I sat on the verandah of a rest home, the other day, with a 95 year old called Edith. When she was 19, the American soldiers arrived in Cornwall Park, and whistled at her. When she was 21, she snuck out of the nurse’s hostel for an illicit ice cream. Her youth and strength went into her husband and her three children, the hospital where she worked, and the bank. Now, it goes into getting up in the morning, and sitting in the sun with the trainee caregiver. She complains loudly that it is hard to make people care. Her family often don’t visit, although they could. Her grandson is playing on his phone, and she scolds me for answering a text while we talk. Typical. Have a biscuit.
She sounds an awful lot like querulous elderly from the dawn of time: “Why don’t people do it the old way? The old neighbourhood was safe. We knew each other then.” “I don’t understand the buttons on the video player, or why people voted for that young girl with the teeth,” and “What is ‘Net Flicks,’ John, and why is it ‘on the line?’”
Edith’s gentle bewilderment reflects the astonishing pace of change over her lifetime—and she is not the only person feeling dizzy, unsafe, and unsure. In an age of instant information, how do we find wisdom? In an age of duelling narratives, and contrasting visions of reality, and internet leaks, and shadowy corporations, in an age ruled by the distrustful, the lonely and the disconnected, how do we decide what is truly human, and who tells us what it means? How can we live with one another in what our anthem trustingly calls “the bonds of love” when we increasingly encounter each other not as human beings, but as caricatures, members of warring tribes, or bare internet avatars?
But, the problem is worse than that. How can we love without trust? In an age in which institutions are failing right and left, how can we retain our sense of ownership in them? And in an age of “fake news” and duelling agendas, how can we agree on reality, let alone the common good? That is a question allied to Edith’s weariness, but separate from it: How do we encourage people to care, for each other, for the institutions and standing places which make up our country, and for the future, when we so often feel atomised, alone, and surrounded by a bunch of genuinely puzzling strangers?
It is tempting to blame the decay of social bonds on tribalism, and tribalism on “fake news” and demagoguery and the internet. Conservatives blame social decline, socialists blame underfunding, and there is always that Enlightenment sawhorse, “lack of education,” which seems to be trotted out at every social problem from drink driving to sex-ed, and by people constantly surprised at the fact that, without restraint, human beings are capable of evils great and small: from taking that last, irrational piece of chocolate sponge all the way through to wrecking the planet and tribal war.
What then restrains us? What makes us, no, encourages us, to love one another? There is, of course, an argument to be made for institutions, for education, and for government action. But part of the reason our politics seems genuinely stale, and genuinely stuck, is that we have forgotten the most important ingredient in social trust: the human face.
Emmanuel Levinas, a postmodern philosopher with whom I otherwise have a love-hate relationship, speaks of “the epiphany of the face” the moment in which another person stops being a faceless “other” and becomes something intelligible, first, a being of moral worth for which we have responsibility, then a being situated in history, with pains and loves and genuine things to give.
We’re getting worse, not better, at looking into the face of the others in our lives. Too often now it’s impossible—we encounter people as internet avatars on Twitter, internet comments sections, or through disembodied quotes in a news article, selected specifically for their ability to arouse disgust or anger in the reader. In this age of identity it is tempting, and frighteningly possible, to reduce the fullness of a human life down to a single action, opinion, or caricature. We stride confidently through our newsfeeds, determining and dismissing the validity of someone’s perspective based on their affiliations, identity markers, or an ill-judged remark. It is permissible to hate ideas and rage against ideologies—but an abstract hatred all too quickly applies to our neighbour when we reduce them to a comment, a vote, or a stereotyped belief.
When we are able to humanise the terrifying person in front of us, to speak to a neighbour and not a thing, we take the first step to social trust, and the first step towards a country which has room for us all. As Levinas puts it, “In front of the face, I always demand more of myself; the more I respond to it, the more the demands grow.”
To me, Edith was at first an irascible old lady, prone to loud commentary, not always kind, especially on favourite subjects of complaint, knitting busily a ball of dark coloured yarn that never seemed to shrink. Her main subjects of conversation seemed to be cats and how much she didn’t like everything. Some days she was frankly bitter. I wondered out loud sometimes why her life seemed to have gone downhill from about 1956. She returned often to the subject of the Methodist Church Women’s Picnic that year, what she did, and who spoke to her, and the egg sandwiches with cress she ate. Her combatively Socialist politics. Her hard life. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
Thus, we encounter people first—in caricature, and in their terrifying strangeness. Age. Generation. Worldview. Skin colour. Culture. Dress. Identity markers. And it is always going to be easier to see these; easier not to look beneath the obvious. To see the things which are common is always harder. If it hadn’t been for her looking tired, I’d have missed them too. I offered her a lift. And over the next years, I got to know my neighbour.
Here’s what my initial caricature of Edith missed. 1956 was the year she met her husband. At the picnic. She misses him still. Egg sandwiches make her sad.
She liked to sing La Traviata. Her favourite aria was “Dite alla giovine” which she sang at a concert when young. Then, the Mayor said she was “arresting,” although since her voice hadn’t lasted, she’d always add “now it would get me arrest-ED” and laugh her croaky laugh. This joke soon got old, but somehow I didn’t mind any more.
The ball of yarn never got smaller because she knitted for the Red Cross on the sly. She was embarrassed if anyone mentioned it. Her cat loved her. She loved it.
She loved one particular walk in the park. And one particular bench where there were oak trees and snowdrops, “but not the whole year!”
She didn’t like the internet or cable satellite TV she couldn’t work, or women priests, or doctors who were new, or food that was unfamiliar. Or family that went away.
We still disagree on politics. She kisses my cheek and calls me a dirty Tory. I call her a socialist old bat. Neither of us mind much, except during elections, where I threaten not to drive her to the polling booth, and she sings “The Red Flag” at me.
We all have rough edges, sorrows, and passionate disagreements. But against a background of common things: common place, common neighbourhood, common good, our differences somehow fade into their proper place, an important part of life, but no longer in the way of the life we live together.
This kind of contextualising is precisely what we seem less able to do now.
Postmodern philosophy (such as Foucault and Wittgenstein) begins by saying we are defined by our relationships (true, in large part), and ends by attacking the very idea of human nature as a fixed constant. Instead, it argues that our nature is constructed: by language, by repeated structures and “rituals of power,” by the economy and by our identity group. The rise of identity politics means that we too often lead with, and emphasise, our differences. Speaking as a former academic, much sociologically inflected education collapses into a parade of critique, or transmitting a list of correct opinions opposing things we (often justly) don’t like. Too often we recite in public the political and cultural opinions which are fashionable, with all too little reflection on why we believe these things, let alone respect for people who have come to different conclusions. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
Even assuming these critiques are correct (and too often again we simply do assume without drawing rigorous distinctions), a wrecking ball is not a proper foundation for the common good. And even when we are able to articulate an alternative, we have great difficulty loving abstractions like “equality” or “fairness” without translating them into tribal slogans which essentially mean “fairness for my favoured group.” This fact is responsible for the rise of identity politics in the first place, since it is assuredly true that, even when, for instance, “white” was not a legal category as it was in South Africa or the American South, we too often translated allegedly colour blind concepts like the rule of law in a way that delivered advantage to one group over another. Even good things, like religion or patriotism, too often become tribal weapons.
What, then, do we have left? The simple recognition of each other’s dignity, the simple gift of the face. It is true that this dignity, the intrinsic worth of the human being is at its core a religious concept, stemming from all major forms of monotheism. But surely the notion that each person is enduringly valuable is one that we don’t need belief in order to acknowledge. Here, religion and simple biology chime together in a witness to the value of ecological institutions: the trust which causes us to live together, the simple solidarity of the common species which restrains us from hurting one another—or ought to, at least.
And, mercifully, there are huge parts of life which have yet to be colonised by political partisanship and ideological rancour—and we must protect these standing places of our commonality with everything we’ve got. For the moment, at least, the simple, human unity of neighbourhood and place offers a foundation for us to think together about the genuine ecology which forms our country. Add to this sports team and service club, local church and gardening league, gym and hiking club, bowls and walking group, chess and gaming, trade union and political party: all of these expressions of belonging begin to be possible when we look (really look) at our neighbours. It requires looking for the things we can love, the affection which comes from genuine vulnerability, genuine trust, and genuine love of neighbour, not simply conflict or critique of what we find “problematic,” legitimate as they may sometimes be. When we associate together for the common good, we do not elide our disagreements, but we may at least remember the humanity of the people who disagree with us, and harmonise these a very little.
The simple truth though, is that this will take effort. In our society of internet and social media enabled convenience, it is far easier to allow habits and algorithms to silo ourselves away from our neighbours, to speak only with those who agree with us, to treat our fellow citizens as internet avatars and caricatures, or as representatives of pure evil, or simple idiocy. Even in real life, it is often easier, more convenient, to discount the people who require hard work, extra kindness, or subtitles to translate their hurt.
But, in such a small country, in such a genuinely affectionate country, perhaps we have a real chance to look through the caricatures and show what might be done. Minus the political ghettoes of other, larger countries, and with the genuine cohesion we gain from our feted two degrees of separation, perhaps we might manage to remember the decency and the opportunity offered to us by our neighbours—if, that is, we have the courage to look them in the face.
We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance
And the larger circle of all creatures
Passing in and out of life
Who move also in a dance
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments.
– The Larger Circle, by Wendell Berry