I’m editing a book by a political scientist on “loss of faith in our social and governing institutions.” Seems pretty relevant right now!
I can’t got into detail about the author’s work as it has not yet been published, but I can write about a quote she included that caught my eye:
Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both, that I should labour with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labour with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I should be disappointed and that I should in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone; You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.
I think this kind of lack of faith in others, this lack of kindness and reciprocity between individuals is still with us today, possibly to a greater degree than in Hume’s day. It seems to me that many aspects of modern culture contribute to this pervasive tendency:
- the impossibility of understanding the creation and activity of objects around us, which contributes to a pervasive feeling of powerlessness
- the isolation created by our forms of housing, transportation, and leisure activities
- materialism, which encourages us to think of money and possessions rather than people and activities
- our culture of fear, magnified by ubiquitous media sources that overemphasize violence and human failings
In particular, we have developed an “us vs. them” attitude in so many parts of Western culture — be it Christians vs. Muslims, citizens vs. immigrants, conservatives vs. liberals, pro-life vs. pro-choice, rural vs. urban, and so on. The problem with this kind of dualistic thinking is, well, that it’s simply wrong. Assigning a single value, or even a few related values, to an inherently complex human being is just fallacious and overly simplistic. But it does make it very easy for us to decide how to think about and treat others:
- “Pro-choice people are condoning murder.”
- “I won’t shop at the corner store because the owner is a Muslim.”
- “Conservatives only care about themselves and don’t want to help others.”
- “People who don’t support arms control are just crazy.”
Of course, one of the most obvious and publicized dichotomies is in the US political system: Democrats and Republicans own the show, with independents, Greens, Libertarians, and others just a footnote in the process. So we have grand pronouncements by our representatives and candidates claiming to “reach across the aisle” to work in a bipartisan manner. As if it were such a great effort to listen to others and try to work out compromises that benefit everyone as much as possible.
But as Eve recently said, “There is no aisle.” We seem pretty schizophrenic in this country: one minute we’re all “united we stand”, the next we’re “bipartisan”, and then sometimes we’re fierce individualists. Those things are all true (or can be), but in the end, we’re all human beings with the same basic needs. We could all be helping one another on a local, personal level, and we could all do more to understand what “the other” is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. If we got back to dealing with other human beings in a personal way, recognizing our unique identities in addition to our commonalities, I think that would do much more to enhance our feeling of “mutual confidence and security” than any walls we might build or legislation we might enact.