The philosopher George Santayana once said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Perhaps it is also important to know what to remember and what to forget. Those who do not remember the extraordinary truces of the World War I trenches, or who do not learn of Gandhi, Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Viljoen, Tutu, the extraordinary statements of many ordinary people in the South African TRC etc., are condemned to be less likely to repeat them. (Hemmingway - “As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”)
After the pogrom against the Sikhs in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi made infamous Newton’ First Law of Motion by justifying the horror with the statement - ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’. This statement is often made for justifying negative emotions. But what can be done is to use it to justify positive emotions. During his debate with Tilak about the interpretation of the Gita, Gandhi refuted Tilak’s justification of violence by saying:
The text from the Bhagavad Gita shows to me how the principle of conquering hate by love, untruth by truth, can and must be applied. If it be true that God metes out the same measure to us that we mete out to others, it follows that if we would escape condign punishment, we may not return anger but gentleness even against anger. And this is the law not for the unworldly but essentially for the worldly
A study found that cooperative behaviour is contagious and that it spreads from person to person. And it takes only a handful of individuals to really make a difference. When people benefit from kindness they "pay it forward" by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network. Groups with altruists in them will be more altruistic as a whole and more likely to survive than selfish groups. (Oscar Wilde - “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” )
I have never seen violence or even been near a scene of violence. I have only read about the horrible acts of violence that people commit on each other and get sickened by it. Probably the same is the case with the majority of people who read this blog. About the only type of violence I have enjoyed is a statement by P G Wodehouse (I think he put it in the mouth of Bertie Wooster): 'Whenever I get that sad, depressed feeling, I go out and kill a policeman. '
In contemporary times, people kidnap girls and sell them into slavery, commit atrocities like slitting a person's throat and, instead of being scared and concealing them, display the evidence online, enjoying the horror it creates. As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats said, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ To merely accept that this is the kind of world we live in and agree with received wisdom about the selfishness of human nature would prove right Goebbels’ perverse prediction: “Even if we lose, we shall win, for our ideals will have penetrated the hearts of our enemies.”
Antonio Gramsci once talked about pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will. Pessimism of the intellect means accepting nothing at face value, doubting all that we are told, and questioning everything, not in the spirit of cynicism but of scepticism. But always, pessimism of the intellect needs to be balanced by optimism of the will. In other words, see the world as it really is, warts and all, but still forge ahead tenaciously. It is a powerful warning against wishful thinking and simultaneously a cry against resignation.
Logical analysis of a situation may lead the intellect to despair, but we can’t let anxiety overwhelm and paralyse us. The underlying lack of conviction, the absence of an optimism of the will, influences how we see ourselves and events every day. P.G. Wodehouse once said, 'I can detach myself from the world. If there is a better world to detach oneself from than the one functioning at the moment I have yet to hear of it.' And if we still wonder how an insignificant individual action can make any difference, Adam Smith has the answer.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he describes his concept of an invisible hand using a moral example rather than a monetary one showing how individual choices can lead to important social outcomes. We decide what is proper and improper and what is honourable and noble and kind. We give our approval to honourable behaviour and our disapproval to dishonourable behaviour. All these patterns of behaviour around us come from all our actions together thereby setting the norms by which society functions. And few of us realize that we play a role in creating these norms and values.
There’s no way to legislate the virtues of courtesy, kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion, honour and integrity. No statute could be written to enforce them or to punish their opposites. They are best encouraged — and their opposites discouraged — by human interaction. A society of decent behaviour is created through the signals of approval and disapproval we send to each other and through the admonitions we give to our children. We create the understandings of behaviour that we each in turn use to moderate our self-centredness.
Smith is saying that our choices matter. When we honour bad people or avoid good people, we are playing a role in degrading the world around us. When you honour honourable behaviour by others, you play a role in breaking an unvirtuous circle. Being good encourages others to be good. It’s a small role, almost negligible. But together, our combined actions are decisive. As Goethe said, “When you take a man as he is, you make him worse. When you take a man as he can be, you make him better.” (See How Adam Smith can change your life by Russell Roberts.) Robert M. Sapolsky says in Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst:
Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can actually fix something, can make things better. But we have no choice but to try. And if you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so. You’ve amply proven you have intellectual tenacity.
You probably also have running water, a home, adequate calories, and low odds of festering with a bad parasitic disease. You probably don’t have to worry about Ebola virus, warlords, or being invisible in your world. And you’ve been educated. In other words, you’re one of the lucky humans. So try.