Bringing reds and blues together: the need for compulsory service

Human beings are highly cooperative creatures. Our willingness to cooperate is the basis upon which our survival is built. We see precursors of this behavior in monkeys, as Marc Hauser reports on the behavior of rhesus monkeys on an island off Puerto Rico. When a foraging monkey finds food, it calls out to the other to share the find. Only this way can the troop survive. So too, only by cooperating with others does the human race survive.

Sharing and cooperation is relatively easy to come by in close circles. Small groups get our love and compassion, philosopher David Hume said. You see the endangered child, know the infirmed woman, encounter the frail elderly.

As a social and parochial creature, Hume continues, people naturally prefer their own group and act selfishly toward strangers. In small groups, empathy and cooperation go hand-in-hand, but cooperation isn’t possible in large groups, Hume said, based on his observations of history and politics.

Ernst Fehr, Director of the Priority Research Program on the Foundation of Human Social Behavior at the University of Zurich, supports Hume’s conclusion. He finds, from his many studies, that cooperation is common in groups of ten but not likely to arise spontaneously in larger groups.

How then do you get large groups, such as a country, to cooperate? Traditionally, countries were held together through fear of swift and severe punishment. Since the Enlightenment and particularly in democratic societies, other methods have generally been preferred. One way is to create common symbols and ceremonies, which get reinforced through songs, holidays and common experiences.

The United States is at a political and moral impasse not for lack of national symbols—we have many of those—but because they aren’t reinforced through common experience. Those holding different contrasting values seldom interact with one another, so the understanding of the symbols is different. Same flag, same holiday, different meaning.

With the advent of cable television and the Internet, people tend to read, listen to and watch those whose opinions they already share. And so the gap grows wider.

Let me return to monkeys for a moment. Jules Masserman and his colleagues studied whether rhesus monkeys would forgo food if they knew that by securing the food another monkey would suffer an electric shock. Douglas Allchin writes, “In many cases monkeys prolonged their hunger rather than administer the painful stimulus. One monkey refrained from eating under such circumstances for twelve days. Extended investigation showed that: (a) self-starvation was more likely in animals that themselves had experienced electroshock as a subject; (b) sacrificial behavior was not biased toward members of higher dominance rank; (c) ‘altruistic’ behavior was stronger for cage mates (though not statistically significant); and (d) visual contact even without auditory cues was apparently sufficient to induce the response.”

Perhaps it is a step too far, but what this says to me is that the way to bring our country together is by having citizens with different points of views and experiences interact with one another directly in a sustained way. This can be accomplished by creating a program of national service, where everyone, upon high school graduation, must serve for a year away in another part of the country or overseas. There could be options for the military, community service, and physical labor.

For me the great disappoint of the Obama administration is that it didn’t follow through on the call for collective sacrifice. Three years ago I found my students receptive to the call to rise above themselves and serve the common good. But the impulse to help, the desire to be of use was never tapped; they never were called upon to serve and sacrifice.

But something seems to be stirring. The tea party movement and those occupying Wall Street are filling the void left by traditional politics. Unfortunately, neither group is talking to the other but rather makes assumptions that are often mistaken and condescending. They are, as the saying goes, preaching to the choir.

National service holds out the hope of blurring the lines between the reds and the blues, conservatives and liberals, theists and non-believers. When you work side-by-side, when you really listen to another’s fears and aspirations, when you get to know something about another’s values and histories, you are more likely to see them as human beings much like yourself. And then, like the monkeys in the Masserman study, maybe, just maybe, we can stop shocking one another.


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