To be effective at creating the social change we want and need, it is necessary to become better aware of the connections which pull us together; only then can we cooperatively foster and nurture these same connections. At the same time we must also become better aware of the violence that divides us, identifying and acknowledging this violence so that it can ultimately be placed aside. However, one of the big problems in accomplishing this is that we have a very difficult time in even beginning to believe that cooperative acts of generosity and compassion—in other words collective altruism and solidarity—can make any difference at all.

Why is this? There are two basic reasons. The first goes back goes back to those amorphous underlying social institutions that frame and organize our social and cultural lives. These institutions shape our basic ideas about daily life and activity. (blog 4). Sometimes referred to as ‘thought worlds’, it is these ‘imaginary (but very real) institutions of society’ which assist us in ascertaining the rightness and legitimacy of actions and life direction. The only problem is, these thought worlds or social institutions, developed over decades and often times centuries, are not always in sync with actual physical reality.

For example, because of the Western world’s celebration of the individual, our thought worlds have tended to negate any consideration that a group —a collectivity of people—is anything more than a collection of individuals which have some mutual interest in common. Therefore any attempt at collective action of any sort is just a group whose cohesion falls apart in the face of their own and others’ individual interests. In other words, any type of cohesive collective action, particularly anything attached to any form of altruism is bound to fail in the face of individual agendas for economic wealth and political power.

Mary Douglas and others have offered comprehensive, research based arguments against this fallacious perspective, and my book Social Justice and Deep Participation summarizes several of these arguments.[1] But often times facts and research don’t readily overcome our own deeply ingrained perspectives. As a result, in Western societies individual altruism is usually consigned to ‘saints only’, with group or collective altruism categorized similarly. So, that’s the first reason many societies and cultures have extreme difficulty in taking cooperative acts of generosity, compassion, altruism, and solidarity seriously.

The second reason for this lack of confidence in these profound facets of human experience Is that those who do have confidence in these orientations and actions, also deny actual physical reality, but in quite a different manner. This group believes, in order to comport themselves as true idealists, that violence must be denied. As a result, if the discussion is about peace, this group will see no need to mention or talk about the brutal catastrophes that their own groups may have undertaken in the past. Or if this group is talking about poverty eradication, they will see no reason to mention current profit making undertakings that are clearly creating massive inequality. In other words, their idealistic focus on altruism creates an a historical and highly schematic view that has little chance of success in the real world.

On the other hand, actually understanding collective altruism in terms of its real-world context does not necessarily, on the positive side, discount synergistic group social energy; nor does it discount, on the negative side, the history of violence and its present-day appearance. This type of understanding and comprehension can make a critical difference. So what happens when we apply these ideas to real life?

It does seem as though we are possibly making progress in terms of establishing a base for collective altruism in two critical areas—racial injustice and global immigration. On September 14, 2015, the latest report was issued on the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, which took place over a year ago.(blog #3). The Report presents a validated description of vast economic and social inequalities among white and black populations in surrounding townships and the State of Missouri at large. For example, a gap of 40 years in terms of life longevity (similar to that found in Baltimore (see Blog 3) was found in zip codes that were less than five miles apart, with blacks featured in the less favored, and whites in the more favored zip codes.

At the same time, the spokesperson for this Report, Reverend Wilson, made the point that the “comfortable” white populations in the more favored communities were upset to understand that these disparities existed. As a result, according to the Reverend, both white and black groups have begun to come together to create solutions. At the same time he and another African American state Senator both call for “agitation” to continue so that this will not be one more report left behind on a dusty shelf.[2]

The European immigration troubles which first seemed to be focused only on the states of Europe, but now involve the USA and other hemispheres, also provide a base for hope in terms of collective altruism. It is clear that no-one has a clear political answer in the face of this complicated and complex problem. The rightist nationalist groups—similar to their like cousins in the USA—continue to believe building fences and treating the migrants as criminals is the best response. On the other hand, some states and numerous groups of people have shown generosity and compassion to the immigrants fleeing from war and insecurity, but their actions also creates a difficult situation for maintaining order within their own countries. So even these compassionate actions are not enough—even though it’s an admirable beginning.

In reality, these acts of generosity, compassion, and solidarity need to be solidified and consolidated in the two very definitive ways discussed here. Only if this is accomplished will collective altruism be able to work its essential magic of connection to pull us all together—not just for the moment—but for the months and years that it may take to find effective and long-lasting solutions. If these two ideas are incorporated, people will begin to understand that this focus on group altruism has its own real power, just as the power of individual freedom, as mentioned earlier, has its own essential power.

So, if we begin to organize around the understanding that acts of collective altruism have their own power, that’s a good beginning. And if we—especially those of us who live in comfort far removed from the incalculable suffering that violence imposes—-understand that we can no longer ignore travesties of social injustice that violence creates, we have the possibility of success. Organizing around collective altruism can then be understood as an essential component of the way forward. I look forward to hearing from you on these issues.

[1] See Mary Douglas (1986) How Institutions Think, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New YOrk

[2] View the PBS News Hour, Sept. 14, segment concerning the report on Ferguson, Missouri.