When things are people
When I said, recently, that I thought people were treating each other shockingly these days a contributor to the conversation said that humankind had always been like that and always would be. I was startled by this remark in several ways. First, it implies that, notwithstanding our remarkable progress in scientific and philosophical knowledge, we have learned little or nothing about the Art of Living. Current events do tend to support this, of course.
Second, it implies that humans are not developing any further. With the age of artificial intelligence already upon us and the age of computing taking its next big leap into gigantic data processing, such a view is incredible. Third, it could suggest that all our learning so far has been for no purpose other than self-destruction. Fourth, it makes it seem that our sensitivity, the streak within us that enables us to feel joy and pain, is retarding.
My carpentry master at prep school was a formidable character called Mr Basil Hirons. At 90+ he walked thirty miles across the Malvern Hills to and from the school to teach us, three days a week. He taught me much more than woodwork. His perception of his pupils, their needs and how to teach them was very advanced for the world of 1940. Of the range of wisdom I heard from him one sticks out to this day.
It is that those who treat things roughly will probably treat people roughly. A simple suggestion with a profound lesson. How it has been played out on the British Brexit scene! An issue which is essentially neighbourliness has been reduced to lies, to the twisting of an age-old constitution to suit scoundrels and to behaviour towards an old and much respected Monarch that doesn’t befit the meanest of republicans. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Brexit, the antics of politicians and their advisers has been, by any standards, unacceptably disgraceful.
We get repetitive talk of leadership all the time. It seems to be counterproductive. Every mentor and coach is hearing the same story. Rotten treatment by boses, by employers, by big business, by government, by officialdom, in some jurisdictions by judges, in some countries by policemen, in many places by priests. ‘Thy neighbour as thyself…’ was a tenet of all religions. Religions have, perhaps, been the guiltiest of all in breaking the rule.
Many individuals have struggled to obey this simple concept of compromise. But the example of those in authority is often so appalling that less powerful mortals give up trying. If computer games suggest death as the riposte to any challenge, death will, for the young, become the norm. That death arises more immediately through climate change than through any other source. For it is how we treat the things of the planet that will tell us how we treat each other.
Never before in the history of the world has there been such a cause and effect issue. The risks we now take every hour of every day with our immediate future are there for all to see. Our media coverage of every cause of melting ice, of polluting air, of dangerous waste, of species destruction, is in our face, if not yet as fully in our Facebook. We cannot claim ignorance as a reason for ignoring what is happening to us.
But surely we can hide behind wealth to stave off the impact of climate destruction? Yes, and the poorest have always borne the brunt of bad behaviour by the wealthier. Pictures of deprivation of others quickly become ignored or accepted as part of the price of life (or in their case, death). Wealth has become – and brought with it – such entitlement. An examination of its source often – perhaps even usually – disqualifies most rights to its use.
Somebody else’s wealth will not solve climate destruction.
How we treat things, it turns out, exactly reflects how we treat people.
Basil Hirons was right.