Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Citizen of the World

When I was at school, I had a conversation with a schoolmate about passports. Out of nowhere, I said that I wouldn’t like to have one. My schoolmate looked at me in puzzlement, and commented that if I didn’t have a passport, I would belong nowhere. I replied that I’d rather be a citizen of the world.

Unknowingly, I’d hit on an ancient idea. It was the ancient Greeks who originated the idea of kosmopolites, that all of us are in some way citizens of a single, global community. This suggests that our duty of care should extend to every inhabitant of the world.

Recently this has come under sustained attack. Teresa May commented at the Tory party conference that if “you believe that you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”  Her message was that that your circle of care should be limited to within national borders.

But this makes little sense. A national border is an arbitrary line, drawn for reasons of historical and territorial contingency. There seems to me no good reason to think that our duty of care ends there. There seem, on the other hand, plenty of good reasons to think that our own, personal welfare depends to a large extent upon the state of the world, and other people within it. Charles Darwin put it this way:

“As [humans] advance in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that [they] ought to extend [their] social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to [them]. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent [their] sympathies extending to [people] of all nations and races.”

And an artificial barrier is what May, Trump, Farage and all the rest seek to erect. But it is a flimsy one.

One of the best reasons to suppose flimsiness is interconnectedness. The fact that every event in the world is deeply affected by every other event means that the reverberations of crises and disasters are often felt far beyond their origin point. Interconnectedness also means that pulling up the drawbridge, and withdrawing into individual, fortress like nation-states is futile.

This can be seen in the case of the global financial crisis of 2008, where the selfishness and greed of a small number of people adversely affected the lives of millions.  It can also be seen in environmental crises, where the pollution of one nation affects the entire globe, because we all breathe the same air.

This is why the Dalai Lama has highlighted the importance of global ethics:

“In this age of globalization, the time has come for us to acknowledge that our lives are deeply interconnected and to recognize that our behaviour has a global dimension. When we do so, we will see that our own interests are best served by what is in the best interests of the wider human community.” (Beyond Religion, p. 85).

This means that some form of cosmopolitan thinking is inescapable.

There are several of reasons why a global ethic is resisted.  I think that some dislike the idea of global responsibility because they think it means that they will stop caring about the place where they are born.

This fear, while understandable, seems unfounded. Each of us is inevitably the product of a particular family, located in a specific cultural, social and historical context, and we will naturally have kinship with our own communities. This does not, as Darwin observed, contradict the idea of more global duties.

People also resist the idea of a global ethic because of the belief that there’s not enough to go around. This creates a sort of bunker mentality where individuals, families and nations fight each other, to the death if necessary, over dwindling resources. This was first rationalized by Thomas Malthus, who observed that population growth was bound to outstrip increases in food supplies.

This fear remains a major fuel for aggressive right wing populism. In a way, such populism is that fear in concrete form. There is no strong future vision, here, just an aggressive, territorial, survival-driven lashing out.

To an extent, this is understandable. If your life is poverty-stricken, lonely and there seems no way out, it's very easy to cast around for scapegoats, and to want to protect your own against outsiders.

But even in poverty it's possible to make moral choices. That is a central point of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, where poor families, sick of the cruelties of the depression, and the uncaring rich, exhibit huge generosity:

"Yeah, but them folks can't bury him. Got to go to the county stone orchard.

Well, hell.

And hands went into pockets and little coins came out. In front of the tent a little heap of silver grew. And the family found it there.

Our people are good people; our people are kind people."

I would like to suggest that our own personal values often become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe in the dog eat dog story, then your life and politics will likely reflect this.

If, on the other hand, even in the face of material, economic and other challenges, enough of us decide to reject a selfish, parochial point of view and embrace a form of global ethics, then this may well result in a gradual transformation of the world.  It’s surely worth a try.

IMAGE: NASA.

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