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‘The Globalization of Indifference’: Who—or What—is My Neighbor?

In the hit TV show Community, the community college which the motley cast attends has for its mascot a faceless, androgynous figure called “The Human Being.” This brilliant figure of the grotesque is a satire for the dictates of political correctness in modern society, as well as for the way in which the prized value of diversity so often is undermined precisely by those very people who concern themselves with maintaining it—by their naïve prescriptions for its preservation. On a deeper level, be it intentional or otherwise, “The Human Being” mascot indexes moderns’ philosophical angst about the place of the individual in an increasingly complex and technologically-determined world.

This nameless, faceless figure came to mind while reading Dylan Pahman’s recent article at Ethika Politika, wherein he (admirably) presents an “Orthodox Christian appraisal” of globalization. Attempting to distinguish between attendant evils that seem often to accompany globalization and the phenomenon as such, Pahman poses three definientia constitutive of what we mean by “globalization”: namely, “deterritorialization; the growth of interconnectedness; and the increased velocity of social activity.” In Pahman’s schema, globalization is at least morally neutral in its essence, or better “a preferred indifferent,” and finally at best a mechanism which, in his words, “holds great moral potential” that may “be cautiously viewed as moral progress.”

In all this, Pahman’s thesis can meet little resistance. Globalization certainly is not an intrinsic evil; as such, it may indeed facilitate moral progress—just as any tool that is not evil in itself may be put to good use. But just as there are certain tools for particular tasks more efficient for the achievement of a desired end, globalization is not without competitors. In particular, the mechanism of localization is often urged as an alternative to globalization as a means to preserving justice and moral and economic welfare. Pahman criticizes this proposition and rejects efforts to “re-localize” the economy, and it is there that his thesis, I think, itself comes in for criticism.

In arguing against the ideal of the local, certain of Pahman’s contentions are sound enough: such as his claim that “[the] economic cooperation between nations made possible through globalization… has proved to be an effective (though not sufficient) means of raising the quality of life” for many people worldwide. His second claim against the local, however—suggested by way of the Orthodox philosopher Vladimir Solovyov—is more disputable: namely, the claim that “my infinite moral potential can achieve greater realization through the greater number of people to whom I am connected, and globalization connects me to more people” [emphasis added].

Pahman indeed acknowledges “the dangers that can come from alienation between production and consumption,” but there is a second kind of alienation which he seems to overlook: alienation in the realm of economic realities seems in developed societies to parallel more personal senses of alienation—psychological, spiritual, emotional. I contend that these aspects of alienation must be brought to bear in receiving the claim that “globalization connects [us] to more people.” At the very least, this parallel course of personal alienation begs us to look more closely at what is meant by “connection” here, and to probe more deeply the implicit caveat appended to Pahman’s assertion that “[t]oday, there is almost no one in the world who cannot potentially become my neighbor, in some sense” [emphasis added].

Our global economy relies increasingly upon mere token wealth or tenuous ‘commodities’ such as ‘carbon futures.’ This fact in part grounds the most common economic complaints against globalism by exponents of localism, who present a tighter production-consumption loop as a way of grounding our economic realities in reified values which helps, in turn, to measure the true full costs of a given economic exchange. A closer proximity between the arenas of production and consumption aids especially in being able to see what are called ‘externalized’ costs and unintended effects to human ecology which are much more easily overlooked in a global framework than in a local.

pope-francis-globalization-of-indifferenceIn a similar way, I contend, the values of personal connectedness and relationship—the quality and capacity of neighborliness—become more ‘fictive’ and are not as easily seen in their total reality within the register of the global ‘neighborhood(s)’ that characterize our modern economy. Pope Francis, in a recent homily during his visit to the Italian immigrant island of Lampedusa, exposed this concern in a captivating way. Referring to a recent catastrophic shipwreck off the island which resulted in the deaths of several would-be refugees, the Holy Father alluded to a character named “the Unnamed” in a novel by Alessandro Manzoni to indict a phenomenon he termed “the globalization of indifference” [emphases added]:

Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours? Nobody! That is our answer: It isn’t me; I don’t have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me. […] Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul…!”, and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. […] In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!

Here we can think of Manzoni’s character – “the Unnamed”. The globalization of indifference makes us all “unnamed,” responsible, yet nameless and faceless.

Now, considered one way, this again does not necessarily present a problem with globalization as such, but perhaps simply indicts the moral failures of individual or institutional agents within that morally neutral framework. Certainly, there is no clear implication in Pope Francis’s words that the problem is intrinsic to globalization nor isolated to it: the very mention of the parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us of this.

But on the other hand, the parable of the Good Samaritan can be read as a sort of template for how the “globalization of indifference” works. The priest and the Levite mentioned pass by the waylaid victim in part because of their preoccupation with more remote interests or ‘global’ concerns: on their way to Jerusalem to do service in the Temple, they fail to see a neighbor in immediate need and an opportunity for exercising the ministry of charity. The larger ‘neighborhood’ to which they belong according to their office displaces their concern with this particular neighbor who becomes a “nameless and faceless” other, simply one other human being and not a fully thematic person. (Implicit in my analysis here is the personalist philosophy expounded in the writings of Emmanuel Mournier and Dietrich von Hildebrand among others in the twentieth century.) The Samaritan, in contrast, although an excluded ‘other’ himself, becomes neighbor to the injured traveler by recognizing his personhood through the immediacy of his predicament. The optic of personalization impels the Samaritan to discover ‘neighborhood’ where none existed before—indeed, where such had been deliberately excluded by prevailing prejudices and customs. Yet the Samaritan had very much the same opportunity to allow customary norms and concerns to serve as his own rationalization for passing by just as the priest and Levite had done.

The nameless, faceless, colorless, androgynous “human being” in Community is the boogey-man of the globalization of indifference. He is the illustration of the Chinese factory worker whose plight was reported last month in Business Insider, a man “identified only as Mr. Zhang to protect his identity” who was “imprisoned in a labor camp where ‘inmates toiled seven days a week, their 15-hour days haunted by sadistic guards.’” The letter that brought Mr. Zhang’s concerns to light was found in a box of decorations purchased from Kmart by an Oregon resident, but Kmart’s later  investigation of the matter “found ‘no violations of company rules that bar the use of forced labor.’” The Oregon resident “has nearly stopped buying products manufactured in China” as a result of the incident—but how many readers of the story, who glimpsed the photograph of the letter with their own eyes, were so motivated, one wonders? Probably few; and the reason for this is because Mr. Zhang does not register and resonate within the global ‘neighborhood’ as a fully thematic person, a true ‘neighbor’ demanding us to stop by the side of the road. We do not have the reifying artifact of the physical letter to hold in our hands and contemplate: Zhang remains for the majority of us just one more “human being” in an anonymous mass.

This, in the end, is the weakness in the claim that “globalization connects me to more people”—the mechanisms of globalization have not been sufficiently proven for facilitating the paradigmatic shift whereby “people” become re-presented to us as persons and not just ‘human beings’.  This personalist optic is something we bring to the global community but that we first learn of necessity in the immediate and the local: it requires truly seeing the other, in a full and thematic encounter that deeply engages us and draws us out of ourselves. If charity is a good desirable to trade globally, it must first be manufactured locally. As the saying goes, charity begins at home. This is what the recovery of the local gives us that globalization cannot, what globalism indeed requires of the more primary local: the rediscovery of how to make neighbors, which is by encountering the other, seeing his face, and recognizing a person where we had first glimpsed merely another anonymous human being. Our service in the Jerusalem of global community and universal charity requires this preliminary lesson, learned by stopping by the side of the road and meeting the neighbor close at hand.


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