Image for It’s up to all of us

At the end of last week’s ABC Late Night Live RN Talks: Fixing The System, presenter Fran Kelly’s final comment “It’s up to all of us” reminded me of advice Mahatma Gandhi once gave to those seeking change: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

In response, the following comment was posted about a person trying to do exactly that. It included the following copy of a handwritten plea to our newly-elected politicians to address some of the matters of most concern.

Dear X,

This is a ‘cri de coeur’ and plea for your help. It is from a politically non-aligned, disengaged and increasingly disaffected and despairing aged pensioner. Like many of our fellow Australians, I really fear for the wellbeing of our beloved country unless we all seriously address the following concerns.

1. Climate Change. We have an extreme emergency, requiring much more urgent and radical action than is presently proposed if we are to avoid catastrophic consequences. At the very least, we need to drastically reduce emissions, stop building new coal mines, phase out existing ones and convert to 100% renewable energy ASAP.

2. Cruelty to our fellow human beings. Surely we can find ways to “stop the boats” without blaming the victims and punishing asylum seekers as a further deterrent. Our current offshore processing policies are cruel and bring nothing but shame upon us all. There must be better ways to both “stop people smuggling” and respect human dignity.

3. Cruelty to our fellow creatures. The live animal export trade is a national disgrace. It should be abolished, as in New Zealand. So too is our treatment of caged birds and penned pigs. Surely we can do better than base our economy and lifestyle on such cruelty.

4. Overseas Aid. I believe we have a moral duty to alleviate the extreme suffering of “others” wherever we can. As one of the richest countries of the world, we can and should significantly increase, rather than reduce, our overseas aid budget, from the present 0.32% to at least 0.5%GDP.
 
5. Transparency & Accountability. There should be a limit to political donations and full disclosure as they occur. We need a federal ICAC. The publication of reports about government activities should be encouraged and their writers protected.

I have faith that you are a good person who wants to make a meaningful contribution in public life. Are you willing to increase efforts to significantly advance any of the above matters as a member of parliament?

What about at a personal level?

Like any concerned citizen, I try to do my bit. I am reducing my once high personal carbon footprint. I have reduced my consumption of meat by 90%. I have pledged to give at least 10% of my aged pension to the most effective charities to address the above concerns. I am inspired by those who do much more than me and by the increasing numbers who are now joining this movement to “be the change they want to see”, and feeling all the happier for making the effort.

I have faith that you are a good person with high ethical and moral values. Are you willing to join with me, and many other like-minded concerned citizens, in any of these personal initiatives?

Together I am sure we can make a difference.

Yours sincerely,

X

A ‘cri de coeur’ is a cry from the heart and is defined as “a passionate appeal, complaint or protest.“ Clearly this qualifies. It is a cry that I believe lies unspoken just under the surface of all of us who are naturally concerned about the kind of world we have created and are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren.

We know intuitively that something is seriously wrong but feel so overwhelmed by it all that we either flee into vehement denial (“There really isn’t a problem.”), defensiveness (“It’s not my fault.“), blame (“It’s the governments and the big corporations.”), moral indignation (“It’s all those other insensitive, greedy bastards.”), self-righteousness (“I’m entitled to my indulgent lifestyle. I work hard and deserve it.”), avoidance (“I haven’t got time to deal with this now.”), displacement (“It’s somebody else’s problem” - Douglas Adams’ SEP); helplessness (“There’s nothing I as an individual can do about it.”), imperfect solution excuses (“If there is not a perfect solution, then we are entitled to do nothing.”); resort to magical thinking (“There’s sure to be a technological magic wand just around the corner. God/science will save us.”); fatalism (“It’s too late, we’re all already doomed.”); and/or, finally, collapse into paralysis (“It’s just all too hard and I cannot deal with it.”).

The result is that we deny, avoid or disavow reality. And what is so alarming is that our current culture relentlessly encourages us in this. Rather than performing its traditional critical function of helping us understand, face and deal creatively and constructively with reality, the prevailing dominant culture actively undermines our capacity to do so.

As psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe, author of Engaging With Climate Change and many papers since, points out:

Care starts with a determination to face the real picture, and the real picture is that the present dominant culture – I call it the culture of uncare – actively undermines our capacity to care.

It relentlessly promotes the false belief we can solve problems not in real ways but by rearranging our way of seeing the problems so they no longer have the power to disturb us ...

She points out just how pervasive this trend has become in our culture.

The false belief that we can dispense with reality when it stands in our way or disturbs us has now entered a triumphalist phase. American neo-liberal politicians triumphantly refer to the reality-based community as a thing of the past: “The reality-based community believes that solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality. … that’s not the way the world really works anymore. We are an empire now and … we create our own reality”.

This is hubris gone mad. If we create our own reality – or, more likely, allow others to create it for us – we do so at our individual and collective peril. However much we want to kid ourselves, creating our own reality to make us feel better will not save us from the reality of climate change, the reality of animal cruelty, the reality of mass human displacement, the reality of extreme poverty, the reality of political corruption, and the acceptance of that part of our nature that – let’s acknowledge it – does not care. The only thing that can save us is facing the truth about ourselves and our world and caring enough about it to act upon it individually and collectively.

The proof that we don’t want to deal with this can be seen in the difficulty we all have talking about most of these subjects seriously with our friends and the discomfort we feel when our attitudes are exposed and questioned. There is always the proverbial elephant in the room that we are fearful to disturb because of the risk to the relationship. Our inability to talk about the intense grief and alarm we feel at the state of our world, in which we are all fully implicated, means we cannot gain the collective strength to face it and deal with it together. Such difficult conversations can only be undertaken with great care and mutual respect because they are often so painful. However, we need the courage to have more of them, and soon.

It is impossible to address in one article all the concerns raised in the opening plea to pollies. So let me say a few words about a subject that has received no publicity during this election campaign – foreign aid.

Here our culture encourages us to believe in the myth of our exceptional generosity rather than to recognise the less-flattering reality.  We are constantly being told that “Australians are among the most generous people in the world”. However, once one actually examines the evidence, it is difficult to regard such a claim as much of an achievement to be proud of, either individually or as a nation.

The reality is that, individually, only 35.6% of taxpayers make any tax-deductible donations to charities and on average they give only 0.32% of their taxable income. As a nation, we currently allocate 0.32% of our GNP to foreign aid, with the threat of that being reduced to 0.22% after the May budget.

And this in one of the wealthiest countries in the world!

According to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2015: “Australia’s wealth per adult in 2015 is $USD 364,900, the third highest in the world after Switzerland and New Zealand. Its median wealth of $USD 168,300 is second only to that of New Zealand … The proportion of those with wealth above $USD 100,000 is the highest of any country – over eight times the world average.”

According to one comparative evaluator of personal income wealth ( https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/ ), an individual living alone in Australia solely on the aged pension of around $AUD 22,500 is still – all things considered - in the world’s wealthiest 12%, while a person with a relatively low tax-deductible income of $42,000 is in the top 5%, and anyone earning over $90,000 is in the top 1%.

By any standards and irrespective of the method of calculation, it is clear that we are individually and as a nation extraordinarily wealthy. And relative to our wealth, we actually give very little indeed to charity.

It needs also to be acknowledged that most of what we do give in both money and volunteering is, while valuable and important, largely self-serving. It is not directed to alleviating the extreme suffering of the majority of our fellow human beings who live outside our own community.

We see footage of world poverty on the news and in charity advertising all the time but somehow we find ways to disavow the reality of it and our deepest feelings about it. In doing so, we create a dislocation in our inner world. We cut ourselves off from that part of us that instinctively does care. To deal with the anxiety of that loss of integrity, we have to fool ourselves that we don’t really need to worry about this problem and the prevailing culture of uncare subtly supports us in this.

The dominant culture allows us to dismiss global poverty as “somebody else’s problem”; to believe that we are under no moral obligation to come to the aid of “others”; that the victims are somehow responsible for their own misfortune; that we are in no way implicated in the system that produces such global injustice; that we cannot be sure that the money we give to overseas charities is getting to the right people or doing any good; and so on.

In this way, the culture of uncare discourages us from acknowledging the simple truth – that there are people just like us who desperately need our help; that our basic impulse is to care and to help if we can; that nearly all of us really can afford to be much more generous and give much more than we currently do (yes, we might have to do without a few luxuries); and that we all need to share more of our incredible good fortune, because it is the right thing to do. After all, isn’t that what we tell our kids?

I would invite readers to watch Peter Singer’s or Beth Barnes’ TEDX talks about Effective Altruism on Youtube ...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Diuv3XZQXyc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtWINl3C_7s


... or read my earlier article Pippa’s Dilemma: the Moral Demands of Affluence (http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php/article/pippas-dilemma-the-moral-demands-of-affluence ), or consult the websites of The Life You Can Save, Giving What We Can, Give Well and the recently-formed Effective Altruism Australia (https://effectivealtruism.org.au/?gclid=CO261OmUyc0CFQwjvQod_T0CHg ) and ( http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/Where-to-Donate/GiveDirectly ). These clearly demonstrate how our actions, both individually and collectively, can make a very significant difference to the lives of others.

This is also obviously the case with all the other inter-related matters of major concern. It applies especially to climate change, which should be regarded as a first-order priority. It is clear that if we don’t change our direction, we will all end up where we are heading!

Which brings us back to that opening ‘cri de coeur’. Here is a voice of sanity. It identifies some important concerns, owns the feelings, accepts responsibility for being part of the solution as well as part of the problem, reclaims a sense of personal integrity and agency, resolves to take personal action and seeks a community of kindred spirits. The cynics will probably respond to it as a futile gesture. Ghandi offers a different vision. Which view prevails is in the balance and is really up to each and every one of us.

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Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.

• Bob Hawkins in Comments: Thanks Scott. Wise words. From my “It’s too late, we’re all already doomed” perspective, I find myself “if only-ing”. Ghandi offers us a way. Sadly his words address a life form (in the shape of the monster that is its whole) without the mindfulness even to slow in its destructive course and contemplate his advice.

• Lyndall Rowley in Comments: Magnificent piece of writing Scott. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! I would, however, add one more concern to the five already listed - ‘Population’.  In my opinion, the major driver and underlying cause of the majority of concerns is unsustainable population growth. We must face up to this stark and complex self-inflicted reality. Having accepted in full your cri de coeur and urgent need for a collective (even societal global) mind-shift & action, I would then sincerely and respectfully ask the most difficult question of all: HOW?

• Michael Dello-Iacovo in Comments: … As Jeffrey Sachs has argued in his great book The End of Poverty, developing nations just isn’t as corrupt as people think they are. He has more points and data to back that up, but I’ll just defer to him here. The point is that, while money donated to charities working in foreign nations might be misused sometimes, they are used well most of the time and lead to vast improvements in living conditions and wellbeing for people. This sort of risk should encourage us to use independent analysers of charity like GiveWell to make sure our foreign aid budget and personal donations are having as much impact as possible, rather than shying away from foreign aid altogether. …