Confucius said that we have two lives and that the second begins when we understand that we have only one. What if this was true not only of each and every one of us but also of our institutions, of our democracy, of our very species?
What if we weren’t invulnerable? This is one of the great lessons of Covid-19. Accepting our vulnerability is the first step towards realizing, collectively, that educating in compassion and transmitting our experiences of solidarity are essential. It is also an opportune moment, for public decision, to consider the subject of care and attention to others, of “care”, as a priority.
The gaps between winners and losers keep widening , and the pandemic has exacerbated the phenomenon. Is faith in meritocracy responsible for this? This ideal, associated with the regular functioning of democratic institutions, with the belief in the autonomy and freedom of action and decision of citizens, is in fact highly unequal, leading Western societies to what the American philosopher Michael Sandel called a real “tyranny of merit” .
In the end, everyone loses if this illusion continues, even the winners, because, caught in perpetual competition, they have broken with the idea of taking care of themselves, including themselves. The feeling of a legitimate superiority nourishes the conviction of merit. In the United States, in France and elsewhere, the elites are very largely the result of social reproduction where the weight of inheritance, in financial terms or in terms of career, is considerable.
In many ways, meritocracy has replaced aristocracy and this logic ends up fueling discontent, discouragement, even resentment and frustration, which lead to anger, violence and populism.
For an ethics of humility
In order to refocus on the common good, it is essential to move from competition to cooperation, to reduce inequalities and to break with a logic of exploitation of others and of the planet. The ethics of humility that Sandel calls for is more favorable to the common good. The current context invites us to do so more than ever. We sensed our collective vulnerability. Long marginal, work and discourse on the fragility of the terrestrial ecosystem and the biosphere had, even before the pandemic, gained broad layers of public opinion. The Covid-19 has amplified the phenomenon: this is where we are changing, if not of people, at least of times.
We have become aware of this, at all scales: individual or even intimate with the effects of restrictions on our social and emotional lives, and even collective and global through the multiple effects of the health crisis on the organization of our ecosystems, our savings, of the spaces we inhabit. We have overexploited the planet, depleted biodiversity and the backlash is proportional to the sense of omnipotence that has moved us for decades.
A major political and geopolitical dividing line is therefore brought to light. The choice that we must together make is simple. Many, already, among the “deserving”, panic: the fear of a loss of reference marks badly conceals the fear of seeing privileges disappear and of crumbling between-selves of sociability, thought, power. And yet, what is revolutionary is to put care in each of our activities and to recognize its irreplaceable character. It is being more in the individual compassion, in other words in the comprehension of the emotions of the other, but it is also and, above all, to break with the structural logics of domination.
As noted by the philosopher Sandra Laugier, who in 2005 co-edited a book entitled Le Souci des autres, éthique et politique du care :
“The fact that individuals take care of others, care about them and thus watch over the ordinary functioning of the world, all of this goes without saying in normal times, we do not see it. There is something extremely new about paying attention to people who were taken for granted that they were there to serve, and whose function today appears to be central to the functioning of our societies ”
It is therefore a political project in which everyone has to gain, in the long term, because we are all affected. We were all born extremely vulnerable, and we remain so.
The fight against the pandemic thus makes awareness of our interdependencies more urgent and sensitive. When we fail to have a fair (geo) policy of vaccine and treatment dissemination, we collectively pay the price. Pockets of viruses will remain and, sooner or later, will come back to us like a boomerang.
We are also dependent on other species (biodiversity) and physicochemical factors in our environment (ozone, climate, pollution in cities, etc.). We are all on the same ship, and, on a universe scale, it is a very frail skiff.
So these are new narratives, new rules, new laws that we need to write, meant to protect the mechanisms by which we take care of each other and the planet, as individuals and as societies. Inevitably, this leads us to rethink, to overhaul the Enlightenment project: is it aimed at satisfying the interests of a few or of the wider world? If we look at the effects as much, if not more than the intentions, it is clear that the account is not there.
New Lights, more inclusive
The major global crises increase the need for international, intercultural and intergenerational dialogue. There is still a long way to go from awareness to action. And yet there are many examples around the world of these maxims being put into practice that we can learn from. The “Ubuntu” , for example, is an issue notion of Southern Africa, which refers to the idea of gratitude, “care” and interdependence. It says in substance: “I am what I am thanks to you” or “I am by what (because) we are”. Another way to put it could be: “it takes a whole village to raise a child”. Transmission is therefore a major lever for this new way of understanding reality.
But these subjects are absent from the programs of our meritocracy where young people compete with each other for the knowledge of yesterday. And, however, we can train them to cooperate with each other to meet the challenges of today and invent the world of tomorrow. We could, for our part, invite them to discuss our vulnerabilities or our differences of point of view on the same reality (for example by asking them to draw an object then to recognize that the drawing of the others, for different it. that is, represents the same thing).
What if we invite young people (and the less young) to play games and participate in activities (with family, at school, in our associations, our universities, our organizations) where we only win if everything does the world win? What if we organized an Olympiad of commitment where we would recognize their capacity to contribute to the common good?
As the European Year of Youth is about to begin, we could invite people to complete the Erasmus program, which promotes meetings between young people of different nationalities. What if we favored meeting the “foreigner”, anything that tends to make him familiar, promotes tolerance and living together? What if we realized that we belong to interlocking communities and even a very large family that includes all living beings and that we must learn to take care of each member of these communities?
Showing compassion is not only good for those who benefit, but also for those who help alleviate the suffering of others. This individual approach is coupled with a political, collective issue: it is about helping to define real social projects.
The countries which have best withstood the first waves of the Covid crisis are led by women who, through their experience, were able to say “we are in care” , while many men believed they were at war. Politicians who, like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, care for the most vulnerable help alleviate the ills of our societies are also widely re-elected. What if we were inspired by it in this election year?
Author Bio:Francois Taddei is Inserm Researcher, Director at the Interdisciplinary Research Center (CRI)