Migrant Lives

Refugees And Us, A Human Struggle To Face The Misery Of Others

A French philosopher dissects the mix of reactions across society, and within our own individual psyches, when human misery arrives at our door.

A Syrian refugee boy arriving in Athens on Sept. 6
A Syrian refugee boy arriving in Athens on Sept. 6
Roger-Pol Droit

PARIS â€" It’s not merely the topic du jour in time for our return from summer holidays â€" nor even the big issue for 2015. It is a question that will likely preoccupy Europe for a long, long time. Migrants are not small groups anymore, but increasingly waves of humanity. And the paralysis, the emotion, the shame, but also the anxiety, rejection and violence seem to all grow together. Every day gives a glimpse of new faces, new tragedies, new problems that cannot quickly be solved.

To Calais, France, and the Italian island of Lampedusa, we can now add Greek islands, Balkan roads, the Hungarian border. The race to escape the police and outlast hunger gives way to death by drowning, suffocation, electrocution. Polite conversations have been replaced by demonstrations and invectives, as the chasm between supporters and opponents deepens every day.

Germany and Italy are divided, so is France and the rest of Europe. Each according to their own history and flaws. And all the evidence suggests that these gaps will only get wider as the number of refugees grows higher.

And yet the difficulty that seems most crucial to me is never clearly expressed. It has nothing to do with the distinction between political refugees, fleeing the chaos of war, and economic migrants, attempting to escape the chaos of poverty. This separation, most often, is artificial and impossible to establish clearly. Nor is it a matter of confrontation between “them” and “us” â€" their lives without homes, work, security, and ours of privileged, residents and citizens of relatively safe and abundant lands.

No, the real conflict that is settling in is, in reality, between two different ideas of “we,” to which each one of us belongs. Let me explain.

“We, humans,” want to reach out. That part of us filled with empathy, pity, brotherhood is not based on shallow, sorry commiseration. It forms the very foundation of morals, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Arthur Schopenhauer and Adam Smith demonstrated in their own time, in different ways. Moral feelings are directly linked to our most basic instincts, our guts and sensitivities and emotions, before being the object of any debates. The migrants’ distress is not external to that “us.” Human to human, suffering is felt and shared instantly. In the same way that we jump into the water when we see someone drowning, it is evidently urgent that we act to take in our fellow humans in distress.

“We, the privileged,” instead, want to close doors, declare that it’s not our problem, not our life or responsibility. That selfish and withdrawing “we” is also the one that wants to defend what has been acquired: social stability, public order, one’s home that belongs to no other. Comparing and favoring oneself, protecting oneself by refusing to help â€" these human attitudes have existed for just as long as pity and its emotions.

The difficulty lies in the fact that we all, always, belong simultaneously to both of these manifestations of “us.” There are, of course, distinct parties, movements and ideologies. Opposed points of view, antagonistic programs. But we would be wrong in imagining that there are just two sides, where sensitivity and discernment are opposed. If tensions are rising concerning the way to act with migrants, if the status quo is weighing down both politics and debates, it’s not because there are “good” people on one side and “bad” people on the other. It’s mostly because we are all, deep down, more or less divided.

We all know, from personal experience, these moments of emotion that make us think that we must open our doors or our wallets, and those opposite moments where we deem it necessary to take care of the comfort and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones.

Apart from angels and demons â€" which we symmetrically imagine incapable of evil or good â€" these two tendencies are strong within every individual. What is important to know is that their tension first takes root within us, and not in the outside world. And that it is not about to disappear. We need to recognize this if one day we hope to find real solutions for others, and begin to reconcile this conflict within ourselves.

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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