The “Still Face” of a Compassionately-Challenged Society

by Martha Albertson Fineman from “Vulnerability, the Responsive State, and the Role of Religion” by Martha Albertson Fineman and Silas W. Allard

Image via Pixabay

“Recently, while reading an article titled “The Decline of Empathy and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics,” I was struck by the relevance of the lessons gleaned from an experiment with mothers and infants, to figuring out how to foster a society that valued and practiced policies of social justice. In the experiment, mother and infant interactions were analyzed in two contrasting situations. First, there were the situations where mothers responded with normal reciprocal mirroring to their infants’ facial expressions during play. In contrast, in a second set of situations, the mothers were instructed to continue to play with the infants, but to make their facial expression “flat and neutral” for some, relatively short, period of time before reverting to normal interaction. The researchers observed that when the mothers’ faces were neutral and still, the infants became anxious and desperately tried to reconnect with their mothers. Failing to receive a reciprocal interaction (per instructions from the researchers), the infants “showed ever-greater signs of confusion and distress, followed by a turning away from the mother, finally appearing sad and hopeless.”‘ The researchers labeled the experiment an example of the “still face paradigm” and concluded that for human beings (and other mammals) a “caretaker’s attunement and engagement is necessary to foster security, self-regulation, and empathy in the developing child.”‘

The author reviewing these experiments extrapolated from the studies and deemed the still face paradigm to be a “metaphor” for adult life in contemporary society. This breakdown in empathy and the resulting sense  of helplessness that infants experience, he asserted, also describes the “experience of many people as they interact with the most important institutions in their lives, including the government.” In other words, the stillness of society’s face – or the lack of visible response and recognition to growing inequality and widespread suffering and anxiety – betrayed the “natural” expectations and needs of those governed and led to the infliction of social and individual harm. In the author’s opinion, governmental inattentiveness and indifference inflicted widespread “damage to our psyches, causing distress, anger, and hopelessness,” as well as status-anxiety and causing trust in others to break down (and, one presumes, in our institutions as well).’ The author continues with the observation that the “profound corrosive effects of social and economic inequality”’ exaggerates this phenomenon.

My discipline is law, not psychology, but it begins, as do many other disciplines, with a set of assumptions as to what it means to be human, as well as speculations about the effects and consequences of social interaction and norms on humanity. This research on infants is interesting in that regard because it emphasizes that there is a fundamental and “natural” dependence of human beings, at least initially, on the care and attention of others. We are social beings who are inescapably enmeshed in social relations and institutions, and for that reason, we are also dependent on the rules, norms, and values that shape and define those relations and institutions. Those rules, norms, and values are expressed in various ethical systems within society: religion, philosophy, history, and psychology to name a few.

Unlike many other disciplines, however, law is tasked with the development and implementation of a set of coercive rules applicable to all. This process necessitates creating powerful organizing institutions, which are anchored in the state’s legitimate monopoly of power over life, liberty, and property. Through what is termed “the rule of law,” a society expresses what it considers to be legitimate and universally applicable standards of behavior reflecting its generally shared values and norms. Those rules or laws govern the relation­ ships with and responsibilities to others that members of society have as individuals. In doing so, these laws also shape and define the institutions within which we inevitably find ourselves enmeshed throughout life, such as the family and the market, as well as institutions such as finance, education, health, and the many other structural arrangements that accommodate and facilitate social and economic interactions.

These rules reflect a societal or social judgment as to what is considered the appropriate allocation of responsibility for both individual and societal well­ being between the collective (be it a governmental or institutional entity) and the individual. Complex and interlocking systems of rules, norms, and socially defined roles within society’s institutions create expectations, entitlements, and aspirations, as well as form the bases for collective judgements and reaction. If these institutions (indeed society) are to endure, the rules upon which they are based must reflect a realistic understanding of the relative individual, institutional, and state capabilities and limitations. Furthermore, to be deemed compassionate these rules must also be shaped by an understanding of the needs and challenges of contemporary society and its terms and mode of operation, not based on perceptions formulated in another, simpler, and more homogeneous era, which are then merely reflexively applied.”

Fineman, Martha Albertson and Allard, Silas, Vulnerability, the Responsive State, and the Role of Religion (December 1, 2017). In Exploring Vulnerability, H. Springhart and G. Thomas (eds.), Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2017; Emory Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN:

See also: Injury in the Unresponsive State Writing the Vulnerable Subject Into Neo-Liberal Legal Culture

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