On slouching inwards

Any historian will tell you that there’s essentially nothing uniform about progress. Divining the future is at best guesswork and at worst alarmism. But the one element has been consistent in humanity’s progress is an overarching increase in the level of conceptual thinking. High-minded conceptual thinking, thinking bigger than yourself, naturally involves considering the underlying humanity we all share, not the superficial differences.

Some would call this march of progress ‘humanism’, others just ‘basic civility’. Certainly there are ups and downs but overall sectarian strife and inward looking groupthink have declined in the face of a deeper shared understanding of who we are.

That’s why the Brexit has been so utterly depressing. Chest-thumping nationalism, blind hatred toward some confused otherness, and the angry un-tethering of joint relations are symptomatic of a downswing in deeper conceptual thought, in humanism.

It’s not difficult to lose your idealism for high-minded concepts in the face of severe pragmatic hardships, but when people are relatively well off — as they are in Britain today — inward facing tribal thought is difficult to rationalise.

In the lead up to the referendum vague ideas about recovering Britishess and controlling one’s own destiny were churned out by politicians. It may be argued that these ideas are conceptual — or even humanistic — and perhaps in some ways they are. But they are wrapped up in fear, in the unfound anxiety towards a fictional future: immigrants overrunning Britain, Brussels controlling the government, and the English way of life dissipating.

Conversely, ideas about worldliness, about underlying connections, rely on humanism and deep connections involving culture, ideas, and art.

We bridge together because of these things, things bigger than us, and we divide when we look at things smaller than us. But the bridges that make smaller groups into bigger groups collapse when they aren’t supported by high-minded thoughts, and without bridges we see less of the “other”, only making us more insular and more afraid.

In the end one can only hope this is a temporary setback — a blip in the quest for the greater good — that we are facing. And whatever happens, holding on to the high-minded ideals of transnational humanism has never seemed more acutely important, especially when the English Channel seems deeper and wider than it has ever been.

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