I want to draw attention to a thirst that needs to be quenched. There is a positive drought sweeping over us, which threatens to create a bleak, desolate and fearful existence. We are blindly falling into oblivion and with each passing day there appears to be no arrest to our descent. News item after news item generates shudders and terrors as we stare fixedly into the stream of chaos, distress and horror with which we are presented.
Migration, violence, war and terrorism are eclipsing famine, disease and natural disaster. There is an increasing miasma of danger being felt to emanate from the actions of other humans. This is beginning to suppress our perspective upon the natural predators of human life. The battle with nature and struggle for life has been given over, wholesale, to scientific saviours to fight the good fight. While we, unscientific ones, are left to focus our worries upon each other and fantasize about the threat that our neighbour poses as he apparently hides behind closed doors manufacturing pipe bombs and stockpiling illegal weapons.
As we plough ever onwards through ceaseless days of torment at the mercy of omnipresent global communications, we harden day by day to the passage of our fellow citizens as they too go about their lives. The walls of our homes start to take root in our minds, slowly setting down psychological mortar and brick to keep nightmare possibilities at bay. Where once there exalted innocent and open minds, embracing life’s continual excitement in the spirit of exploration, desolate wastelands of fear and deserts of paranoia spread, choking our reasoning and intellect. “Better to be safe than sorry” we expound as we shut and bolt the front door, forever closing ourselves off from each other. In a single generation we have slain the freedom and joy we had as children playing with each other in the street and handed down to our offspring the padded playgrounds that technology can provide in the security and safety of our own home.
Fear of deviance has caught hold of our imagination and constructed a “no-brainer” decision to keep our kids from potential harm. We understand our actions to be those steered by personal choice when we escort our young ones to the playground as opposed to unleashing them down the road. But are they personal? Or, are they swiftly becoming conventional? When does the act of the one become the act of conformity, and not personal at all? Or, do we acknowledge our ovine proclivity and put it down to “common sense in this day and age”? Hopefully, there are a few good souls out there that rally and rage against this unwritten curfew, even if they might begrudgingly adopt it. Further, though, spreads the desert…
The achievements of the 20th century that took so many great strides to overcome inhumanity are slowly showing signs of erosion. The abolition, by so many, of capital punishment is in great danger if one believes and becomes persuaded by glibly erected ‘debating’ polls. The simple button click, if enough people press it, can become a powerful and corrosive political tool, if initiated by the wrong hands. Can it be that we live in a culture that can excavate and smash one of the foundations of a mature society by naively swaying the populace with fear? The focus of fear shifts, seemingly year on year, with recent incarnations being migrants and refugees. One of the largest contemporary culture-shocks, however, relates to George W. Bush’s post 9/11 iconographic term, ‘terrorists’, with the question being whether or not terrorists should get the death penalty.
Can it be that we are so ready to go backwards on this issue and if so what next? Are our human rights to be knee-jerked into question by other online polls after being fought for by legions of academics, politicians and believers in the post holocaust world of the 1940s? Should we rescind a few of the Articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as 13 (2) (“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”) and 14 (1) (“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”) because they are becoming inconvenient? Let’s have an online poll right now to make the decision and present the case afresh in true tabloid sensation style. Or, rather, let’s not unpick the fabric of one of the truly remarkable successes that our evolved species has managed to achieve!
The fostering of fear, suspicion and hate is the problem and it needs to be opposed because it alone is causing the drought. Left unchecked, it will cripple humanity through war and convince individuals to self-impose barriers to community that will escalate the loneliness and depression that swarms exponentially among us.
Maybe we can start our analysis by looking at fear, suspicion and hate and also their opposites, calm, trust and love. The most noticeable difference between these two sets of emotions and feelings is that those in the ‘positive camp’, (calm, trust and love) appear to need some focused work from us as individuals. They don’t just happen. They normally take time to develop and to take shape within us. However, those in the ‘negative camp’ (fear, suspicion and hate) rush fully formed into our minds. This is a major problem because we don’t take any time to process them before spewing forth gut reactions and creating stories around personal safety for ourselves and our loved ones.
So why is it that suspicion comes on much quicker than trust? It used to be the case that these antonyms followed a similar path of progression within our minds. One would experience the presence of another person, weigh up the information gathered from their actions and conversation, then make an assessment as to whether we would like, admire or trust them. The process, though, would take time and be one that we would continually check within ourselves when new information was received. It was rare that we would have an immediate opinion or follow the recommendation of a friend unchecked. However, that was when we lived in a simpler environment where interaction with others and, more importantly, thinking about others was an easily identifiable event in our daily lives. If the Postman speculated on the newcomer to the village as he handed over our letters we would mark this as an, albeit minor, event in our day. Can we say the same today? Rather vitally, we used to give space to the information received and also our processing of it. By doing so, of course, we gave the same degree of attention to discovering if we could trust the Postman or be suspicious of him. This is rarely the case these days.
There is an enormous plurality to the quantity of events that we allow ourselves to be exposed to that shows no signs of slackening off in our present age. The consequence being that we are training our minds to shortcut the information and processing time we give to each new interaction that bubbles to the surface of our frontal lobe. Such speed of grappling aids decision making when in environments where pace is the key criteria to judge our engagement with a given topic. However, perniciousness creeps in when this rapid skill set is applied to issues that deserve superior thinking to those that warrant instantaneous or swift classification. For example, relationships to other humans are issues where we should not scrimp mental energies.
The ability to apply ourselves to questions of other human beings is under malevolent pressure because it is swept along with the flood of information we are coerced/desirous to process regarding the general world around us. From protecting the password to our latest online subscription, to absorbing the latest extra-circular school activity offered to our children, to hundreds of face-to-face and email dialogues we have at work, to glancing at the newspaper headline opposite us on the commute declaring the latest atrocity and outrage as given over by people trying to sell their papers. We are digesting at a phenomenal rate. Reading, listening, processing, choosing, deciding and concluding. We are thinking at speed throughout most of our lives. When a new piece of information is presented to us, we have to hustle our assimilations in order to be ready for the next conveyor belt item that has to be consumed. At work this facility undoubtedly makes us more employable because we are seen to be capable and quick-witted. The same is not true though if we apply this method when assessing our fellow self-conscious and weary neighbours.
The mutually supporting systems of information barrage and our short-cut processing is a pandemic threatening to infect and poison all of us. They are corroding our abilities to genuinely consider and reflect upon each other and see beyond the all too easily at-hand fear, hate and suspicion. The inoculation needs to be given out. It is time for us to shake off the sleeping sickness that we have allowed to run rampant through our mental processes. Enough short cutting, enough mis-judgement, enough categorisation and enough sloppiness of thinking. It’s too bloody dangerous. We need to wake up and realise where we are and just what we are capable of if we continue to use our auto-pilot when we should be absolutely focused, in control and able to function at our best intellectually – when thinking about each other. Fear, hate and suspicion must be overcome by a different category of thinking than we normally apply. We have to think deeper, longer and wider. We owe it to ourselves not to think simplistically and we owe it to each other after five thousand known years of war, torture and mayhem.
It’s time for a change and it’s time for us to realise what we mean to each other even if, at first, we don’t understand each other and can’t see why we each believe or do the things we do. The lessons learned in the twentieth century and the results achieved by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have shown us the danger that lurks in each of us and also the good that we can collectively attain, striving for global civilization. We must not go backwards. We must continue to strive. We must also realise the risks we face every day by lazy thinking that seeks to reduce questions of other people to problems that must be overcome. Each of us deserves consideration, thought and understanding. Each of us deserves to be treated ethically. Thinking will help us. Thinking will enable us to become better humans and we have to rise to this challenge. This won’t be easy. We will slip, trip and fall on many occasions. However, perhaps a start can be made in the right direction if we realise the danger posed by fear, hate and suspicion and start to drag ourselves away from the brink by developing a new thirst, an ethical thirst.
Let us be clear, though. That we might think we should only choose between deontology, utilitarianism or virtue ethics is a masterful coup on behalf of stagnant philosophies. Each time we engage with such thinking we are evading the issue that is most pressing and purely conducting a solipsistic ritual that has no real influence upon our ethical bearing. To debate which theory we should adopt at any given point is to miss the point of ethics. Ethics is about allowing the humanity of the other person to have impact upon us. Rather than ignoring them as we devote ourselves to internal cogitations. Ethics is at work when we get stopped in our stride by the mere existence of the other person as we walk up and allow them to be themselves rather than an object to be persuaded, policed or preened over. Ethics is about how we are with other people, not how we think about ethics.
Debating and cogitating as to how we might act if we stumble across an ethical problem that falls neatly into discussions of moral theory is not what I mean by ethics. Thinking about the greater good, our duty or trying to be virtuous is to pontificate irrelevantly. Concepts of duty and virtue vary with cultural changes in geography and the governing premise that we should act to promote the most good is, to be frank, not good enough. Instead of coolly assessing the merits of each of these analytic traditions we shall cast them aside. The ethics we need operates at a different stratum. We don’t need theories and flow charts that prescribe, we need an ethics that impacts upon us at an individual level.
When you and I collide in the street, even as strangers, something unique and wonderful occurs. In that moment of eye-to-eye contact, there comes into being a recognition that, whilst completely original and exclusive, is repeated an infinite number of times every day. That instance, the recognition of another, is played out daily in every office, school, factory, and pavement across the planet wherever someone catches the eye of another person. It is so omnipresent that we take it completely for granted and rarely, if never, think about its presence.
The merest glimpse of another’s face that elevates to eye contact can take place in a clichéd ‘split-second’. This literal, melodramatic, and overused phrase both describes and foregrounds the element of time in the transaction, just as it brashly swamps what it should only really describe. That said, its place within our thinking on this subject is reasonably deserved because we only need such a small amount of time to comprehend that we are in the presence of another. There is no incremental scale, based on longevity, to reach a threshold of recognition. Recognition, therefore, not being dependent on time, is presumably something other dependent. What is it to recognise someone as a person? What criteria are instantly met and passed through? Is eye contact the thing that is required? Whatever the mystical threshold, our concern should be what happens at that crossing-point.
In that moment of recognition, a realisation occurs – we are met by another person, another person who is equal to us. The other person is not a lower or different life form. They are on the same level as us. So much so, that the resonance of recognition is palpable every time it happens. We might take our encounters for granted, but the force of them is always there to arrest our journey even if for a ‘spilt second’. One way to avoid such palpable resonating, connection, and interaction is to ignore other people as we go about our daily lives. Avoiding eye contact in the doctor’s waiting room, never looking into the windscreen or side windows of fellow car travellers. Glossing across people walking down the street next to you, can defuse, obstruct, or remove the timbre and tone of humanity, if so desired. The difficulty with this, of course, is that some people don’t want you to avoid them, they seduce you in one form or another to encounter them. Or, occasionally you have to engage with other people because you need to make some kind of transaction, a purchase or a request. Placing avoidance to one side for the time being though, as a problem for those with mental health issues or a hobby for miscreants, the more vital topic for attention and reflection can come back into focus: the moment of recognition itself.
When one recognises a stone, tree, or animal in the course of one’s day there is no palpable resonance. There is, conceivably, a sense of minor achievement, similar to getting a question right in a test, if the object in question vexed us momentarily as to its correct identity. There is really nothing more to be gained, in the arena of recognition, from such an encounter. The hurtling vehicle that is our lifelong journey pauses not or even slows down; it carries on with the same velocity and in the same direction as if the object had never existed to us. From the moment we wake until the moment we rest, we drive ourselves along the same canyons, runways, and country paths that we always have. There is a constant inevitability to these everyday journeys. Our patterns are fairly predictable, even though they are also unique. Anyone studying us would, after a fashion, become bored with the repetition of our thoughts, desires, and time absorbing activities. The phrase ‘creature of habit’ hovers over every one of us threatening to solidify and render us frozen, lifeless. The cure and redeeming elements, that prevent such a chill wind from capturing us, are those brief, all too rare, moments when we allow ourselves to become arrested, derailed, or slowed down by something that we either find interesting or which is powerful enough to cast warmth across our mundane lives. Occasionally both these attributes are necessary. Unfortunately, stones, trees and animals rarely muster a rise in temperature. That, which does, is the moment of recognition.
The intervention of another human into our lives always carries heat. For a lot of people, the consequent movement in mercury is rarely, or never, enough to affect any impact. For others, the heat is too much and it burns, forcing them to take avoidance measures. For most though, the icy chill of one’s journey into a foredrawn destiny is too powerful and will only be susceptible to melting once or twice after the initial openness and innocence of youth has passed. Near frozen lives become governed by rules of thought and strict access control measures that limit the ascension of new ideas, so much so that some travel as if they were the sole inhabitant of the planet at times. So locked into their own thoughts and ways of viewing the world they become guilty of succumbing to that most alluring state of mind and action: solipsism. To listen, or allow someone else’s point of view to be considered, appears sometimes as the hardest challenge when in this mode: as if a hairdryer is used to melt a glacier. The seduction of solipsism is quite simple in its basest form, because it translates one’s personal ideas to the perfect form of how things should be. There is no need to consider anyone else’s voice when our own is right, is there? Hence, we become solo and build monuments to ourselves; carefully securing the foundations, erecting the superstructure, and then finally crafting the surface edifice to ensure its unique and perfect homage is unmistakeable. Such a careful, time consuming project, once complete, does not bare criticism well. After all, a vast amount of energy has gone into making the crowning glory of our lives: our granite-like selves. Once built, such a monument is rarely torn down by its maker, instead it is usually made more weather-proof so as to protect it from unwanted gusts and sheets of rain. Despite such strong-arm preventative measures, the real threat to any creation in this vein is the warm front that others might bring. One moment of recognition could start a melt or set up a resonant vibration that shakes the structure so violently as to snap the supporting elements, whose inherent brittle nature is always subject to potential failure in extreme conditions.
The capacity of the moment of recognition is a force able to induce a tremendously powerful set of personal events when unleashed. The exact mechanism of this release, however, is not our interest. Instead, what is of interest is the realisation that it is present and that it has such power. Much of Western philosophy has occupied itself with the logical problem of intersubjectivity, or how to prove that other people exist. The starting point is Descartes’ cogito (I think therefore I am) which, even with its acknowledged neatness, simplicity, and overall startling self-evidence, never allowed for any realistic extrapolation to other people. In a world of only one person it summarises the proof of existence brilliantly. In a world of more than one it proves to be, quite possibly, the worst starting place to discuss any other existences. As such, the Cartesian dead-end, mined for over four hundred years in the hope of yielding further gems of wisdom, should now be firmly sealed up, given its blue plaque, and consigned to history. Descartes struck the only gold to be found there and it is time to accept that logical proof of others evades us. Instead, our focus should be, not on questions of logic, but rather on the power of our encounters with others.
Our lives are governed by the brute day-to-day fact that other people are real and separate entities from us. They are not thoughts, electrical impulses, or otherwise from an evil genius or god-like entity. Instead, they are as real, as rousing and remarkable as they appear. They are there. All questions of doubt need to be passed over. Doubt, has long been the unfortunate luxury of a certain branch of Western Philosophy. New blood is now required. However, this fresh life-supporting liquid shall not be the opposite of doubt, for Nietzsche has taught us well. ‘Certainty’ cannot be the replacement, because it continues the same dialogue of logic. Instead, the new blood shall be ethics; a subject that will release us from the shackles of oppositional thinking and logical dead-ends, and that Emmanuel Levinas called ‘first philosophy’.
So, perhaps with our Levinasian clue, we can now begin to see that the scope of ethics, when trying to grapple with the problem of how we should treat each other, is too wide for traditional moral theories to carve a way through. They just aren’t equipped to deal with such a complex issue. The questions looming over and running through the issue are many and varied and refuse to conform to a flow chart model of if “yes” then proceed to ‘A’ and if “no” then go to ‘B’. There isn’t any linearity to the matter. Instead, at times, there are overwhelming contextual considerations in the fields of history, justice, law and human rights, which surround our journey towards civilisation. Such context and complexity, therefore, needs new tools. However, just because one has the right, or new, tools in one’s tool kit, it doesn’t necessarily follow that anything created will be perfect, useful, or even able to function properly. Success is only to be found in how the tools are wielded…
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, [viewed on 26th January 2018]. Available from: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html