Even though we have penchant for violence, we also have penchant for empathy, cooperation, and self-control.
by Susantha Hewa
Before Covid-19 hit us, we hardly thought that altruism could ever be associated with selfishness. However, the plague’s path of deadly destruction has shown that you can no longer afford the luxury of seeing altruism as a virtue to be invoked “at your convenience.” In the current context, it has become a necessary ingredient in any recipe for survival.
The pandemic has overturned the conventional view of altruism by making it synonymous with self-interest; “To protect oneself is to protect all of society. If you want to give it more oomph, you can rephrase it as “you are not safe until everyone is safe”. Perhaps this is the magical slogan of all compassion that has eluded sapiens for millennia. It is worth printing on all national flags, you might think. At least it will make each of them appear as an emblem of global solidarity, although those who value oneness over solidarity may not like the idea very much. However, the plague sent an entirely different message.
Sadly, selflessness is a rare quality in those who make us believe it is their mission in life every five years or so. Perhaps the world could have avoided the present catastrophe if we had the spirit of this slogan embedded in the two most influential social institutions: politics and economics. Incidentally, the powerful few who wield power in these two prime areas seem to have been convinced by a less altruistic doctrine. They can usefully quote Ayn Rand, a Russian-American writer / philosopher who asserted that “if a civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men must reject.” You wouldn’t be accused of being pessimistic if you said that those who control politics and economics strongly believe in beliefs such as: “you are not safe until everyone else is helpless”; “You cannot be satisfied until everyone else is private”; “You cannot be happy until the land is plundered to the maximum to maximize profit!” “
Most of us are convinced that the coronavirus has forced us to move to a “new normal” in which we take the hidden pathogen as a reality in order to keep everyone safe, at least for a few years. The longer you take to realize it, the more your contribution would be to invite more deadly variants of the virus, and the greater your chances of suffering unnecessary grief.
The plague also has other lessons. For example, he points out that the saying “you are not safe until everyone is safe” can transcend health concerns and serve as a strong principle to keep everyone safe, physically, emotionally and. financially. In today’s environment, we are all cooperating to varying degrees to keep the virus at bay. However, can this idea of participation for the safety of all be made to survive the pandemic and extended to combat other insidious social viruses like injustice, discrimination, poverty, fanaticism? What if we fought the virus of ignorance which creates fertile ground for superstitious beliefs? It is time for someone to disentangle the strange “bond” between our high literacy rate and the corresponding irrationality rate! The onset of the pandemic revealed to a large extent the superstitious character of the nation, which has received state patronage and media support. And the damage caused is to be understood by everyone according to their knowledge.
“You are not safe until everyone is safe” has relevance in multiple contexts. This is the most eloquent message the deadly plague sends to us to help bring people to embrace a culture of participation. It is also highly relevant in all important aspects of modern life: education, livelihoods, relationships, social well-being, peacebuilding, poverty reduction, conflict resolution, environmental issues, economics and politics. In fact, the current catastrophe is to a large extent the cumulative result of the lack of opportunities for active participation of the masses in many of the above areas. In none of the above areas is there a viable mechanism to respond to the natural human urge to feel a sense of belonging by contributing to our collective well-being. Instead, you are made to feel the wisdom of height is to mind your own business. Unfortunately, many institutions that should work for the solidarity of people are only in theory. Usually, we are determined to discover our differences and our points of difference.
George Monbiot, author of several books including How did we get into this mess? and Out of the Wreckage: a new policy in the era of crisis, is a strong advocate of creating a space where all those concerned can participate in the improvement of all aspects of social life, what he calls “the policy of belonging”. He suggests that people’s sense of belonging can be made more meaningful and ubiquitous by giving more and more opportunities to more people to participate in the decision of our “collective well-being”, which is now. in the hands of a few. Proposing the expansion of the democratic space, Monbiot affirms that in a political system of membership, “the language of government changes, allowing everyone to understand the issues and the means by which decisions are made”.
Ironically, today in many countries, including our own, people only feel they are participating in protest! The rulers’ notion of the “common good” and that of the majority of the population are in constant conflict for most of every five years, regardless of who holds power, election day being the only exception.
At present, the principle “you are not safe until everyone is safe” is only relevant in health matters. “Success” is the buzzword and it is always a personal and never a collective success. It is unfortunate that nothing less than a disaster of the magnitude of Covid 19 must have made us think of personal well-being in terms of collective security. Would there not be the slightest chance to evolve towards a more participatory culture in which we could seek to make sense of sharing a more regular experience – a way of life instead of being limited to these occasional events of a cultural nature? or family like New Years celebrations, weddings and funerals?
In a society where “the market” is idolized as the “supreme natural law”, it is greed, not collective happiness, that makes people cooperate. Unfortunately, the current system can only make alienation the rule and cooperation the exception for the vast majority. This only triggers cooperation between politicians, businessmen and interest groups who amass wealth at the expense of the common good. Historian Yuval Noah Harari asserts that “most networks of human cooperation have been oriented towards oppression and exploitation.” We can only hope that world leaders will make Harari more optimistic about “human cooperation” once we put the pandemic behind us.