Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Margaret Atwood’s Wise Words About Debt & Altruism… “A Portrait of the Artist as a Real Hero”


My wise friend, Margaret, recently passed me the current copy of Zoomers, a new magazine devoted to those of us fortunate enough to have attained the age of 45+, and she pointed out another Margaret’s article in it—Margaret Atwood, that is. Entitled, “Debt: not just a four-letter word”, Atwood's article follows the theme of her book called “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth”, that came out in the fall of 2008, just as the financial meltdown hit the globe. As usual, Margaret’s timing was impeccable.

Why was Atwood interested in writing about such a depressing subject back then when the sky was the limit? “Because the sky is never the limit,” she replies. “There’s always an invisible ceiling, and there are tremors when it’s being approached.” Atwood tells us that debt and laws about debt go back to the Mesopotamian Laws of Hammurabi. “Heavily in debt?” she quips about how they handled things back then. “Sell the wife and kids into slavery.” Every major religion uses the vocabulary of “debt” and “payment”, says Atwood. She brings up the notion of reciprocal relationships and describes the habit of chimpanzees to scratch each other’s backs by keeping track of who is owed one in return.


Of course, she’s talking about “reciprocal altruism” and the Tit-for-Tat strategy of the iterated “Prisoner’s Dilemma” (IPD) in game theory, which I described in a previous blog post (“Is James Bond an Altruist?—Part 2").

The concept of a "Prisoner's Dilemma" applies wherever there's a conflict between self-interest and the common good...where collective and individual interests are in conflict. What's interesting is that in single encounters of the "Prisoner's Dilemma", the outcome is usually driven by selfishness and distrust. Players are usually encouraged to defect and deceive out of self-interest. The outcome is entirely different when the game is played more than once. Game theorists found that frequent repetition of the encounter encouraged cooperation. With "the shadow of the future" held over each player, a new game emerged, "Tit-for-Tat", which relied on the consequence of reciprocity. In the system described by "Tit-for-Tat" the long-term reward of cooperation outweighs the short-term reward of defection. This is what Matt Ridley, author of The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, calls reciprocal altruism. Apparently humans are particularly well suited to it, being gregarious and choosing to live in a society where repeated encounters among ourselves promotes cooperation. Reciprocity permeates our language and our lives: "dept, obligation, favour, bargain, contract, exchange, deal..."

Simpler life forms also engage in reciprocal altruism, as Lynn Margulis pointed out in her discussions of endosymbiosis and evolution through cooperation. Margulis suggested that cellular evolution was based on ‘cooperation’ rather than simple ‘competition’ between viral or bacterial infection and host cell.

In my book, Darwin's Paradox, one of the characters, Gaia, brings up a grizzly example of reciprocal altruism to demonstrate a point to Julie Crane, the main character. Gaia's story centres on vampire bats. These delightful creatures spend the day in hollow trees and at night in search of large animals whose blood they quietly sip from small cuts they've surreptitiously made. Bats don't usually return sated, many times failing to get their fill or in finding prey at all. However, when a bat does get a meal, it usually drinks more than it needs and the surplus is typically donated to another bat by generously regurgitating some blood. Why donate at all? Bats live for a long time and roost together; they also typically groom each other and can tell if someone has a distended belly of unshared blood. A bat that has donated blood in the past will receive blood from the previous donee; a bat that has refused blood will be refused, in turn. Tit-for-Tat. A bat that cheats is soon detected and ostracized and will likely starve to death. Reciprocity rules the roost.

“But is it ‘real’ altruism?” asks the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They argue that “behaving nicely to someone in order to procure return benefits from them in the future…[can be construed as] delayed self-interest.” They go further to make the distinction between “biological altruism”, which is defined by fitness consequences, and “psychological altruism” (‘real’ altruism) which is consciously practiced by sentient species like humans and defined by many as “unselfish behavior”.

So, what is real altruism?

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy talks about the Vervet monkey that gives alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though by doing so they attract attention to themselves and increase their chance of being attacked. The prevalent phenomenon of altruism is Nature’s answer to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Biologists argue that the group that contains a high proportion of alarm-calling monkeys will have a survival advantage over a group containing a lower proportion, thereby encouraging this trait to continue and evolve among individuals.

The Vervet monkey crier is Nature’s Hero. And Nature’s heroes are our real altruists.

Think about it…Nature produces heroes; those among us who willingly (whether hard-wired, subconsciously or consciously) sacrifice something for the benefit of their world. This does not necessarily mean their lives either; but something they usually value that belongs to them or resides in them. Anything from giving away what little wealth one has to compromising one’s position in society. Anything from risking one’s health or security to incurring the ridicule or wrath of one’s cherished community for adhering to a principle or personal truth. To be a hero is to stand out and make oneself a target. Like the Vervet monkey crier. Real heroism, like real altruism, isn’t often recognized or valued for its true virtue. We all recognize the Hollywood stereotype, the Die Hard types that blow up a city to save a world. But who recognizes the quiet heroism of Louis, the young school kid who refuses to join in with his friends to ridicule Rene for smelling funny because she has poor hygiene and rotten hand-me-down clothes?

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my artist friend about the artist’s role in society and how regrettably in many cultures the artist is both accepted and shunned at the same time. Artists are often accepted outwardly by a society that secretly disdains and fears them. This is because the artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds it accountable. The artist points out to us our nature, our weaknesses, vices and injustices by recording who and what we are. This is often done— particularly in science fiction writing—by pointing out what we are not. Often, with painful consequences. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write, admits that “what makes writing so scary is the perpetual vulnerability of the writer. Says Keyes: “Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought. The closer he gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

Artists—we love ‘em and we hate ‘em. On the one hand we call them kooks: on the other hand, we look to them for our reflection. We ask them to tell us who we are. But we get nervous when their answers hit too close to home. We have a secret admiration for their irreverence, because down deep we would be irreverent too, if we weren’t such ‘fraidy cats. So we let them do it for us. It’s easy to write them off, particularly when their hair is green—Nancy Slonim Aronie

…How did she know my hair was green?...

Anyway, back to Margaret Atwood and the fall-out of her book about debt… When she was asked: “When will the financial system function well again?” she answered, “when our trust in its fairness and honesty is re-established.” When one young mother asked, “But how can I teach my children about fairness?” Atwood sagely replied, “Treat them fairly, because fairness, like debt and credit, always has two participants. Fairness is in the relationship between them. There isn’t any other way.” Wisely advised, Margaret. Treat others as you would have them treat you…with respect and kindness.

So, who’s YOUR hero?


References:

Atwood, Margaret. 2009. "Dept: Not Just A Four Letter Word". Zoomer. March, 2009 (www.zoomermag.com)
Munteanu, Nina. 2009. "The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!" Pixl Press. 264pp.
Ridley, Matt. 1998. "Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation". Penguin. 304pp.




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

11 comments:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A real in-depth post here. You deal with the hero concept well. I thought Gaia in 'Darwin's Paradox' was fascinating, and there was a lot of potential in her.

SF Girl said...

Yes, the "villain" is often the more interesting character...Their conflicts with society can challenge our thinking in subtle ways that the "hero" doesn't. This of course depends on how these archetypes are portrayed in art.

Gaia (in my book) had many facets to her and, in fact, truly believed that she was acting on soceity's behalf and in its best interest...In some ways she was!

Janet said...

My hero? One of them is Corrie ten Boom, a member of a Dutch family that sheltered Jews during WWII and went to a concentration camp for their efforts. When she got out she founded recovery centres for both former prisoners AND former guards and collaborators. To all appearances, she'd been nothing more than a frumpy, sheltered spinster, but she proved herself to be a giant.

SF Girl said...

Yes, Corrie was a real altruist, a real hero... Thanks sharing one of your heroes with us, Janet. I'd love to hear from more of you...

Anonymous said...

From James Bond to game theory to heroes--great post! :)

"But who recognizes the quiet heroism of Louis, the young school kid who refuses to join in with his friends to ridicule Rene for smelling funny because she has poor hygiene and rotten hand-me-down clothes?"

Me, for one. I was intensely bullied for years (skinny kid with a foreign accent, broken glasses, hand-me-down out of style clothing), and I well remember the occassional "Louis" stepping in to defend me; and I was so grateful I promised myself I would be a "Louis" when someone needed one.

My heroes are the quiet ones, the ones who motivate you to be better than you are, to experience more, to wonder, to learn, the ones who help you see the world with new eyes. They are the ones who's minds aren't limited to one field, but in their own enthusiasm and curiosity about things they have broad-ranging interests. There are many like that, and I have met and been inspired by too many to name.

However, I will name one: Sir David Attenborough. Through his films he has changed the way I see the world, and he's the one I most want to emulate (enthusiastic and curious about all that is around him, and not just in nature).

As a biologist, I suppose my hero should be Darwin, but it isn't. My sympathies go for A.R. Wallace who did all that Darwin did minus the silver spoon and attendant privileges.

However, my real biological hero is Gregor Mendel. A quiet well-liked modest thoughtful priest and scientist, the father of modern genetics. He had many qualities I'd like (often the traits we admire most in others are the ones we believe ourselves to possess...but in this case I'd only be flattering myself if I thought I possessed his traits).

Anyway, it is good to emulate your heroes, that's why we have them...but don't take that emulation too far, especially if they're dead. ;->)

-Myrdinn

Anonymous said...

P.S. "who's" = "whose".

Sighhhh.

-Myrdinn

Anonymous said...

Off-topic.

In a previous blog entry, you mentioned Rupert Sheldrake. Here's a link to a podcast by him from CBC's Ideas program. Scroll down to Episode 9.

http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/features/science/index.html

Incidentally, the whole series How to Think About Science looks interesting, although based on some of the summaries I'm probably going to disagree strongly (e.g. Episode 4).

-Myrdinn

SF Girl said...

Great choices for heroes, Myrdinn! You'll see some of mine in my next post. And thanks for sharing. I remember being pushed into the bushes by three kids for no reason... sigh...

Thanks too for the link to the Sheldrake podcast. His stuff is awesome! You've made me very curious now. I'll have to check Episode 4 now! LOL!

Baby Brie said...

Yes, it all comes down to the Golden Rule - treat others as you would like to be treated yourself - with respect and kindness.
One of my heros, is Carl Rogers, an American psychologist thought to be the sixth most eminent psychologist of the 20th Century and among clinician, second only to Sigmund Freud.
Rogers is known for practicing "unconditional positive regard," which is defined as accepting a person "without negative judgment of his/her basic worth."
Rogers believed that there were three requirements necessary for a therapist to be effective. She must be 1) Congruent ie., genuine and honest with the client; 2)Empathic ie. able to feel what the client feels; 3) Respectful ie., show the client acceptance and unconditional positive regard.
And yes, Mr. Rogers, was right for I have seen my clients change before my eyes and all I did was show them kindness and respect.
i thought you might also like to know that Carl Rogers also described the 'fully functioning' person - the healthy person as having these five qualities:
1)Openness to experience
2)Existential Living (living in the here and now)
3)Organismic trusting (trust your instinct/intuition and do what you know is right for you to become all that you are meant to be)
4)Experiential freedom (acknowledge your freedom & take responsibility for your choice)
5)Creativity (contritute to the actualization of others and the world around you - participate in the world).

Yup....Carl Rogers is one of my heros....

Ciao,
Baby Brie

Baby Brie said...

Yes, it all comes down to the Golden Rule - treat others as you would like to be treated yourself - with respect and kindness.
One of my heros, is Carl Rogers, an American psychologist thought to be the sixth most eminent psychologist of the 20th Century and among clinician, second only to Sigmund Freud.
Rogers is known for practicing "unconditional positive regard," which is defined as accepting a person "without negative judgment of his/her basic worth."
Rogers believed that there were three requirements necessary for a therapist to be effective. She must be 1) Congruent ie., genuine and honest with the client; 2)Empathic ie. able to feel what the client feels; 3) Respectful ie., show the client acceptance and unconditional positive regard.
And yes, Mr. Rogers, was right for I have seen my clients change before my eyes and all I did was show them kindness and respect.
i thought you might also like to know that Carl Rogers also described the 'fully functioning' person - the healthy person as having these five qualities:
1)Openness to experience
2)Existential Living (living in the here and now)
3)Organismic trusting (trust your instinct/intuition and do what you know is right for you to become all that you are meant to be)
4)Experiential freedom (acknowledge your freedom & take responsibility for your choice)
5)Creativity (contritute to the actualization of others and the world around you - participate in the world).

Yup....Carl Rogers is one of my heros....

Ciao,
Baby Brie

SF Girl said...

Yes, Carl Rogers is a great choice for a hero, Baby Brie!He espoused great qualities in a therapist...and, come to think of it, in ANY person. Thanks for sharing!

Speaking of heroes... Victor Frankl comes to mind for me: "What is to give light must endure burning." See my post on him here: http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.com/2008/03/victor-frankl-holocaustfriday-feature.html Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. His undying faith in the meaning of his life kept him alive to write his inspirational book, "Man's Search for Meaning". As a long-time prisoner in a bestial concentration camp Frankl found himself stripped to naked existence. His father, mother, brother, and his wife died in camps or were sent to gas ovens, so that, excepting for his sister, his entire family perished in these camps. How could he, with every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold, brutality and expecting hourly to be exterminated--how could he find life worth preserving? Referencing Nietzsche, "he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how," Frankl argued that what made the difference between those who survived and those who did not was not the intensity of their suffering, but whether or not they retained meaning and purpose in their lives. Yes, he is one of my heroes.