A meditation on belonging
I have been thinking a lot about this subject lately making no real progress towards order. Then John Hurt dies. The news broke last night and correctly the media pours out our collective hearts mourning the loss of an exceptional human. One such commentator reflected on an explanation which Hurt had given when asked about the central subject of the Naked Civil Servant. “It wasn’t about homosexuality”, he said, “it was about the tenderness of the individual versus the brutality of the crowd”. At that moment I became a fragment clearer and my mental constipation loosed a little. Here is what flowed.
Much has been said about Trump and truth but he is only the most recent example of the phenomena which so disturbed my mind. It started with the Scottish referendum, developed during the Brexit campaign and reached migraine proportions with the now President. It may be no surprise given the dark mood which can often accompany a severe headache that I thought about Arthur Schopenhauer. OK, he may have been the ultimate pessimist but he knew a thing or two about the human condition. He famously said “ Today it is bad and day by day it will get worse until at last the worst of all arrives”. He was referring to old age or, by extension, life itself but he could equally be describing the quality of our politics. He may be right but as my head cleared I remembered that we can always choose hope. Or perhaps it’s not a choice. Perhaps we can’t resist hope. In any event as Viktor Frankl said when faced with circumstances far worse than anything we are experiencing or will experience, in the end what makes us Human, what no one can take from us, is our right to choose our response. So let’s hang onto that but what Arthur said which struck such a chord was this.
“It should here be remarked in passing that patriotism, when it wants to make itself felt in the domain of learning, is a dirty fellow who should be thrown out of doors. For what could be more impertinent than, where the purely and universally human is the only concern, and where truth, clarity and beauty should alone be of any account, to presume to put into the scales one’s preference for the country to which one’s own valued person happens to belong, and then, with that in view, do violence to truth and commit injustice against the great minds of other nations in order to puff up the lesser minds of one’s own?” (from “Essays and Aphorisms (Classics)” by Arthur Schopenhauer, R. J. Hollingdale).
The duty of the leaders on whichever side of the political debate is to inform and allow the public to decide. Instead, in Scotland as with Brexit and the US, the truth is the victim because the protagonists prize the result above all else. So desperate are they to secure the outcome that equals their ( patriotic) prejudice, that the end justifies any means. And this strategy has a nickname. We call it gaslighting. I prefer misrepresentation or just plain lying. But I was confused. Isn’t the need to belong a deep human condition and isn’t it natural that we prioritise family, tribe, Fellow Country Men and Women and then others in that order? Charity begins at home, doesn’t it? Were these various campaigners not simply reflecting the legitimate concerns of those they sought to influence? Was it just an expedient to choose to bewilder a group whose judgement was weakened by their natural allegiance to Nation?
But not many of us choose which Nation we are linked to. So why make a virtue of Nationality? If as a British Citizen I choose to live within the State of Spain, that is I live there and might even work there and certainly I will abide by the rule of law and custom there, am I a traitor to something important, something deeply held within me, my Nationality. I never gave it a moment’s thought until there’s talk about making lists of foreign workers and erecting walls. Why make such a list? To applaud those listed over all the others who didn’t make a positive choice to come and coexist? Those who just happened to be born here. Those ‘Nationalists’ who deserve no credit at all for being Scottish, British, American etc etc? I know it would be naive to argue for the free movement of labour anywhere in the World ( even though I think this is an excellent long term goal) but where it presently exists peacefully it seems to me counterproductive to dismantle it. But dismantling it is. Across a large part of the West there is a deliberate policy emphasis on Nationalism. And we can see what happens when ( gentle ) individuals give themselves up to this particular ( brutal ) crowd, the Nation State. The rise of the Modern Nation State achieved much but as an organising solution surely it is limited. The obvious next step for humanity is Transnational. So we must force our Governments to create the spirit within our States which ensures they have a Mandate to invest in Transnational Institutions, leading the way to the redundancy ( over a long period of time) of Nation States. This will become increasingly urgent as the day when we all need to leave this little place approaches.
Meanwhile all humans would do well to invest in their gentle side. To feed the good wolf. To avoid prejudice. We are a social species and so we will naturally defend those closest to us. We will naturally prioritise our investment of resources to those closest commensurate with need. It’s just better if we can get close to as many other humans as possible thus extending the range of options and opportunities to make a positive difference.
I recently Watched a good film called “Unthinkable”. Shame it had to use the old Islamic terror threat thing to set up the plot ( what would be wrong with the “Mumsnet bomber” or something? ) but that aside it was essentially a moral dilemma film dealing with the issue of torture. I thought about opening a line of study into the ethics of torture but quickly noted the oxymoron. Instead I Googled “moral dilemmas” ( for fun?!) and got the one about the five people stuck on train tracks and a train approaching. You know you can pull a lever and direct the train to another track where it will kill just one person. What do you do? Most people, it seems, pull the lever presumably based on a utilitarian view of the dilemma, an anonymous one versus five. Ok, so now it’s not a lever but instead you are on a bridge and you can see the five stuck and the train is coming. Beside you is an overweight man who will stop the train if he were to fall. Do you push him? Predictably many fewer people push the big guy! It follows from this that Military Drones are dangerous ( obviously!), and the more we get to know others the less likely we are to sacrifice ( kill ) them. Let’s not erect walls and fences. Let’s instead build bridges.