There can hardly be any doubt that the world we live in anno 2016 is a part of human history that is in no lack of vices, challenges, or a perpetuated sense of doom (much like a century ago, one might add). Among those challenges, from global streams of migration to a responsible treatment of this pale blue dot of ours and a resurgence of anti-scientific thought, one structural problem reigns supreme: the increasing dissolution of the social contract and the increasing lack of confidence in the wisdom of others .
In short: We have trust issues, fundamental and dangerous trust issues.
Political scientist Ivan Krastiev quite poignantly asks the question ‘What happens to democracy when we stop trusting our political representatives?’. We live in a time in which the general public opinion about politicians is consistently in the league of ‘banksters’, lawyers and other ill-regarded professions, a time in which ‘non-establishment’ candidates and political movements far off what once was the centre of society are gaining momentum and are within reach of political majorities in a very near-sightedly perceivable future. Be it Marine Le Pen’s Front National, the UK’s Ukip and fanciful games with Brexit, Germany’s own AfD with its head Frauke Petry, or the United States’ Primaries in which Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders on either end of the political spectrum are hot contenders for one of the more influential positions in the international theatre we call politics.
For thousands of years, we were able to believe that it was true when our leaders proclaimed that they (and their family) were descendants from gods, or in the very least chosen by them, while today we have a hard time to believe them when they boldly proclaim that they might try to not kill as many innocent people.
What happened ?
Progress happened, for better and worse. Ignorance is bliss, we keep hearing. What we are witnessing right now seems to be the proof of that point at the largest scale possible (not accounting for extra-terrestrial forms of organization).
Jane Goodall once described seeing a Chimpanzee being confronted with the sight of a big waterfall and having, according to Goodall, a religious experience. Assuming that our ancestors had a similar first encounter with something or someone beyond the immediately experiencable (Kim K. is an idiot, Shaun steals stuff and Karol is the boss because he is the strongest), two connected progresses have accompanied us ever since that fateful day in human history:
Ever since then, both the amount of knowledge and the general availability of information have been key influencing factors in our shared past. Starting out from the first instance of experiencing an invisible power outside ourselves in the face of something (so far) inconceivable, we have pushed back the limits of our ignorance. Here, religion and the special social status of the mediators between us and the unknown – priests, has played a twofold role: On the one hand, religion has brought stability to humankind, as its agents brought legitimacy to rulers (thus doing away with the need to re-assert dominance through physical prowess and as a consequence allowing more experienced individuals to lead that were beyond their biological prime) and gave ethical codes of conduct to the as-yet-unlearned masses. On the other hand, clerical classes were, due to their special status, oftentimes the only part of society that could invest time to solve the mysteries of the world on a larger scale and in larger numbers. Alongside gifted individuals that didn’t need to invest time in their physical upkeep, the clergy was the first social group of to be proto-scientists, individuals with both access to information and the time on their hand to expand human knowledge in the vastness of the yet-to-be-known.
In Europe and ‘the West’, this connection of the creation of trust through religion/belief and the creation of objective knowledge through science, that had been such an important cornerstone in human development, was finally severed during the Enlightenment.
Curiosity is one of the greatest qualities of the human race, as is our ability to be amicable and love one another like there is no tomorrow. It is quite ironic then, that curiosity’s underlying sentiment of ‘Maybe this isn’t everything there is to this world.’ breeds one of the most useful and yet both socially and societally most destructive sentiments there is: doubt.
Once the connection between trust-affirming faith and societal progress through science had been severed in the European mid-18th century, changes in technology and governance gained momentum and pace at increasing rates. While these developments were only possible due to earlier inventions and processes like the rise of Protestantism/Calvinism and Guttenberg’s printing press, it was the 18th century, in which their effects came into full fruition. The French and American revolutions explored alternative forms of government on a new scale, the Code Napoléon did away with old legal practices and Napoleon I. crowned himself, rather than being crowned by a religious figure, indicating that the highest power that could bestow the right to govern was Napoleon, not God.
Throughout the so called ‘long 19th century’, the role of individuals and their organisation became a pinball pushed around by technology and the forces that be: steam- and other technologies replaced the necessity for previous amounts of manual labourers in rural areas, disrupting millennia old social structures and habitual modes of living, replacing them with life in big cities whose scale and problems technology had yet to catch up with. All the while the size of administrational units sky-rocketed with the rise of the nation state, and attempts by the increasingly informed public to take charge of their own fate were often quelled by those in power, whose life incidentally hadn’t changed all that much in comparison to the lives of their subjects. Consequently, concessions to nascent political parties were only made an inch at a time as the exploitation of those from a technologically lower origin stepped into high gear during the high times of colonialism.
While the 19th century was a far cry from the 20th century’s “the revolution will be televised” and today’s stream of near-real time information across the globe, the first Crimean War of the 1850s was among the first that included what we now call war correspondents, the telegraph literally connected far-flung continents and brought news from places that until then belonged to mythological folklore much more so than to every day knowledge and artists made those places and their conflicts visible for the first time.
Here, as the role of the individual and its importance for the community increasingly diminished and religion became a personal much more so than a public affair, the sciences developed and started to thrive, taking the scientific method from the physical world to every aspect of life and its organisation. Illustrious writers like Durkheim, Weber, Nietzsche, Marx and Engels took stock of their changing world and tried to make sense of it all. Similarly, new styles of art sprung up, depicting and expressing views from the internal than the external world: Romanticism, Impressionism, Dadaism were part of this development as was a variety of Neo -isms in architecture, harking back to a glorified past that never was. Today we’d call that retro…
With the horrors of the First World War, the long 19th century finally came to an end. Technology and science had gotten us there and the different actors that were all heroes in their own little stories saw it through in a world in which one person’s hero now more so than ever indeed was another person’s murderer.
This crisis of the individual, from the strawberry fields of yore to Spinning Jenny’s frantic work to the factories, assembly lines and diseases of industrialized urban life and the lives of millions wasted needlessly in the deserts of Africa, trenches of Europe and too many other places continued in the brave new world of the 20th and 21st century.
The centre and core circle of trust in 2016 has changed immensely: once upon a time it included the totality of an individual’s tribe (even Shaun, he may be a crook, but after all, he is our crook), then reshaped to focus on family relations when settling down into village life, only to be shattered into what we now call the ‘core family’ of parents, children and (to a lesser degree: ) grandparents, expanded by ‘family and friends’ that are to be picked and tended to with the utmost caution (Shaun’s in jail again, I think, not sure though, could be dead for all I know…). As this circle changed, society changed with it, equal rights for man and women were codified, a woman’s economic and otherwise independence has become the rule much more so than the exception. This left little need for ill-fitting couples to stay together and as a consequence, the cosy cover that is our social existence became a patched artwork with many a seam that needs maintenance. Today’s tribes and circles of trust can span the globe with your ‘brother from another mother’ only a Skype-call and 20.000 km away while ‘Shaun’ is up to no good right around the corner – and all we do is expect that ‘someone’ will take care of ‘that’.
Modern technology is a marvellous thing, the first lines of this article were written on a phone on a train across what once was a heavily fortified border between political systems, and we would be hard-pressed find anyone who would permanently want to go back to the olden days without at least some of the creature comforts of modern life. That non-withstanding, every technology is just a tool to be trusted as much as the people that wield it – and just like individual technologies, technological progress as such has a darker underside that we’d rather not look too closely at.
That underside is the regrettable, yet increasingly obvious lack of trust towards those that surround us. When technology connected us to the far-flung world, our days stayed set at 24 hours, making us chose between those surrounding us and those that fit better to us, but are half a world away. As we get connected and intertwined with the world ‘out there’, we get, slowly but surely, disenfranchised from the world ‘right here’. Us humans are innately imbued with a sense and longing for sociality and community and as our satisfaction of that need has shifted from a single community to a multitude of communities of affection and shared interests that often lack the immediacy and degree of satisfaction caused by physical presence (also, see: imagined communities), our offline societies have become increasingly fragile.
When science and technology took over as the basis of public discourse, periodic resurgences of public religiosity in times of crisis non-withstanding, the role of traditional religion in public life changed, at least in western societies. Now perceived more a personal affair than a public one, orthodox and originalist views on religion have decreased significantly in practice as non-theist approaches to morality and ethics have gained followers. In this new world, where the areas of the as-yet-unexplained have receded significantly due to scientific progress, old ideas of explaining things that now can be explained through non-theist means and the role of religion is a far cry from that in the early days of humanity.
What this has left us with is a gap – in the personal space and public life.
Assuming that the described inch-by-an-inch trend towards less outward religiosity will continue, the generally promoted brotherhood of mankind and empathy towards one another that is part of any of the major religions will continue to fade in the same degree as other aspects will and already have.
The space left wide open by this process needs to be filled – not by something visible, rationally explainable, but by a belief, by a belief for the sake of believing in it, and a belief that is compatible with the very basics of our nature.
What I propose here, along the lines of both Humanitarianism and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of a civil religion, is to fill the developing void with the best possible version of ourselves, of humanity. There is a very visible lack of familial behaviour towards those outside of the communities/nations/continents we as individuals call home. We have stopped believing that humanity is inherently good because the media have shown us too much examples of people and acts that are clearly un-good. This overabundance of un-goodness, though, has with all its beneficial scepticism and caution lead to a default-setting of expecting the worst – and to a confirmation-bias that keeps telling us that the world is in fact a terrible place, life a chore and everyone out to get us. Caution and a common-sense based approach to life and risk-taking are not in question here. What is in question here is a perspective on life and people that seeks for differences over communalities, that presumes antipathy over enacting empathy, one that sees dangers and a future enemy over possibilities and a future friend in the stranger that approaches us.
Looking at the state of the world today, from terrorism to financial speculation and hospitality to refugees, we clearly have lost the sense of humanity as a family (if we ever had it), and we desperately need it back. We need to be able to believe in each other again, not because of personal experience or statistics, but solely based on the criterion of ‘Is he/she a human being?’ – we need to trust in the best possible version of ourselves. That version of humanity exists, because we can see it past and present: even the cold war was not able to kill us off, a troubled country like Greece has shown to do more than anyone could ever have expected for the refugees landing daily at its shores – and for every racist and mass murderer, there are hundreds and thousands of volunteers, activists and scientists labouring to further humanity as a whole.
We have every reason believe in those traits and the better angels of our nature. It still is a leap of faith, but by every count – and looking at the alternatives – it is an easy one to make. Because humanity.
Moritz Borchardt is a Director of GPPW
Image: Erik Törner under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license