The world watched innocent Parisian’s slaughtered, in a land of refuge, liberty and equality. Bombs rained down in Syria, UK politicians applauded passionate calls for joining the war, and the United States again refused to agree stricter gun laws despite violent shootings in schools and cinemas. The US also unearthed one of the least kind, most violent presidential candidates ever – a man who believes women are inferior to men, and shows it at every opportunity.
Our media focused on these events in the countries where we feel akin. However, the Sudan, Iraq, Somalia and various other less Western places suffered attack after attack from enemies of civil discourse.
Let’s be honest, 2015 has been a tough year; an unending reminder of why people switch off to politics and world affairs. It’s almost too painful not to. And ethicists have few, if any, solutions. We generally tell people the best they can do is to offer 10% of their salaries to good causes, or some other desperate plea for charity. I don’t agree that’s what we should do. 2016 can be a better year, and it’s about more than funding good causes. Here are 6 things you can do that will help to change things:
1. Differentiate between people and ideas.
As we wallowed in the aftermath of one of France’s worst ever terrorist attacks, people, bereft of ideas, allowed themselves to be drawn into a game of demonising innocent people. Muslims within Europe and the US suffered the backlash, despite having nothing to do with the attacks. The right-wing Front National in France, and Trump’s presidential candidacy in the US, have both prompted and implicitly supported such attacks. They’ve also both benefited from it.
My suggestion isn’t just as simple as ‘oppose bigots’, though. People turn to these bigots for answers when they see none in mainstream politics. Leftists, moderates and centrists alike refused to criticise the religious ideals of ISIS, instead simply pretending they “weren’t real Muslims”. These are sincere people (mainly men) who will kill themselves for what they believe Allah wants. Of course they are Muslims, in the same way that Catholics who denounce birth control and raise rates of HIV in Africa are Christians. We need to accept this, accept it is different to the Islam that most Muslims in our country believe in, and begin opposing it.
Bigots refuse to differentiate between people and ideas, and oppress all people who are remotely similar in look, skin colour or faith. But the rest of us are also to blame by refusing to differentiate, stating these people basically have no religious ideas. Both sides are wrong and playing a dangerous game of propaganda. The solution is finding the truthful middle ground that everyone can understand and get behind.
2. Don’t always follow the crowd.
We’re human. We like to fit in. But to change things, we also have to keep our calm and disagree. Providing rational reasons why, when others are wrong.
Our tolerance of people – as mentioned in the first point – often becomes a tolerance of bad ideas, and that should never be the case. With terrorism, we should protect Muslims whilst attacking the illiberal ideology of Jihad. To avoid war, we should use democratic process to protect civilians of the dictatorships, whilst arguing against violence.
But disagreeing when people are wrong goes much deeper than that. We should disagree with people who are promoting anti-vaccination campaigns, or pseudo-scientific medicine like homeopathy. These might seem harmless, but when practiced on a sincere level, bad medicine can persuade people to ignore life-saving treatment, and failing to vaccinate your child can endanger everyone who can’t get the vaccine (as well as your own children). If we allow this kind of suffering, we are doing no better than allowing for terrorist ideas to flourish. Suffering is suffering.
This is the most difficult thing of all to do. The people who promote these latter kinds of ideas tend to be caring, genuine people, and disagreeing with their core beliefs will likely change nothing. But to know you respectfully and strongly believe otherwise can change their minds. It can also change the minds of others in society, who might otherwise have followed their path. A strong movement for truth is often separated from the fight for justice, but the two are likely intimately connected.
3. Avoid discontinuous beliefs.
Disagreement means having the bravery to stand up for what’s right or what’s true, no matter how insignificant. That’s important, as a world of people who speak the truth is a better world than one where people go along with what everyone else says. But for that world to have value, you also have to challenge yourself.
That belief you have in feminism, does it translate to respect for Trans people? The will you have to protect the innocent, does it apply also to people who don’t share your beliefs? And that strong belief in fairness and ending suffering, does it transfer to animals? Before you disagree with anything, make sure your own beliefs are right. Taking a stand for your own personal bias isn’t going to help anyone; that’s just imposing your own beliefs on other people. Make sure they are right first.
4. Remove the invisible line you draw between the suffering of humans and other animals.
Save that last paragraph in point 3, I’ve mentioned little about animals so far. Why would I? This year we’ve seen war, heartless terrorism encroaching on our doorstep in a way which chills the spine, and bigotry of worrying proportions. For me to mention animals at all might seem to be misjudging the feelings of my reader.
Whilst I too have a deep-seated belief that human suffering is more important to eliminate than animal suffering, there are two reasons why I disagree with myself. Firstly, because drawing invisible lines between different individuals based on physical or mental characteristics is rationally bankrupt. It’s old fashioned, it’s out of date, and the lack of ability that animals have to voice their opinion about our use of them shouldn’t make us silent about it.
Secondly, to see a dog being tossed into a dustbin lorry, or to take in a shelter cat who has never known a human touch other than a kick, is to experience an emotional journey that unearths your own hypocrisy. We eat pigs, cows, and recently probably a turkey, that suffer in a way which is just as real as dogs and cats. We justify our actions with all kinds of ridiculous excuses – ranging from comparing ourselves to Lions, to arguing on behalf of human ‘culture’. And, when we run out of excuses, we simply say “I couldn’t stop”.
Forget terrorism, forget war, if we have become a culture of humans who “can’t” buy different things in the supermarket in order to stop mass torture, I truly despair for what we have become. We surely aren’t the same species as Emily Davidson or Frederick Douglas, are we? The struggle for justice used to be a lot harder, and people back then not only “could“, they “did”.
Every year, without fail, we see celebrities – be they chefs or Hollywood actresses – conducting a campaign on behalf of farmed animals. They do little, because they think little of us, their audience. They think we need to eat animals, or that we have to eat all animals. As a result they promote questionable uses of those animals like ‘free range’ (which in 99% of cases doesn’t provide much of an improvement for the chicken, who knows nothing but the huge suffering she still experiences), telling us they are definitely better than how we currently kill and eat them.
I don’t honestly think most of us even buy this kind of reasoning. But we go along with it, as it’s a social excuse to continue doing what we do. We’ll give 50p to an animal charity on the street, another £20 at xmas maybe. That’s the moral equivalent of running foxes over all year, then donating to a fox sanctuary once a year. It’s not the actions of an honest, rationally capable person.
All of which brings us nicely to the final suggestion: do something!
Of course it’s important what you do. Those celebrities who promote ‘free range’ methods of farming are like the other republican candidates, being partially bigoted in order to win over more moderate Trump supporters. It does nothing to buy free range, just like it does little to support Carson rather than Trump. Acting itself is not enough, it has to be rational.
But you do have to act. Giving money isn’t enough. Charities do good, but they can’t do much if you don’t. They exist against a constant barrage of opposition, because our apathy allows their opposition to thrive. Vote for political parties that actually do good things, rather than paying for food banks to undo some of the Tories evil. Those are the same Tories you voted for in the first place, or the same Tories which you refused to debate your friends about, or refused to campaign or even write Facebook posts against, last May! Stopping causing problems is the key to a better world.
When we’ve lived through a year like 2015, there is of course a feeling of apathy. It’s painful to keep watching what is going on. There’s also a culture of fear, and as a result we vote for unscrupulous, unkind politicians to protect us from our enemies. But we must remember that doing this is how we got to where we are.
We must also remember that things aren’t actually that bad. They could be a lot better, but things have gradually improved over the last few centuries. As the wonderful Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker, points out, there has never been a safer time to be alive around the world, despite how it feels.
That’s thanks to reason. People being less violent, more rational, valuing reason over prejudice, and valuing conversation over war. The media wants to tell us all of the bad things that are happening – and they should – but they should put them in the context of hope, rather than hopelessness. Things are getting better, but that won’t happen if you stop trying to make it better and instead settle back into a medieval feeling of hate, fear or bigotry. Similarly, the real path to progress is not in a tolerant pacifism alone, but a persuasive and passionate promotion of reason as well. A protection of all innocents, and the creation of a global culture of tolerant, secular politics.
I don’t think that if you go out and do the 5 things that I have written above, then the world will be a peaceful utopia this next time year. But I do believe that a year is a long time, and things can get an awful lot better in that time. This is how you make it happen.