to go away.

It also seems like a quick way to get noticed by the police, although the police are much less of a presence in Buenos Aires than in most parts of the USA…

Alternatively, if this was an act or technique that this man regularly employed to ‘scare up’ some money, do you think it would be effective? If this were the case, I would have to conject that it would be effective because one would not undergo such regular pain and humiliation unless the payoff was significant.

Really though, he was big and bulky enough that the blood was unnecessary, so I strongly doubt that this guy had actually planned this as a technique, so…

Thoughts?

As for paper-slip-lady:

This situation I find very intriguing from both a psychological and sociological point of view. Why did the woman hand out the slips of paper, and why were people so willing to give to her? Both parties are worth consideration— the woman herself, and her audience, the crowd.

First off, I think that this woman knew exactly what she was doing. Of course I can’t know for sure, but I bet she carefully developed this technique after trying other cadging tactics and judging their relative success. Everything was done just right: her image— pitiful, but calm and respectful with some air of dignity; her interactions— which were deliberate and seemingly meaningful as communicated through eye contact and head-dipping, as if your contribution really made all the difference; and her timing— the entire process took no more than 3 or 4 minutes, within which time she effectively built a micro-connection with each person and left them with something.

Which leads us to question the crowd: why was everyone so willing to give to her?

I think that the woman effectively played upon several fundamental human (animal?) psych/sociological traits. The first being a selfish altruism and the second being a group effect. I am an expert on neither subject, so I’ll feed you my interpretation and those links and let me google it for you.

Selfish altruism has been widely studied and can be grounded in psychology and beneath that, evolutionary theory. Humans are social beasts and thus lived in groups during all of our development, and for most of that time we were hunting-and-gathering, thereby living in societies where sharing resources was crucial if we were to survive. Helping the group, therefore, was evolutionarily rewarded and hot-wired into us through psychological selection.

However, bringing this back to paper-slip-lady, what did the crowd (including myself) get from our selfish selflessness?

Well, a ripped piece of newspaper.

But of course, something mentally more. This part, I think, is different for each person based on their experiences and ethical tendencies, but almost surely exists in everyone. Perhaps it’s justifying one’s own circumstantial privilege.  For others it may be a sense of common humanity, as if s/he is helping a member of kin in need. I’m sure there are many more mental justifications, and I’d be interested to hear what they are specifically for you— why do you stop and give money to those who ask for it? What would persuade you to do so or to alternatively walk by in pointed silence. I do not think there is any shame in saying that it makes us feel good. That feeling is deeply engrained in our inner animal and has served us well in building connections, communities, and societies of efficiency and scale. Where do you draw the ethical lines here?

While I do think that paper-slip-lady has developed an innovative technique, I also think that she is still and forever at the mercy of the group effect, which is why her presentation is so important.

In that situation on colectivo 132, we, the audience-group of humans displayed a group effect shared with almost all other animals. When one rabbit detects danger, all rabbits hide in their holes. When one rabbit comes out to survey the scene, it may or may not get eaten. When two rabbits poke out their ears, they may or may not get eaten. But when three or seven rabbits emerge, all of the rabbits come out to play, because they know that the other rabbits know that the coast is clear.

So I bet that it works both ways for paper-slip-lady; that if she doesn’t nail the initial presentation, very few people contribute. On the other hand, we, the audience-group of humans could have then been guilty of the fourth reich, as we all bit that bait and were even excited to do so.

But what is this conversation really about? I think it would be very interesting to do a quantitative research study on panhandling tactics. Such a study may exist—I’m no scholar on the subject—but something about these situations is telling about human behavior and a data table might shed some light. 

What are your thoughts? It’s a favorite and classic debate: is selfless altruism possible? In humans? In animals?

And does it matter? In both situations, they got my pesos…

Marxismo Ecológico: The “I Have a Midterm Tomorrow” Edition

I’m writing this post essentially as a review for my parcial (midterm exam) tomorrow afternoon… however I do find this stuff important and interesting and I’ve been pleasantly surprised in my studies to find Marx’s opinions on the human-nature relationship both logical and… agreeable — not generally the word people would associate with the author of such world-infamous revolutionary dogmata. But my goal, by the end of this (hopefully concise) post is to convince you that Marx was not only an extremely progressive ‘environmentalist’, but furthermore founded his entire body of academic work on the necessity of repairing the human-nature relationship. Which (spoiler alert) he eventually says is impossible to do within the context of our current capitalist system, and thus suggests socialism or communism, and.. yeah. Revolution, yadda yadda etc.

So let’s start off tens of thousands of years ago, when the first human-ish populations were hunting and gathering and hadn’t quite figured out how to plant seeds in a row. At that point, humans did effect their ecosystems, but only proportionately similarly to any other animal specie of our size and reproductive prowess. All of that Native-American-Pocahontas lore of living with nature and respecting (her) natural flows? That, according to Marx, is the only sustainable state that humans have ever known. We had to respect nature’s flows, because even early humans’ primative ‘ecology’ enlightened them to realize that if you overuse a resource, it dries out, whether it be animal/plant/fish/bug/water. Even then, if early humans DID overuse a resource, they often would pack up camp and leave, allowing for nature to naturally replenish itself, causing (as far as we know) little long term harm.

Then we discovered how to plant seeds in a row. Agriculture, that crazy paradigm shift that allowed humans to generate food surplus which allowed for some humans to specialize and craft goods which could then be traded with other humans so that we could build massive, dirty campsites and generally distance ourselves from soil toils; this, the dissociation the human producer from the source of his production (nature) is problematized by Marx as the metabolic rift, (referencing the action of intaking and transforming (labor) resources and outputting goods as a type of metabolism). Since we are not directly connected to our own production from natural resources, Marx says we are alienated from nature; capitalism inserts labor between man and nature, which indicates, given the emergence of large-scale agriculture, long-distance trade, and general globalization, that this metabolic rift is only intensifying.

And the result of this metabolic rift is the ideology that modern capitalism was built upon: the Great Chain of Being; Natural Theology; the teleological notion that nature was created by God or a higher power for man to use and abuse (the bible actually says that we should act as a “shepherd” to nature, implying an element of caretaking, but that was conveniently overlooked by Christian colonialism). Ownership by divine providence, says Marx, is a philosophical idealism which has been used to justify and encourage the domination of nature by man. Hence, we have private property, anthropocentric arrogance, and the earth and her resources are commodified whilst man is elevated to a semi-devine, non-animal, non-God, ‘superior being’.

In contrast to this idealism is Marx’s materialism, which could be understood as ‘thinking scientifically.’ We are comprised of matter, and even though we can’t see them, atoms, and we are the product of millions of years of evolution by way of natural selection according to the laws of nature. According to this epistemology, man is clearly not anything divine or superior, and even though we’ve operated (..since hunter-gatherer days) on the false ideology that we’re not part of nature and are not subject to the same set of natural rules and regulations as the rest of our biotic community, we are just as much a production of our evolutionary pathway as is a flea.

Though, says materialist philosophy, we are different, in that we have actually changed the earth itself over time, and as we went about transforming the world, we transformed ourselves:

primates, who constituted the ancestors of human beings, descended from the trees, erect posture developed first (prior to the evolution of the human brain), freeing the hands for tool-making. In this way:

the hand became free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity and skill, and the greater flexibility thus acquired was inherited and increased from generation to generation. Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour.

Our brain is perhaps the most remarkable result of this reflexive socio-natural relationship— as we developed cultural items, such as the ability to use tools or pass on knowledge or ultimately develop language, natural selection also acted to favor those who were most adept at participating in such culture, leading to our current cranial capacities which we’ve neatly abused to figure out the most creative freaking ways to destroy the earth that birthed us. Anyways,

So now we’re here today with our titanic chasm of a metabolic rift, and frankly it’s not even the religion idea that motivates our further worldly destruction but rather flat anthropocentrism, justified by the exalted pursuit of profit (which is still part of the idealist philosophy, as anthropocentrism is a teleology)— where does sustainability fit in? What happened to respecting the laws of nature, which are still-and-forever-will-be conditions of the human existence? How can we justify ownership of this land? Finally in line with his esteemed manifesto, Marx writes:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].

We’ve been shitty heads of the household. And I’m certain we will continue, if not worsen, our reign of terror.

Capitalism, writes Marx, “creates the material conditions for a new and higher synthesis, a union of agriculture and industry…” — in other words, capitalism is a powerful engine which has led us to a point where we’ve got the brains and brawn to figure out a path towards a “higher synthesis”, which he suggests to be a system of “rational agriculture, which needs small independent farmers producing on their own…” and the regulation of associated producers. HOWEVER, since we’re humans, and we’ve got to have free will and self determination and especially-in-God-bless-AMURICA, this sort of regulation is immediately termed socialism or communism, which it very well could be, except it won’t, because these systems fail, or at least we’re convinced they do.

DOOM AND GLOOM, we’ll probably keep hacking and fracking until Iceland is an anachronism and Sweden is the only place with no garbage.

Until then, VIVA LA REVOLUCION

***

~~ Keep in mind, Marx was convinced of the omnipotence of reestablishing our metabolic link in ~1850’s, long before the Teddy Roosevelts and Rachel Carsons of modern environmentalism. Environmentalism wasn’t even around yet, heck, the idea of the “scientist” had just been coined in the ’30’s, and the concept of “ecology” in ’69… progressive ‘environmentalist’? I think so.

And I would call that damn concise. Have you ever read Marx????

Oh, Flaneur—

I’d like to share a concept that I have grown to adore and utilize widely in my life.

It’s an old French ideal, something probably upper-class and white and readily eyebrowed, but the art of the flaneur is a specific take on observation: Wikipedia says the word means something along the lines of “to stroll” or “saunter” or “loaf,” which alludes to that principle at the core of flanerie, which is to do nothing; to have no objective, no destination, no prerogative or goal in mind, except to observe in any way you might like the surroundings you encounter.

Historically, the flaneur has been important in some strains of academic thought including urban modernization, class conflict, and architecture. Important theoretic contributors include Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Susan Sontag, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb; of course there are lots of interesting learnings pent up in each of these contributions to the theme, but this being a blog and you having the Internet, I will let you explore ad libitum and I’ll proceed with what I’d actually like to write about.

I have now begun my semester studying abroad. Except for when I’ve had to participate in program-scheduled activities (picking classes, orientation etc.) I have had a great many hours of entirely unstructured time. Like most humans I do often enjoy the company of others and so I have certainly been getting to know the other international students as well as my host family and an interesting handful of native Argentines. But when I wake up on Friday and Saturday and Sunday (literally, every day this weekend) with nothing that I must do, I think to myself, I’ve made it. I’m here, this is what I’ve been waiting for. Enter, the flaneur.

I am in love with the idea of eschewing purpose, first in any location, as it matters not where you look but how, but with even more gusto in some place new and fantastic. Not that I have any problem with having guiding purpose in your day or life, as you would be idle to be without it. But so often, our purpose lends us spectacular clarity upon our destination and utter blindness to anything that might be even a degree off-course.

There is a nice parable that illustrates this idea, in which a rich man leads a crowd of people to see that he had laid out a trail of dollar bills on a sidewalk stretching as far as the eye could see. Immediately the crowd swarms, racing and elbowing each other to pick them up first. When they arrive, breathless, at the end of the trail, the rich man points so as to lift their gaze ever so slightly, to see that he had also hung hundred dollar bills from the trees on either side of the sidewalk. In the distance, not yet far from the starting line, a single man had noticed the hanging money and was about to climb the fourth tree.

To be alone in a crowd; to be one with its ebbs and flows, its conflict and resolution; to notice and admire each grand story as it marches past, mysterious forever; invisible (unless someone else is watching me, and then let them). Baudelaire looked to be one with the crowd. I look to be one part of it. A tiny part, scarily small, or perhaps the world is scarily large, and I’m still normal-sized. Perhaps I am enamored with this concept of relativity, that suddenly I’m not so important; I tire of placing myself on such a false pedestal, like why should I care so much about myself? I can answer this question only evolutionarily, and perhaps economically as I will likely someday contribute some value back from where I’ve taken it. But ethically, I am an arbitrary prince, my value arbited by fickle luck. In my selfishness I am disgusted. But I digress..

Now, im not so idealistic as to suggest that all of you with your busy lives and money-trails should suddenly stop these activities and squat on city corners for hours each day. In my luxurious moment, I am able to begin and end the day without having accomplished a single goal, except to have observed, and that is a truly precious privilege. However, I also have lived the busy life, and this mindset has not only just occurred to me in these spare minutes. For it is that exactly: a mindset. Often I’ll set aside a time slot,- nothing outrageous, perhaps half an hour, during which time I’ll set the single goal of getting razors and body soap from the CVS nearby. Unless each of our days are so routinely unfortunate that each task forever bleeds into the next, I think we are generally able to allot a bit of extra time for oneself at strategic points in our days. To do what? To do nothing. For me, I have seen the most hideous and the most beautiful things in these times, the most banal and the most surprising. If you are so jaded to experience that you do not feel the attraction to this activity (or lack thereof), then you should read my last post, which explained slightly why I like to keep my eyes open.

An interesting adaptation of this concept is that of the cyberflaneur, in which this mindset of not being always-purposed is applied to our use of the Internet. Trends indicate that we increasingly use the Internet only functionally. In an article published in the New York Times last February, Evegny Morozov commented that our increasing societal single-mindedness is reflected on the Internet:

Something similar has happened to the Internet. Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore. The popularity of the “app paradigm,” whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely. That so much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping — for virtual presents, for virtual pets, for virtual presents for virtual pets — hasn’t helped either. Strolling through Groupon isn’t as much fun as strolling through an arcade, online or off.

(Side-question: is social media helping or hurting our discovery of interesting things? Morozov seems to think that it’s a distraction from our own perusing, but technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci doesn’t quite agree; is there a ‘filter bubble’? Is seeing new and exciting articles from our friends on FB a new flaneurism, or is it the ‘daily me’?)

Again, not that I think we should all sit around flipping through page after page of Wikipedia or Reddit or TED, but in actuality, I do! Everything in moderation, but these tools of modernity can connect us with troves of brilliance and creativity, information about history, art, all of the academica under the sun, etc.

Set parameters. Fifteen minutes. Forty-five. Don’t allow yourself to over or under-do it. If you get so wrapped up in a wikipedia binge that you only look up two hours later, the next time you might have ten minutes free, you’ll think “I don’t want to start, because then I won’t be able to stop.” Not that self moderation is easy for everyone, but give it your all..

Be an active observer of your world. Loaf both on the curb outside Starbucks and then again inside; sip your latte, but use their WIFI to read about the folks that might have a cure for HIV in infants. Follow your money trail, but look to the trees! You might see a monkey 8-] (or a mantis??)

Mantis: a Memoir

*   *   *   *   *   *

He handed me a flashlight. It was one of those oversized yellow things with the enormous battery that allegedly lasts for 5000 hours but is unfailingly dead as soon as you really need it. He had taken the battery, electronics, and light bulb out, so as to create a little compartment inside.

“I didn’t have any other containers, so I had to improvise,” he said.

I tried to unscrew the top of the flashlight. My adolescent fingers strained eagerly.

“Let me help you with that,” he smiled. He took the flashlight in his powerful hands and loosened it before handing it back to me.

“Go on, look inside.”

I twisted the cap off and let it fall to the floor of my garage. I peered inside. Last time, it was a meadow vole.  A few months ago, it was a baby snapping turtle. In the past he had brought home garter snakes, baby chipmunks, injured birds, and small large-mouthed bass that he had caught in local ponds. What next?

A triangular head swiveled almost 180 degrees to stare me in the face. Two long antennae trembled furiously, searching the air for any sign of threat. Four spindly legs stretched out, clinging to the sheer yellow plastic, and two more were held upright, coiled against its abdomen. It stared at me, swaying eerily, meeting my starry-eyes with its unblinking, alien stare.

I looked up at my dad, unaware that this four-inch insect would become a central and omnipotent figure in my young life.

*   *   *   *   *   *

My dad gave me my first mantis when I was 13. He was driving down some rural road in Western Massachusetts when something hit his windshield. He stopped the car, went to inspect, and wound up catching the mantis (unharmed) in a flashlight container. We named her Preya the Chinese Mantis. I wrote this memoir for my Sociology class earlier this year. These were just the first few paragraphs– if you’re interested in reading more, feel free to email me at acantrell (at) wesleyan (dot) edu and I’d be happy to send it to you.

*   *   *   *   *   *