What would it mean to care about other human beings—not the ones we know, but the ones we don’t know? What kind of world would we inhabit if we were able to extend the affection, generosity, support, and goodwill that we share with our intimates to people whom we have not only never met, but will never meet?

Try this sometime: When you’re in a restaurant, library, park, or walking down the street, take a look at another person. Someone at another table, browsing in a different aisle, pushing his child on the swings, fishing recyclables out of the trash—someone with whom you will likely never cross paths again. A stranger. Take a look at a stranger and ask yourself how you feel about her. How do you feel about the stranger, and what do you feel in relation to the stranger? Are you curious about his life? Indifferent? Hostile? Warm?

Imagine extending to the stranger something like love for one’s fellow man. If “love” sounds too kumbaya, then how about regard? Do you care about the stranger?

It’s an uncomfortable question, purposefully so. I engage this thought experiment often; almost as often, I am shamed by the truth my ambivalent answers betray. Who are we, if not in relation to other human beings? And what kind of people are we if we cannot even be bothered to contemplate the stranger? Are we all not strangers in the eyes of others?

It’s easy enough to love your family, your friends, to educate your own children, to support your aging parents, to contribute to the welfare of those you perceive to be part of your community—ethnic, religious, diasporic, national. And yes, of course, commitment to those in your immediate orbit is a vital part of what it takes for society to function. But what would it take for society to flourish? What kind of commitment to others?

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the stock market crash of 2008. Remember the descent of the Dow, countries all over the world closing their markets, Iceland teetering on the edge of bankruptcy? Remember your neighbor losing his job? Remember caring, deeply, about the jobless, the homeless, the homeowners betrayed, and the banks unfairly bailed?

Memories are short. Just one year later, the Dow is somersaulting its way back up to 10,000 and pundits keep declaring the recession over.

Over for whom? We Californians know better. We have over 12% unemployment and reason to believe that the rate will continue to rise for several more quarters. We have the eighth largest economy in the world, and yet our state government is issuing IOUs instead of wages to its employees. We spend more money on our prisons than on our schools; one in every 200 Californians is a prisoner of the state.

The rest of the country, which indulged in flagrant schadenfreude as our state government fumbled around with the budget earlier this year, is starting to take note. After all, one in eight Americans lives in California. And what is happening here may be a harbinger of things to come all over the country: We stopped caring about each other, and the result is a state that doesn’t seem to care about any of us.

It might seem strange that I frame financial and political crises in terms of “care,” but I do believe care has a lot to do with what is happening. The deployment of care might also be as close to a collective strategy as we have available. “Care” is something we all have, we all give, and we all withhold. We all care about certain things, but what if we cared more? What if we cared differently? Maybe we wouldn’t lock so many people up. Maybe we wouldn’t strip funding from our public schools. Maybe we would reconsider our tax system. Maybe we wouldn’t waste so much water.

In his books and essays, philosopher Jacque Rancière often returns to the story of Joseph Jacotot, an 18th-century French pedagogue who advocated a radical revision to the way we think about teaching and learning. Instead of supposing that students and teachers are unequal, Jacotot assumed a fundamental equality of intelligences. Now, the equality of intelligence doesn’t mean that everyone knows the same things. Rather, as Rancière explains, “If the ‘ignorant’ person who doesn’t know how to read knows only one thing by heart, be it a simple prayer, he can compare that knowledge with something of which he remains ignorant: the words of the same prayer written on paper … From the ignorant person to the scientist who builds hypotheses, it is always the same intelligence that is at work.”

The equality of intelligences means that every individual has the same capacity to learn, the same exact fundamental intelligence. It means that many of our ideas about superior intellects, model minorities, and academic excellence are rhetorical delusions that mask the structural and systemic inequities that prevent some people from learning, growing, and knowing. The premise of the equality of intelligences forces us to reconsider how we think about the inequalities that abound in our world. We can no longer ask, “What characteristics or qualities of such-and-such community enable it to perform better than others?” But, instead, “What have we done to prevent that person, or this community, from utilizing their equal intelligence?”

Another thought experiment: What would it mean to operate from the premise of an already existent equality between people, as opposed to conceiving of equality as something which is yet to be achieved? How does this premise change the way we perceive the differences between communities? What about the way we perceive differences between ourselves and the strangers in the street? How might it affect the way in which, and to whom, we extend our care?

What world, then?

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.

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