As the Covid-19 pandemic spun out of control, and a hurricane of germs blew across the globe, I watched a news clip of an Italian street artist musing on the state of his village. When asked how he was coping with his ghostly streets, he simply replied:
‘If I worry about it, or don’t worry about it, the situation remains the same’.
At first I swallowed his words as quaint wisdom, but the intellectual indigestion that followed made me realise that I want to influence the situation so that it doesn’t remain the same. This road side thespian sent me into an indignant rage. I agree that worry doesn’t solve anything, but doing something might.
I began to wonder.
What could I do that doesn’t start and end with worry and fear? With such an extraordinary pause to life, what new choices could I make? What could I learn from obsolete patterns?How could I thrust a new trajectory into my life?
In short, what could I do, and do well, almost immediately?
2020 has confirmed that all of us are connected in a relational web, and like it or not, we have to unite to battle a threat that respects no borders. History suggests that once in a generation, we have an opportunity to demonstrate the best of our collective, human nature. How startling, and century defining, that in 2020 we are confronted by not one, but two existential threats – chronic climate change and an acute global pandemic. But it has not ended there. As the virus choked us, and nature flourished while we were caged at home, a centuries-deep blight of racist sentiment reached its tipping point. A single act of brutality metered out on a North American sidewalk sparked an ultimatum to all those who ignore, deny and condone prejudice and discrimination. History tells us our time may have come, and it will judge us sharply on how we respond.
The coronavirus has dominated every aspect of life in 2020, and forced an entire overhaul of how we behave with each other. The injustices and inequalities of the world have been magnified, and the excuses of the status quo have become intolerable. We have learnt that the world can change very quickly when it really wants to. A hemisphere-spanning question has been asked:
If we can change laws, shift behaviour, take immense economic punishment and endure unimaginable losses to save the health of humanity, why can’t we do more to stop systemic behaviours that throttle the potential and opportunities of the majority of the planet?
As the challenge to change mounts, so a collective, historical impotence has been revealed. It’s clear that we have generally failed to convert insight and knowledge into action and demonstrated change. The moral compass has been pointing us in the right direction for a long time, but we stay stuck, not daring to take a collective step towards it.
Worst of all, we keep talking about how important the compass’s message is, but stay stubbornly far from the summit we know needs to be scaled.
We are a morally impotent majority.
I believe we are all challenged to reflect on the moral resonance with which we re-enter our lives, our relationships and ultimately our choices. Crises such as these can polish unexpectedly great leaders, reveal the biggest catapults forward, and uplift our collective awareness and conscience towards the summit of betterment for all. How do we convert the moral compass bearing into a shift in our own behaviour, and along the way, our community, society, country, continent, and world?
Moral potency is the antidote to moral impotence, not only immorality, and this is how we can express it. First, we need to have awareness and ownership over the morals that exist in our environment. Next, we need to believe that we can act and influence the moral direction within our context. Finally, we need to convert this awareness and belief into the courage needed to take action (despite the resistance we might face from ourselves and others).
Unfortunately 70% of people have moral awareness but lack the belief and courage to influence and champion action. If that stat doesn’t sum up the state of the world, then I’m not sure what does. We have become morally impotent, and spend most of our time talking, debating, complaining, and judging each other’s moral transgressions, rather than making it better through our own observable behaviour. Apparently, most of us succumb to moral disengagement, and excuse away our impotence to not having a voice, not feeling heard, being too small and too few (the list of rationalizations for a lack of courage goes on and on).
This collective impotence could be seen as a dangerous level of complicity that reinforces the injustice, inequality and global crisis of our era.
There are six forms of moral disengagement that serve to lessen the perceived severity of a moral transgression, and thus diminish our sense of responsibility over it. These tend to sneak up on us, slowly seeping into our justifications and belief systems. Here’s a summary of how we may be tempted to behave in the face of a moral dilemma that requires courage and action. Which of these have you allowed to gnaw away at?
1. Advantageous Comparisons – usually this is used to compare our actions to more morally corrupt people and thus serve to justify and/or lessen the perception of our own moral transgression.
2. Justifications that attribute blame to victims – in this case we may identify the victim as the clear cause of the responsive action and again justify it.
3. Diffusion of responsibility – by blaming the action on the authority and demands of others, and in so doing abdicating responsibility.
4. De-humanising victims – by denigrating and belittling the ‘other’ as sometimes deserving and less human.
5. Ignoring the extent of the harm – through filtered information and inaccurate assumptions, and sometimes even false facts.
6. Using euphemisms – to sanitize the language to describe the action and create less of an emotional charge.
Each of these moral disengagements have perpetuated the inertia in attempts to tear down inequality, to tackle corruption, to halt rising lawlessness or halt environmental destruction and institutionalised racism. Sadly this list of challenges is getting longer and longer.
Of course, there is no silver bullet to fix this but we may have a chance, right now, to influence our closest network of family, friends and colleagues towards a moral higher ground. If we wish to grow moral awareness then let’s talk about right and wrong, and hear the various version of these inherent truths. There will be diversity in these views, but I am convinced we will find more commonality than variance. Let’s keep naming the small, moral transgressions and role model, repeat and reward what is right.
Let’s ask people the question ‘what do you mean by that?’ and ‘can you help me understand your thinking a little more’ when others seem to be blaming, judgmental, prejudiced or intolerant. Above all, challenge yourself and those around you to not fall into justifications for behaviour that has a misalignment to the inherent moral truths you have explored and shared.
Then, let’s build confidence, through small steps of activism that create more belief in our ability to steer the moral direction. Let’s do things that make a difference, like pick up litter, randomly help a stranger and buy more earth friendly products. Let’s do all of this for no accolade nor recognition, and see how it feels to be balancing our self-interest with the greater good.
Lets keep asking ourselves what the hard things are we might find easy to ignore.
Finally, lets be courageous and take a stand. This is best done with others. Start in your street, at your school, in your team or place of worship. It doesn’t have to be all consuming, but it should be fractal with small actions that are repeated every day.
I think the biggest challenge for many of us is to avoid cynicism and the compulsion to simply leave, avoid the issues or keep quiet. History shows that if we persevere, we can reset our trajectory into the future. In the end, we always know what was right and what went wrong. We now need to decide if we will become the metaphorical soldiers of our generation and just do the right thing.
Whenever I lose heart I imagine that there are a million people each picking up at least 5 pieces of litter every day along side me. I then marvel at the 5 million-high pile of trash we collectively cleared off our streets yesterday, and today, and will do again tomorrow. I imagine a million of us paying forward R20 to people in need – that’s R 20 million per day, R 600 million per month . I smile at the prospect that a million of us step forward to contribute with kindness and appreciation to all those who serve us with humility and cheer – that’s a million acts of kindness and positive investments into the social contract. Equally I take comfort that there are a million of us that wont take a bribe, will be honest at all times and will role model to our families and children how to be net influencers of a better tomorrow.
I can’t wait for 2 million of us to be on this journey together and to start the ripple effect towards 2 billion of us. Will you join me?