Isolation, Empathy and Growth

“No man is an island but Brazil is a big farm.”

Globalization is a favorite word nowadays and it means we are all interconnected through movement, markets and media. So it is striking to read the article by Luiza F and Simon Schwartzman entitled “Isolation to Integration” which I recently reposted. The article notes that in today’s world, linked by all types of transportation and communication, Brazil, at least in terms of the number of foreign-born residents, is about ½ as diverse as it was a century ago. The average Brazilian today has less direct exposure to someone foreign than a hundred years ago.   Society is closed within its own borders and oblivious to the rest of world except events, which are interpreted through Brazilian TV and other mass media.

The Schwartzmans also emphasize Brazil’s economic isolation. The world’s 7th largest economy fails to meet its potential in international trade and at the level of individual migration and exchange. While other BRIC countries, China and India, have over a hundred thousand students in the US, the Brazilians have only 10 thousand. Their article also reports that Brazil ranks 177th out of the 184 nations studied in terms of the export of goods and services as a proportion of its GDP (World Bank, 2013). So the country punches below its weight in exports and has a relatively insignificant number of students and scholars who might learn and study, in the hope of bringing back new ideas, techniques and improvements.

While the Brazilian government estimates that there some 3.5 million citizens living abroad (many with no plans for a permanent return), there are only some 600 thousand foreign born living in Brazil. A hundred years ago, there were a million foreign-born representing about 4 percent of the total population of 25 million in 1915. Today, with about 200 million the percentage has dropped ½ of 1 percent. Essentially, Brazil today is less exposed (at least directly) to foreign culture than it was a century ago. That’s astounding.

Provincialism is one of the consequences of this self-imposed isolation. In my business, I have struggled with Brazilian manufacturers who constantly turn away from export opportunities or only pursue such openings in a mere opportunistic fashion. Like Brazilians in general, manufacturers looks inward.

Tourism, it is true, has exploded in the past 20 years but the tourists see the US and Europe as convenient and inexpensive shopping centers. Splendid in isolation and secure with the culture of samba and futebol, Brazilians fail to bring home the basic ideas of change and innovation in their suitcases that are stuffed instead with electronics and consumer goodies.

Those who have the opportunity to travel and study abroad sometimes reflect upon the organization they find in say the United States or the respect for history and its influence in Europe. However, this sentiment is soon overwhelmed by the so-called Brazilian reality and whatever good intentions might arise remain as such.

Receiving foreigners and traveling abroad can be great learning experiences where individuals question their present situation by comparing it with what they see and understand in interacting with people from different cultures. Interaction and exchange lead to understanding and understanding to empathy or the ability to place one’s self in the position of the other. Brazil though already has a highly rigid social hierarchy and it is difficult for one class to relate to another. Social distance can be extreme and this separation inhibits seeing or understanding the other (especially the other of another class). Empathy, consequently, is in short supply due, at least partially, to the inward looking, self-congratulatory and closed nature of the society.

The current debate on lowering the age of legal responsibility is an example of the shortage in feeling for the other. A significant number of Brazilians want 16 year olds to bear full responsibility for their acts, especially the evil ones. This is mainly a reaction to many crimes such as the recent knife killing of a medical doctor in order to steal his bicycle. The principal suspects are all youth under 18. The young assailants killed the doctor, perhaps out of an undeveloped recognition of his “likeness” to them.  They apparently saw him only as a wealthy person, with whom they share nothing and could be victimized without remorse. Middle class people and others, in sympathy with victims, want to incarcerate for long periods or even kill children and/or teens they deem responsible. So they too, show no empathy for marginalized young people who have no stake or and little holding in the system. For middle and upper class Brazilians, they would prefer that street kids and favela residents be invisible.

Now, empathy can also mean being able to look beyond the current situation and be able to innovate based on seeing and learning. Brazil’s closed economy has always sought to protect first comers. Late arrivals are unwanted competition and should be defended against and neutralized. Thus Brazil has developed and maintained its notoriously complicated and bureaucratic import and tax structure. A “nationalistic” state protects symbiotic multinational interests that comfortably accommodate within the closed walls and produce less than top of the line products. These goods are ok for internal consumption but hardly competitive in the international market. A lack of vision leads to subdued competition, which, results in shabby products and ultimately poor growth. At least part of Brazil’s recession today can be attributed to its excessive isolation. The walls that have protected have also constricted. Moreover, the limitation is not only economic; it is, perhaps more importantly, intellectual. Brazil tends to copy poorly, and in an uninformed fashion, foreign intellectual trends and doctrines. Some leftist parties in Brazil are still working in the framework of the 1930’s while right wing parties hark back to poorly veiled populism that was successful in the 50’s or perhaps crony capitalism of Franco’s Spain. Evangelicals, on the right, hope to prevail by railing against the emotive issues of abortion and gay marriage, while leftists seek power under the guise of distribution, equality and state control (but with little real progress).

However, neither political side has any real empathy with those outside their group and class, but rely instead on the cynical sharpness of always taking advantage. This mentality was popularized as the Lei do Gerson, Brazil’s outstanding chain smoking mid fielder on the Tri team of 1970, who easily victimized opposing defenders with wonderfully quick, long and accurate passes. As the ongoing preponderance and popularity of the Gerson’s law illustrates, “esperteza” is a characteristic Brazilians have traditionally valued as being more rewarding than being empathic, sympathetic or recognizing the other. This lack of empathy or perhaps better, the limiting of empathy to class, family and status connections remains a factor slowing development in Brazil and the evolution of its civilization.

2 comments on “Isolation, Empathy and Growth

  1. Paul Ogden says:

    Isn’t the glut of corruption the factor that demotivates the local and higher level leaders from any civic and cultural improvements. If the leadership is paid under the table nothing will be offered above board. It will take a lot of guilt to foster any remorse and societal change and that transition (hopefully) will not take decades to have effect.


    • Paul, Thanks for the comment. While there is certainly a surfeit of corruption, it is by no means universal touching everything, although it can touch a lot. Your observation on the incentive is good and your concern that something rotten impacts disproportionately makes sense. Cultural change indeed….long process.


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