“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings. How eager they are to kill one another. How fervent their hatreds.” – Carl Sagan
Many will find some disagreements with what I’ve written here, but perhaps we can start on a statement few would dispute: 2020 has sucked.
Whenever I think back to last Hogmanay, it feels like a lifetime ago, surrounded by friends and watching the fireworks in Edinburgh. If only we’d known that our calls for a ‘Happy New Year’ would be proven to be so naïve. The world of 2020 is truly unrecognisable from the one we lived in before.
On a personal level, things have gone pretty well for me in 2020. My business has gone from strength to strength; I bought my first home, and I started a new relationship. I’m also fortunate to be surrounded by a loving family, and our ‘extended household’ makes the challenges of the Covid-19 world just a little bit more tolerable. I’m aware that my advantages aren’t universally shared, and that many have it far worse.
Some would call them ‘privileges’.
As well as a global pandemic, 2020 also saw the further ascension of the postmodern ‘social justice’ movements as they reached unprecedented cultural dominance.
This had been coming for a long time. Postmodern ideologies which ask us to reframe relationships between people as not being interactions between individuals, but rather as power dynamics between representations of different demographics, have created a new moral paradigm in western societies which inverts Martin Luther King Jr’s dream. We’re no longer being asked to judge people by “content of character”, but rather to see them through the lens of their “categories” such as sex and race and make presumptions based upon these. I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but Douglas Murray’s book ‘The Madness of Crowds‘ (2019) feels like an essential read for making sense of what’s going on.
For a long time, a lot of this was contained within the universities, but in recent years it’s begin spilling out into the “real world”. My own interpretation is that this all turbo-charged in 2016. While most of the modern intersectional theories have simmering away on the internet for a while, the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump to the White House seemed to push the political left wing off the deep end, adopting most of the radical tenets at breakneck speed. Postmodern activists, feeling backed into a corner, came out fighting to claim the territory it could – and in the process, mostly abandoning it’s calls for economic reform. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ has been traded in for “dismantling” the “cis-hetero white patriarchy”.
Cynical reinterpretations of human dynamics graduated from the universities and moved into the HR and “ethics” departments of the public and private sector. We’ve seen a fairly rapid ideological takeover; one intensified by the desire of every multinational desperate to appear ethical and socially conscious to consumers. This has often been a marketing gimmick to disguise dubious business practices elsewhere (whether that be tax avoidance or poor working conditions in overseas sweatshops), but increasingly we’ve found ourselves facing bizarre scenarios such as Ben and Jerry’s denouncing the British Home Secretary on immigration. Far be it for me to tell a frozen goods giant how to do their job, but I don’t typically see it as appropriate for an ice cream producer to be influencing public opinion on foreign policy.
In short; a new generation of ideologues – desperate to push their agenda – have mixed with an embedded corporate elite adapting with the times to keep their heads above water.
So far, so 2016 – 2019. But it was 2020 when things went off the scale.
It’s not hard to understand the catalyst: the understandable and justified outrage at the death of George Floyd. The horrific sight of a man being suffocated by those entrusted to protect the community rightly sparked international condemnation. No right-thinking person could fail to horrified by such an abuse of power, and the moral obligation on civil society to oppose police brutality and racism is surely justified.
In the context of a pandemic, however, public protests can clearly have unintended consequences – not least of which is the risk of accelerating the spread of the virus.
International lockdowns – intended to protect vulnerable citizens from the spread of coronavirus – were abandoned as many felt a just reason to leave their homes and protest. After weeks cooped up indoors – patience thinning in a home-made pressure cooker – thousands left their homes en masse to make their voice heard.
And once the sanctity of respecting lockdown was broken, it never fully recovered.
Calls for us to “stay home to protect the NHS” morphed very quickly into a “with us or against us” binary. Instagram was awash with black squares replacing profile pictures to show solidarity. Pausing to ask whether gathering in large groups would risk the spread of the virus – an act which would almost certainly lead to the hospitalisation and death of many more people – was roundly condemned by the most vocal and extreme of activists as complicity in systemic oppression.
Such a simplistic narrative doesn’t reflect reality, of course. There is always room for nuance, and anyone who approaches this situation honestly can see the obvious tension between the right to publicly protest and reducing the spread of the virus.
For my own part, I have also questioned the motivations of many of those posting black squares: is this a sincerely meant act, or the latest bandwagon effect to signal “I’m a good person”? Perhaps it’s just me, but I believe those of us who believe in living our lives with a basic respect for others – regardless of sex, race, or other characteristics – don’t worry about trying to prove it, or being seen to prove it.
The story doesn’t end there, of course. Across the United States, riots and public unrest spread through the summer of discontent – while Donald Trump’s complete failure of leadership threw fuel onto the fire. A more capable, responsible leader would have called for unity and healing; Trump, seeing an election campaign issue, played to his base. Watching the chaos, division, and extremism sweeping across America in the summer was utterly depressing.
It’s important, of course, to recognise the distinction between peaceful protest (of which there were many) and the actions of violence, arson, looting, and vandalism. The former is a democratic right. The latter is anarchy. It’s hard not to look to the dystopia of CHAZ in Portland and not see a functioning society rapidly reduced to rubble.
And while the toppling of the Edward Colson statue in Britain may have been a cause of celebration for activists, anyone with any knowledge of the Cultural Revolution in China can clearly see the echoes of history repeating itself in the West. Purges often start with the toppling of monuments. Removing statues should be a democratic process; suspending law and order for a “quick fix” sets a terrifying precedent to ignore the rule of law.
Seeing the world solely through a postmodern lens – where everything is “problematic” and “oppressive” – is untenable.
This is not to say that there aren’t challenges in our world; far from it. Racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination certainly do exist. Systemic inequalities based upon decades of political inaction (whether negligent or wilful) will take time to address. Yet we cannot live our lives assuming the worst in all people; a “complicit until proven innocent” worldview, where people are expected to prove their purity or else have the worst assumed. An expectation that people do oppose these injustices has been the default in Western societies for quite some time now.
It’s particularly unhelpful for one’s mental health. A demand to prove yourself to the masses creates an obvious social pressure and tension; no one wants to be accused of not playing their part. Pandering to such expectations by vocally declaring your “allyship” online is, to my mind, often either about cynically increasing one’s own standing, or otherwise an attempt to keep the mob from coming to your door.
Bizarre narratives such as Robin DiAngelos’ ‘White Fragility’ – inexplicably creeping into the mainstream – have made it even worse; overthinking every interaction you have with a member of one of the “oppressed” demographics isn’t a healthy way to build authentic, meaningful friendships and relationships based on honesty and mutual respect, and constantly forcing yourself to be aware of your “privileges” at all times is a dementing, impossible to achieve ideal that could easily corrodes one’s self-esteem. For my own part, it’s hard not to think that reframing one’s social interactions entirely through this lens creates more division between people, rather than less.
The new moral paradigm claims that to see each other as equals is “problematic” by being blind to “oppression”; a deeply illiberal worldview that would ask us to make a great deal of assumptions and judgements about one another. It’s a cynical and dehumanising approach to human interaction, and personally, one that goes against every principle I have.
One of the best discussions on some of the above topics that I’ve listened to this year is between Coleman Hughes and Ayishat Akanbi (on the outstanding Conversations with Coleman podcast, which has been my most-listened to podcast of the year). I’d recommend listening to this in full.
With our conventional understanding of concepts such as equality and fairness suddenly and ferociously tipped on their head, how does anyone begin to navigate this with integrity and in good faith?
The astronomer Carl Sagan wasn’t simply focused on exploring the stars for it’s own sake. Sagan’s knowledge informed and shaped his perspectives and his understanding of humanity’s place within the cosmos. As Voyager-1 left our solar system in 1990, Sagan had the wisdom to convince NASA to turn the probe around and photograph the Earth from afar. The result – a striking image of Earth as a ‘Pale Blue Dot’ – exposed our planet in all it’s cosmic insignificance, and informed Sagan’s poem of the same name.
Sagan’s words should resonate with all of us: we live on a “small stage” and – when mindful of our place within the cosmos – all our interpersonal human struggles seem somewhat childish. To recognise this is the ultimate humility for our species.
Yet, like it or not, our species are the custodians of this dot, and for now we are the only species that we know of with the capacity to recognise what we have. Earth is our home, and it is our responsibility to care for it. Considering the vast scale of the universe, is it really such a big ask to care for such a small, tiny such dot as ours?
“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” – Carl Sagan
I would take this a step further. Recognising that we are all one species, living in one shared, tiny cosmic space, is it too much to ask that we treat the fellow inhabitants of out dot with compassion, understanding and respect?
Each of us is composed of the matter of the stars; the elements, minerals, cells and matter that compose us were all cooked in the some cosmic pot. We are all space dust, and all made of the same material. Furthermore, our genetic lineage shows us to share ancestry with all life on Earth. We may the cousins of apes, but through our understanding of evolution we see that we are also the distant cousins of all life on Earth, stemming back to the simplest of single-celled organisms. Our family tree is a vast one.
Taking a cosmic perspective of our planet and the many people who live on it surely puts things in perspective. For all of the division – whether political, cultural or otherwise – we are all one species living in one small space. And, to paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson: we are the universe experiencing itself.
Amongst humans, differences may be recognisable but are almost entirely superficial. We have far more in common than not, and all of us are trying to just get through life as best we can on our dot.
Yet, at this time in our history, it feels that those differences have become all-consuming.
One of the most memorable and influential books I’ve ever read is ‘Enlightenment Now‘ by Steven Pinker, which makes the clear case that the world is getting better. There are fewer wars now that at any other time in our history. More people have access to food, running water, medicine, housing, and peace that ever before. We have overcome countless diseases, famine, and drought. Life expectancy has extended in all countries. Less people live in extreme poverty. Less women die in childbirth. More countries enjoy democratic rights. In short; our world has been on the right track for a very long time, even if this doesn’t make headline news. His TED talk below, where he summarises many of humanity’s brilliant achievements, is well worth watching.
The world certainly wasn’t perfect, but it’s hard to argue that we weren’t on the right track.
Such a view goes against the prevailing narratives of our time.
If you were to listen to activists on the internet, you would assume our societies had never been more bigoted or oppressive. The fact that our societies – particularly in the west – are more free, wealthy, and integrated than at any other point in history may be hard to recognise when you grow up without awareness of the truly Herculean human struggles that came before.
At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many commentators naively hoped that the experience would be a unifying one. All of us, it was said, would suffer from this pandemic. There’s a caveat I would recognise here; the wealthier (with garden spaces and home luxuries) would inevitably have a better time than those in low incomes, less access to technology, and more confined living quarters. Perhaps, though – despite those undeniable disparities – going through a truly global and historical event together as a species could give us an increased sense of unity, and increase our compassion and empathy for others? In short; at the very least, perhaps this tragedy could build our humanity.
Evidently, this was naive.
At the core of the postmodern arguments being made is the belief that humans of different races, sexes, sexual orientation, etc. see the world through different lenses and have fundamentally different experiences of life. I would simply point out in response that every human who has ever lived has had a fundamentally different experience of life, and that his can be affected in an endless number of ways: our wealth, our education, our weight, our attractiveness, the health conditions we were born with, our friends and communities and our families… no two humans have ever had identical experiences. The great irony at the heart of intersectional “group” theory is that, once every factor has truly been considered in full, you end up back where you started: with an individual.
And yet, there are experiences that do unite us.
We are all born. We all die. We are all young. Some of us are fortunate to grow old. We all feel happy. We all feel sad. Excitement. Fear. Boredom. Thrill. Lust. Pain. We all feel love. We all feel loss. We are all human, and we all share those universal human experiences. And, as stated above, we are all “the universe experiencing itself”.
Furthermore, your demographic “category” says nothing about your character as an individual. When first meeting someone, we form our opinions on them based on our interactions. Are you a fun person to be around? Are you kind? Empathetic? A leader? A wallflower? Do you inspire others? Do you disperse the crowds and make people leave the room? Do I like you? Do I dislike you?
In short, most of us – I believe – still maintain that the “content of character” is the fundamental criteria through which we see someone.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Those are the fundamental characteristics by which to judge someone; not on arbitrary reference to their “category”. And even if someone makes a political claim or shares a point of view we don’t agree with, it is important we give them the benefit of the doubt. We often hear calls for increased “diversity”, but a diverse range of opinions on social issues has become increasingly unwelcome in our tribal societies.
Everyone carries around their own story and experiences. For some, those experiences will be shaped by their demographic. Women can and frequently do experience misogyny. Ethnic minorities in a country can and frequently do experience racism and discrimination. In some parts of the world, people are still killed simply for daring to love who they love. There are experiences that different demographics can collectively experience, and we can acknowledge that – and challenges those injustices where we see them. We can listen to the experiences of those who have experienced injustice, whilst also recognising that individual testimonies must be taken within a wider context or diverse points of view.
At the same time, we must not lose sight of the individual. Our empathy should extend to all human life, with a recognition that there is far more in common amongst us than that which separates us. For decades, the liberal ideal has been to move beyond simplistic “categorisation”. We need to recapture and embrace that ideal, rather than doubling down on enforcing a worldview that can only sees people as representations of their groups.
I also believe it takes a remarkable degree of arrogance to believe that the world would be better if only moulded in own ideals; we all believe that we’re right, and it takes discipline and humility to accept that we could be wrong, or that our activism could be counter-productive; dividing us into groups that can’t communicate, rather than bringing us together in good faith.
The political left, in particular, needs to return to it’s roots in understanding the role of class and wealth disparity in inequalities. Britain has always been divided between it’s elite, it’s middle class, and it’s working classes. Being ethnically white did nothing for those in the slums of the Industrial Revolution, and it’s doing precious little for those struggling with drug abuses and crimes in the schemes and streets of Glasgow now.
Additionally, we can’t all equally share the burden of caring for the planet. Struggling, forgotten communities such as Buckhaven or Methil and Fife can hardly be expected to take as active a role as, say, multinational corporations farming palm oil on an industrial scale. When people are struggling to get bread on the table, it’s a bit rich (pun-intended) to ask them to reflect on their complicity in systemic racism (particularly when the systems in place were instituted by remote governments, completely removed from their daily lives).
I suspect many of the most vocal activists simply live in bubbles. They haven’t travelled, and have a somewhat neo-Imperalist view that their ‘social justice’ interpretations of morality and justice are universal across the globe. They may be surprised, for example, to realise that many in Asia may have different values, traditions, and customs to those in the west – many of which may prioritise social cohesion over individual expression – and what that means in practice.
At the same time, I wonder if at the root of this is a search for purpose. Many young people in particular – lacking a sense of direction, lacking a shared sense of community in their local area, seeking a crowd to belong to – sign up to the movements of the day to find friendship, comfort, and “meaning” in their online tribes. It’s a clear substitute for religion – complete with confessions, atonements, and punishment of heretics. Cancel culture exists, despite the protestations of many of it’s advocates. It’s certainly not healthy in any society for people to lose their jobs because people on the internet disagreed with them.
In such a context, it can be hard to imagine members of the devout extending benefit of the doubt towards others.
I live my life through some fairly basic principles. At the core are three tenets: liberalism, humanism, and egalitarianism. I believe in treating all humans equally, believing all human life has equal worth, and that we should all be equal before the law. Even with those guiding principles, I don’t profess to have all the answers and I always strive to learn more. My hope is to encourage and promote those liberal values in others.
A liberal, humanist, egalitarian worldview certainly won’t automatically solve every injustice in the world, but I believe it gives us a good place to start.
There is cause for hope. The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the Oval Office, combined with the rollout of the new Covid-19 vaccines, gives us all an opportunity to move forward. Perhaps the divisiveness of the Trump era can be put to bed.
Some of the most inspiring acts I’ve seen this year – and every year – are not grand gestures to reform the world. I’ve seen people check in with friends and family suffering from loneliness. I’ve seen volunteers giving up their time to ease the burden of others. I’ve seen new campaigns, new groups, new networks… all to enrich people’s lives and build up their local communities. Far too many want to change the world overnight – an almost impossible (and hubristic) task – yet few recognise the remarkable impact small changes can have on the people round the corner. Even just picking up a litter picker and making the neighbourhood that little bit safer and cleaner can go a long way.
To quote Patrick Geddes, we should “think global, act local”, and I will always have far more respect for an individual who volunteers their time at the local foodbank that the undergraduate Twitter-user sharing the “social justice” hashtag of the day.
Inevitably, questioning popular doctrines of the day leaves one open to criticism, and I accept and expect it. Perhaps all I’ve written above is misinformed, and I remain open to discussion and debate. What I reject is absolutism, and I hope it is recognised that I make my arguments and claims in good faith.
As we build up better, stronger, healthier communities at home, we can demand more from our political leadership. Climate change is very real and existential threat to our planet, and while we can make small steps in our lives and communities to help, the reality is that addressing this on the scale needed to make a real difference is an act of international political will. While we’re obsessed with our infighting – whether over partisan politics, constitutional issues or race relations – the clock continues to tick.
My call to action is straightforward: enough with the tribalism and division. We’ve just lost four years fighting amongst ourselves over Trump and Brexit instead of trying to heal our planet and communities. Let’s not lose anymore time.
The challenges of the last year (and the last several years) will not disappear overnight. The tribal tensions between SNP and Labour, Democrat and Republican, “Woke” and Liberals are deeply ingrained. The pandemic ravages on (and, at time of writing, case numbers are rising drastically). Climate change continues to be one of the biggest challenges our species has ever known. Neither new vaccines or new political leadership are quick fixes to complex issues.
I hope that we can change; that we can see ourselves as one species in the cosmos. One not obsessed with the divisions between us, but rather one that sees itself as “humanity”, sharing a collective responsibility towards each other and our planet. I look to 2021 with a cautious optimism, and I hope that this can be the year we – maybe – can take those tentative steps to getting back on track.
Here’s to a Happier New Year.
Post-script: The legacy of Sagan was brought back into the spotlight a few years ago thanks to an outstanding follow-up and tribute in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by one of my personal heroes: Neil deGrasse Tyson.
For anyone yet to see this, I implore you to do so – it’s available on Disney+ and is an addictive and insightful watch. Personally, I’m of the opinion that it should be mandatory viewing for every pupil in every school throughout the world.