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).

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