You may have heard it said recently that Western civilization is in crisis; The near collapse of the banking system in 2008 pulled the rug out from beneath the feet of neo-liberalism and whilst there has been some level of stability since, there are some very strong indications that all is not well. Britain's recent vote to leave the EU and the Republican candidacy of Donald Trump in the United States are events that I did not think that I would see in my lifetime. They speak of an enormous discontent and disillusionment with the systems of government. I believe that many people in our culture have become isolated, afraid and angry. Lacking meaningful and dignified work, lacking a sense of connection to their community, to a common culture and history, they feel they have been left behind, passed over and ignored. We see the evidence of this all around us. I myself feel exactly the same way.
As a result we have become vulnerable to an ancient and seductive narrative, the narrative of the other. If I was an American I might long to hear these words: 'I am an American. America is the greatest country on Earth. I am proud to be an American.' But how do those words sound to all the other nations of the Earth? What about these: 'I am British. I am proud to be British. Britain can thrive without Europe. We are stronger alone.' This narrative elevates the national at the expense of all others. If to be American is to win, to be anything else is to lose. That is all very well... If you are the winner. This narrative allows people to starve at our borders or drown in our oceans because they want what we have but we don't want to share it. It's ok if people die. They aren't British people. They aren't American people.
This narrative is not unique to Britain and America but common to all nations and all people. It is the narrative that says, 'to be of our nation is to be human, to be anything else is to be less than human.' It can be applied equally to one nation and another, to one village and another, to one person and their neighbour. If your neighbour is 'other', they are less than human. They can be insulted, tortured, abused. Anything can be done to them without question, without empathy, they are not you, they are another. This century we have so far taken only a few steps back along this road. But every step taken must be resisted with all our power. We have only to look back at century upon century of unceasing war and bloodshed to realise how real are the risks we run when we set out in this direction.
Above all things I believe in the community of life, not just human life, but all life on this planet. As human beings we are in the privileged position of knowing that we are alive. Each of us individually knows the value of their own life. It is great. To have lived at all is an astonishingly improbable thing. We know this. What then shall we do with this gift? For many centuries there was a strong case to be made for fighting tooth and nail for survival. To survive at all it was necessary to be powerful, to dominate others. We are lucky to live in a world where this is not always the case. This poses a very difficult question. If we do not live to survive, why then do we live?
Has it ever troubled you that this question does not seem to be asked by our government? It troubles me. How can we ever hope to build a society if our society has no reason to be? How can you form a strategy without an objective? Of course, our government has strategies, it has objectives, but what is the super-objective? What is the guiding principle? Is it economic growth? Is that what it is? How can I be a citizen and not know the answer to this question?
This is a conversation we need to be having as a nation, as a species: What do we want from our society?
I wish I lived in a culture where the fulfillment and happiness of all that live were valued above the generation of economy. Standard of living has often been confused with material possession. They are related but they are not the same. Many times in our recent past we have chosen to prioritise economy above happiness and that, I believe, is a form of social madness.
Our society should pursue growth. It should pursue the growth of knowledge and understanding. This should be its highest ambition. Through education a society may become creative, dynamic and resourceful. Ask yourself what you have valued most in your life. Is it what you possess or is it who you have known, what you have experienced, what you have achieved, who you have helped? Material poverty should not be treated lightly but society needs aspiration to survive. Your society should aspire to the same things that you aspire to. It should not aspire to material wealth in excess. This statement is so familiar it has become cliché, yet still our society seems to judge its success by the generation of economy.
We have heard it said a thousand times that money cannot buy happiness. That may or may not be true. Having wealth can make the challenges of life far gentler. It can open the doors to myriad experiences. Money has a value, that is its defining attribute. The sickness of our society is that we measure the money and not the happiness it brings as the final arbiter of success.
Money is not an end, it is a means to an end. You've probably heard that before. Isn't it time we asked our ourselves what exactly that end is?