By Prince Paa-Kwesi Heto
Editor’s Note: This article was posted precisely 4 hours and 17 minutes after Donald Trump was sworn in as 45th President of the United States.
Los Angeles, CA | Some people are writing and talking about the end of the human species. Many people feel dejected. They think the world is heading in the wrong direction. Pessimism is spreading like wildfire as news stories in Berlin proclaims the end of the world and columnists in the US write about the end of the age of humanism. Dark and gloomy news headlines are causing more and more people to sense Armageddon. Death-stricken fear has taken over our bodies and minds. Simply, some people argue, the very survival of the human species is at stake.
Sure, people should be concerned. The ever-common acts of terror, naked narcissism, virulent hatred, disgusting slaughter of human beings in war; the awful inability of world leaders to resolutely respond to problems like climate change, topped off by the bizarre 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign following an equally ugly Brexit Referendum campaign may have been too much for one year. But it is rather too soon to pronounce the death of humanity.
Yes, terrible things happened in 2016. But I think 2016 was a watershed moment pointing us to the fact that we may be at the dawn of a new era. Elements from the old era are waging a serious struggle to stay relevant, and if I was to make a guess, the year 2017 presents a golden opportunity for the good people of the world to shape the next new age. And for the record, 2016 did not tilt the pendulum toward terror any more than the terror of colonialism or the kind Maximilien Robespierre unleashed on the people of France. It is, nonetheless, reasonable to assess the premise of people’s pessimism. The first pointer is the rise of the alt-right, extremist groups, and the election of unapologetic white supremacists in both Europe and America. Contrary to popular belief, this is probably the best thing that happened in 2016. Because it is better for the people who are sympathetic to racist, sexist, separatist, and violent ideologies to be open about their views instead of being coerced into silence.
While terrifying, I am optimistic that the havoc they will wreak in pursuit of their myopic ends by openly introducing and executing racist or tribalistic policies will pale in comparison to the pain and anguish that occurs from experiencing the effect of the same policies and attitudes without having the ability to name or recognize them. Basically, what the alt-right stands for is not new. Minorities, particularly people of African descent, have had to endure significant discriminatory torment for ages. Some well-intentioned public figures have utilized the sanitized versions of alt-right ideologies to cause serious harm to others, knowingly and unknowingly.
But to be fair to these movements, they do not have a monopoly over discrimination, hate crimes, fear, and terror. Just recently, 4 Chicago African America teenagers kidnapped and tortured their mentally impaired white schoolmate. On a macro level, the severe Syrian refugee crisis has the capacity to raise concerns amongst the people in the countries within which they seek refuge. The issue here is that those of us who blindly brand others as haters simply for expressing their anger and frustration lose the opportunity to empathize with and learn from their concerns. In his farewell address, President Obama implored American minorities to put themselves in the shoes of a middle-aged white person that was watching their entire world being toppled by forces beyond their control.
So with the alt-right groups putting their anxieties and fears on full display, it is time to reflect, acknowledge them, and dialogue with one another to transcend boundaries of ideology. The goal of confluence is never to win an argument but to give full play to the best in all of us. We must take the chance to talk about the concerns of those who espouses views that scare us, and the rise of the alt-right forces us to have uncomfortable conversations many of us have avoided. The Dalai Lama is, therefore, right: it is not enough for us to simply to pray; instead, we need to develop new mechanisms for dialogue that fosters mutual respect and understanding.
In the same vein, we really must address capitalism for what it really is. Capitalism is neither good nor evil. In fact, unlike the rise of the alt-right, the bigger threat posed by the state of today’s capitalism makes it difficult for individuals to accept personal responsibility for the systemic failings of their respective form of capitalism. While we have seen the socio-economic effects and even experience the devastating impact of some capitalist shortcomings, we have not adequately disaggregated capitalism enough to understand its exact nature. Additionally, it is wrong for us to talk about capitalism as a problem since the actual state of affairs looks like a network of problems. What we are dealing with are series of interwoven issues that are cloth in the insatiable desire for fame, power, and wealth.
Also, capitalism could be a reason for anarchy in the world system. Realism suggests that the need for security and safety is real. And more importantly, the need not to leave one’s nation-state open to attack from a bully nation-state is genuine. These are real needs, and we must find more avenues to satisfy them without causing more fear and panic. But here too we have made a lot of progress.
For example, war is losing its appeal as the inevitable solution to conflicts. Also, our imperfect global architecture has to some degree done a good job to reduce the desire of leaders to seek prestige for their country through waging empire expansion wars. As a result, interstate wars are becoming less common. Sadly, proxy wars and wars between different parties or factions within a state, like the war in Syria, are on the rise. But the bright spot is that regional and global institutions are adapting, albeit slowly, to these new threats to human security. A growing list of leaders are beginning to demand that at least diplomacy should be given a chance during conflicts. Who would have thought that Khartoum would receive respite from the U.S. or a nuclear deal between Iran and the West was possible a decade ago?
Another reason for optimism is that a growing number of people are beginning to take a stand against weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations inspired by a coalition of non-super states have started taking the lead in on this sensitive issue. Yes, weapons of mass destruction would not be eradicated without significant efforts because it has gained notoriety as the most effective means of deterrence. But the growing awareness of their danger would open more avenues to scholars working to discover viable alternatives to military based approach to deterrence to get resources for their work.
The last issue I would like to address in this article is that of natural selection. Although it might be true that in the past natural forces made it difficult for the weak to survive, this is no longer the case. Technological advancement has helped us to understand and use the laws of nature to our advantage to the point that we can ensure the survival of all if we so decide. Along with technology, a new reason for optimism could rest in adopting a new paradigm that rejects survival of the fittest and embraces a path where people would be able to tap into their limitless potentials with the help of others.
In spite of my optimism, I grapple challenges commensurate to the opportunities for growth. It is reasonable to say that the scope and scale with which we are dealing with today’s problems are unprecedented. Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that history does repeat itself. Even if we limit human history to European history, we can easily match the fundamental problems we are dealing with today to those encountered by generations before us. These problems are, in fact, not new. For instance, corporation or the elites of a society refusing to pay their fair share of taxes is not new. The French Revolution can provide us with a clue into this issue. The state of anarchy in world affairs is not new either. The way Britain gain domination over global trade from China in the Opium War, the exploits of Alexander the Great, the Mongol conquest are but few examples. The act of terrorism unleash by state actors and non-actors is not new either. Slavery lasted for more than 265 years and was abolished only 152 years ago in the US. Although the last public lynching in the US is officially dated 1936, African Americans continued to be hanged and publicly put to death in the 1960s.
What is new is that the people of the world in 2017 are better placed than any other generation before us to tackle and address these problems at their source.
One of the greatest philosophers of our time, Daisaku Ikeda, insightfully pointed out that “it is not intelligence but rather an intelligence infused with compassion that humankind lacks.” Ikeda by his statement is pointing to the need for more compassionate action from all people, not only the rulers.
The essence here is that advancement is NOTHING without compassion! Like we address alt-right demagogues, perhaps a good place to start is in helpings the weakest of us. Furthermore, we need to transcend our individual tendencies to focus on only the good in us, and considerably, the evil in others. We must not only ask in what ways we are right? Also in what ways we are wrong as the others are. Through internal and external dialogue, it may be easier to transcend differences and develop compassion for oneself and others.
Of course, our inability to have this kind of internal dialogue is what may give a pause to our understanding that each situation, decision, technology, thing, person and the like, possess the condition for both good and evil. Meaning no one group can lay claim to being only good nor can they argue that their opponent is an absolute evil. And because no one group can claim to be only good, humanism and the human capacity to give full play to our shared humanity is an essential prerequisite in the effort to build a more just and peaceful world. Humanism, in my opinion, is what made it possible for Africans to endure conditions excruciating enough to have caused their extinction. Inspired by Ubuntu, Africans drew strength from their relationships with one another. This is the essence of what makes humans resilient. But for humanism to thrive a significant majority must willingly choose to nurture it into their second nature.
We must, for instance, be willing to develop friendships without pre-conditions. In his estimation, Chingiz Aitmatov says humanism is “the kind of unity whereby people open their hearts to all others and forge bonds of trust based on friendship.” Pope Francis’ notion of New Humanism or Christian Humanism echoes similar sentiments. There is no true humanism, Pope Francis argues, that does not provide love as the bond between human beings. The secular ethics the Dalai Lama champions is also grounded in the idea that we all belong to one human family and need to open our hearts and warmly embrace one another. Illustratively, US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a joint appearance in Hawaii talked about how the connection between people is a force for progress. President Obama supported his call for people to usher in the age of humanism by making reference to the Japanese term “otagai no tame ni” (meaning “with and for each other”). The concept of otagai no tame ni is similar to Ubuntu. It represents the need for people to be each other’s keeper.
Philosophy has an essential role to play, here. Chingiz Aitmatov continues to assert that society needs a sublime and supreme philosophy which would fosters in people the desire to genuinely treasure each individual. Daisaku Ikeda adds that this philosophy must allow people to treat others with real love and compassion.
Although enamored by the Pope, Dalai Lama, Aitmatov, Ikeda, et al., I am not naive about the enormous amount of work required to direct human society toward peaceful and harmonious coexistence. I am nevertheless hopeful that the human race has what it takes to usher in a new age of humanism. In this epoch, fear would be vanquished enough to allow people and their government to have the courage to be vulnerable. During this era, people will acknowledge that sound political and economic systems though necessary are not sufficient condition for the realization of happiness. Based on this insight we would be willing to take action to allow philosophies that value the inherent dignity of life to permeate all aspect of our society.
The era of global humanism will be an age in which we the people will recognize, accept, build institutions, and develop relationships that transcend our Social Darwinian tendencies. It will be an era in which we collectively work to secure the survival of all instead of the survival of a few.
So, as ideologies of domination and supremacy fight to stay relevant, we the people must not be afraid and lose focus of what we need to be doing – our own inner transformation and unconditional acceptance and support of others. We must not be coward into tacit acceptance of a bleak future. Sovereignty resides with us the people. We the people need to take actions to move the world toward a future of harmonious co-existence.
We are the beginning and staying power of the age of humanism. We need to become comfortable with our inadequacy; the fact that we do not know it all. Thus, we must ask: in our present gilded age of pessimism, anti-globalism, the alt-right movement, could humanism ensure the survival of all species? How could each one of us stay true to the ideals of respecting the inherent dignity of others? What can we do to ensure that we do not transform humanism into another oppressive monster like all other ideology that inspired change before us? The choices are yours, and it is mine.