body knowledge, empathy, and the body politic.


When I was born, Franklin D. Roosevelt was head of state in the United States and Adolf Hitler was head of state in Germany. I was, of course, blissfully unaware that a country's leader was the "head of state," that I was part of a "body politic" --or that bodies are less important than their heads.

A few years later, while sitting around the dinner table (at the head of which sat my dad), my brother--nine years older than me--asked whether I knew what part of my body I think with. I remembered times when I had instantly distinguished truth from lies, times when I'd witnessed injustice, times when I had to make a decision about how to respond. In each situation I'd felt a sensation in my stomach that had guided me. Obviously, I concluded, I think with my stomach. I patted my hand against my trusty solar plexus. My brother laughed and indulgently informed me that people think with their brains, which are in their heads, not in their stomachs.

This anatomy lesson marked one of the bits of instruction that I, like most people in Euro-American cultures, have received about the primacy of the brain and head over other parts of the body. Such instruction passes down through the generations our culture's preference for the "mind"--assumed to be located in the brain--over the "body," for rationality over impulses, feelings, and emotions.

Unfortunately, this disembodiment of our thinking and decision-making process informs our assumptions about morality and has serious psychosocial consequences. We need our bodies to make responsible ethical decisions. Responsibility literally means "the ability to respond"--impossible without an alert, fully attached sensory system that can perceive the environment clearly and communicate those perceptions to the rest of the mind. The extent to which we lose access to our somatic responses--the queasy stomach, the lump in the throat, the shaky knees--is the extent to which our thinking processes become abstracted, out of touch with reality. If we can't feel our own bodies and emotions, neither can we feel what others may be experiencing, which is the essence of empathy. Without awareness of and respect for our own somatic responses, empathy--the essential ground of ethical decision making--is impossible.

morality and the disciplined body

To illustrate the body's role in informing moral choice, let's think for a moment about military training, the primary goal of which is to ensure that soldiers follow the orders of their superiors. Training of soldiers' minds is primarily effected by controlling their bodies. Soldiers are told when and how to dress, eat, talk, move, shout, stand, walk, exercise, have sex, sleep, relax, fight, and kill. They are trained to suppress their bodily urges and emotional responses until it becomes second nature to move--or not move--their bodies as they are told. Once their bodies are so disciplined, they (body and mind) are at the service of their superiors. Today's high-tech killing apparatus makes this disembodiment even easier by further distancing one's visceral responses from the killing.

Children, too, are disciplined to suppress their impulses and feelings and often are punished for following the directions of their own will. Such "discipline" can amount to child abuse, which, in its more extreme forms, leaves severe scars. As psychologists have ascertained, being beaten, raped, or shamed can be so traumatic that the child cannot tolerate the experience; instead the child represses the trauma, subconsciously storing the memory in related areas of the body. These repressed traumas result in chronically rigid muscular patterns, which in turn disturb circulation of blood and energy, further dulling awareness. In this way, child abuse functions much like military training: it damages the connection between mind and body so that the child--and later the adult--cannot rely on physical sensations, impulses, and feelings to inform moral choices.

The resultant disembodied thinking is dangerous not only for abused children but also for the society in which the child lives. Children taught to distrust their bodily responses learn to depend on external authorities instead of their own internal authority.

In the rest of this essay, I'll take a historical look at the role of pre-war German pedagogy, ethics, and religion in training people to distrust messages from their bodily feelings and emotions, thereby training them to distrust their internal sense of authority. People who can't trust their own body knowledge feel out of touch, have less tolerance for ambiguity, seek clear-cut simple rules to determine their actions, tend to consider complex situations in simplistic terms, and are thus more likely to be swayed by pronouncements made by "experts" and by naive either/or arguments. The slogan "You're either with us or against us," for example, could seem reasonable only to a populace for which reason has become severed from an intact empathic system--to people who had thus been primed to see Jews, communists, and homosexuals as "the enemy." In short, to the extent that a society venerates the ultimate authority of disembodied rationality, it fosters a citizenry that is out of touch with its psychosomatic knowledge base and is therefore vulnerable to political manipulation.

a case in point: the eichmann enigma

The consequences of disembodied thinking can be far reaching. In her reflections on the trial of Adolf Eichmann (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963), Hannah Arendt notes that, when Eichmann visited the concentration camp at Chelmno and witnessed corpses tumbling from a gassing van, he nearly fainted. His knees buckled, his stomach went queasy, and he had to look away. He experienced a similar reaction to seeing people shot and did his best to avoid the sight. But Eichmann had been trained to trust his "reason" over messages from his body and, relatedly, to trust the decisions of authority figures over his own inclinations. Instead of concluding from his visceral revulsion that there was something wrong with murdering people, he apologized for his "weakness," pulled himself together, and concluded...

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