Monday, January 7, 2013

"Jen Ratio" and Goodness: Maybe We Should Take Note

 Sandra Fluke Embodies a high jen person of goodness
According to Dacher Keltner, in his book, 'Born to Be Good', "Jen is a central concept in the teachings of Confucius and refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity and respect that transpires between people."

In later parts of his book, he even makes the case that there are biological markers that are signatures for "high jen" humans, including: vagus nerve operation (eliciting lower heartbeat and release of oxytocin inducing more compassion for fellow humans), oxytocin itself - inducing greater empathy for others, more trust, and the Duchenne smile - embodying the outward manifestation of love of humanity and a general trust.

As we can see by examination of the photo of Sandra Fluke - at the Democratic Convention- her face captures the "Duchenne smile", and hence manifests higher oxytocin levels in her physiology, as well as being a "vagal superstar" in the parlance of Prof. Keltner. These also reflect a "high jen" persona or to quote Confucius: "A person of high jen brings the good things of others to completeness." By contrast, a negative, scowling persona indicates low jen and he is more likely to bring the bad things of others to completion. Moreover he doesn't trust others unless they are part of his immediate kin.

Keltner's claim and which is expatiated upon in his book, is that the jen concept "reveals a new way to think about the evolution of human goodness." Also, why is it that those like Sandra Fluke exhibit high jen while her calumniators, say like Rush Limbaugh - exhibit very low jen? It could be on account of their upbringing. Very often, as Keltner observes, low -jen humans originate in the cradle. They are seldom held by their mothers, they are usually slapped or screamed at rather than embraced, hugged, and these actions lead to negative physiological markers - including low oxytocin levels, and overly excited vagus nerve response to most situations.

The "jen ratio" is the somewhat subjective measure that allows the quality of jen in a person to be assessed. According to Prof. Keltner, when assessing the jen ratio in another person, we place all his negative recent actions in the denominator, and all his positive actions in the numerator. For example, let's say he's a blogger who professes to be religious and aspires to carry forth "God's holy word". Then in the numerator we place all those times he has encouraged others and shown true Christian love to them, and in the denominator we place all those occasions in his blogs where he's threatened them with hell even indirectly (e.g. putting 'tick, tick tock' up ) or inserted any hellish images - say of atheists burning up. Let's say just once he's written an inspiring piece on his blog that elevates other religions, while 25 times he'd put up hell images or condemning words in the past month. Then his jen ratio is: 1/ 25 = 0.04.

Keltner also maintains one can apply the jen ratio to just about anything: one's interior life, the tenor of a family reunion, the goodwill of a neighborhood, the rhetoric of a president or the actions of a political party. From this, one would be able to say that very plausibly Obama's rhetoric is "high jen" while the GOP's  behavior, standoffs on the fiscal cliff and (coming soon) the debt ceiling is very, very low jen.

Sandra Fluke's caring for her sisters facing health problems because of their being unable to access affordable contraceptives, is very high jen. She obviously seeks to bring the good of other young women to completeness. She even put herself on the line, exposing herself to the vitriol of pigs like Limbaugh! Her speech also at the Dem convention disclosed her as a high jen, basically good person. Her Duchenne smile is the physiological marker and confirmation. It is the outward signature of an innate, humane goodness which trusts other people implicitly and seeks to bring their best potential to fruition.

Keltner also makes the case that just as people have jen ratios, so also do nations. As he observes:

"Nations whose citizens bring the good in others to completion thrive. High jen ratios are the hallmark of healthy societies."

He goes on to cite a study that showed (ibid.):

"For every 15 percent increase in the trust of a nation's citizens, their economic fortunes rise by $430."

What about the United States? Is it gaining or losing jen? According to Keltner (p. 9):

In the recent explosion of studies in social well being, signs of loss of jen in the United States are incontrovertible. The percentage of Americans who trust their fellow citizens has dropped fifteen percentage points in the past fifteen years."

He lists the symptoms of ill health/ low jen  as follows:

- increasing feelings of anomie, greater loneliness

- the trend toward less happy marriages,

- People have fewer close friends, intimates

- Young babies have "more contact with their strollers" than human hands

Keltner also attributes (p. 195)  the American low jen ratio to a "touch-deprived culture". This ends up triggering a cycle whose outcome is inevitably lower oxytocin, less national trust. The lower oxytocin resulting from lack of tactile stimulation then initiates even less trust, and lower oxytocin. He asserts that the widespread tactile deprivation in the U.S. - from the case of parents ignoring crying infants, to teachers fearful of patting students on the head for good work (on account of possible abuse charges) "owes its deep roots to the Puritans, well known for their attempts at extirpating human delights".  The 40 -year long hostile "drug war"  (especially against MJ) is also a creature originating with this dynamic, as is the widespread fear of sex, intimacy.

Interestingly, Prof. Keltner ties these trends to an "ideology" that if pursued further will lead to a national jen ratio of 0. He refers to the main culprit as "rational choice theory"  and the "strongest proponents are in the halls of economic departments". The deformed creature resulting is "Homo Economicus" - a misshapen critter solely looking out for himself and his financial advancement, and a believer in the Neoliberal idiom that each person must disdain governmental supports or assistance in favor of "personal initiative". This also feeds into the nation's overt hyper-consumption, since each individual as a worker is then expected to consume, consume and consume using his remain on the work-spend treadmill til he croaks.

A high jen society with a view to correcting the unemployment problem, for example,  would instead leave out rational choice theory and de-prioritize consumption. It would see the problem as too many work hours by a relative small proportion, so would seek to partition those work hours so they are more equitably allotted to all who need work. Thus, instead of current 50-60 hour weeks (imperiling family health and personal time), we'd go down to the more reasonable 30-35 hours a week. This would enable more people to be hired, albeit at the shorter hours. They'd initially earn less income, for sure, but they'd also have less for infantile consumption. As the new wage -work tableaux then settled in, a new wage-price structure would be the outcome prices would be held in concordance with the new wage structures. But by then, a firm saving ethic would already be established, having been reinforced by earlier lower income.

The problem is that the rational choice theorist doesn't trust for this to happen, or be beneficial to society. It more suits his Neoliberal fancy to have definite income winners and losers as opposed to spreading the wealth (income, resources) so more of the society benefits. It also suits his fancy,say if a shareholder of some company like Mattel, to have more 'Barbie' buyers not fewer. Naturally, this person is severely low jen!

The general outcome of this inverse jen thinking abounds: "economic losses loom larger than equivalent gains, losing twenty dollars stings more than finding a twenty pleases, " and thus the affected person is further induced to pursue rigorous self-interest.

Interestingly, this same exact dynamic is what Benjamin Barber has defined as in accord with the "infantile consumer ethos" in his book, CONSUMED.  Thus, we see that the Neoliberal, self-interested pursuit of economic gains is tied to a naturally infantile, low jen persona.

Is there more to it? I believe there is. I, for one, hypothesize it's not merely a matter of rational choice theory taking hold but rather excess militarism too. Militarism extolled as a national virtue debases a country, and causes it to pursue decidedly low jen goals such as less international cooperation, perpetual war (to keep the military industrial complex fed), building of empire - with military bases scattered by the thousands across the globe, and a military culture which praises all soldiers who've "served" as some kind of super-citizens, but disparages other citizens, say like Peace Corps workers, or even the medical volunteers for 'Doctors without Borders'. The sure sign of a sick, low -jen society is none other than one for which the glorification of the military is paramount. And the more money we cast into its maw the worse it will get, including manifesting in outbreaks of irrational gun violence.

Keltner is basically correct, but he needed to extend his net of low jen culprits a bit wider!

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