Diana Francis argues that extraordinary times have helped to revive the everyday kindness that must be at the heart of rebuilding a more caring, sustainable and secure world after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The current coronavirus pandemic comes in the wake of a long-awaited, slowly dawning recognition that what was known as ‘global warming’ has turned into climate crisis, an accelerating global disaster compounded by the fact that we human beings are rapidly destroying other species that are vital to the ecology of our planet and therefore to us.

Covid-19 is not the first ‘new’ disease epidemic of this century, only the first to have truly global consequences; SARS, MERS, Ebola and others have had devastating local impact. We can be sure that Covid-19 will be followed by further pandemics because of the continuous reduction in habitat for wildlife. Will this latest threat have brought us to the moment when decisive societal and political rethinking and action lead to the radical restructuring of our personal and collective lives? 

I have been encouraged by the many thoughtful articles published since the pandemic’s outbreak, suggesting kinder, more inclusive ways of living: new approaches to economics, new uses of technology, the rejection of consumerism and simpler, gentler lifestyles. The quiet streets and bird song have awoken old memories and a sense that all is not yet lost and that some sort of renewal could be possible.

Domination and imbalance

Many would argue that we have reached this time of crisis because of our very nature. Despite the glories of civilisations past and present, we have used our highly developed brains, our ingenuity and dexterity not only creatively but destructively and cruelly, seeking to subjugate each other, to serve our own greed and ambition, slowly and deliberately building the capacity to destroy our entire planet. However, historian John Keegan and anthropologists like Brian Ferguson and Raymond Kelly argue that organised, systemic warfare is a relatively recent phenomenon in the long reach of human social development and became established in different societies at widely different times.

Riane Eisler, among others, argues that there have in the past been highly developed and peaceable societies where the culture was peaceful and cooperative, characterised by gender equality and without great disparities in wealth. But increasingly the predominant model of power became hierarchical – specifically, patriarchal. ‘Real men’ were warriors and leaders and societies were characterised by cultures and structures of domination and violence, to the detriment of those they exploited within and beyond their bounds. The contest for dominance continues in today’s political and economic behaviour and systems, in the violence of militarism and the carnage of war.

Perhaps most damagingly of all to prospects of a future for humanity, the culture of domination has manifested itself in relation to the earth itself: its elements (regarded simply as ‘resources’ to be plundered) and the countless living species that inhabit it. It has made us insensible to their inherent worth and needs, and to our dependence on them. Too many human beings have yet to grasp that there is now not only one global and interdependent human society but one planetary ecology and biosphere to sustain us.

The potential for change

The good news is that human cultures can and do change. We are a species with the capacity to think new thoughts, understand things differently and make different choices. Even the new circumstances in which we are currently living have changed our behaviour. What many of us are noticing during the relative isolation of the Covid-19 lockdown is that we and others are being kinder and more friendly than we can remember, greeting people we don’t know in the street, as we cross the road to avoid proximity, chatting with neighbours as never before and making frequent phone calls to those we know who live alone or contacting old friends we haven’t spoken with in years. Community networks have sprung up and have recruited unexpected numbers of volunteers to support those who need help.

In ‘normal times’, when lives are more pressured, this kindness is not so often expressed; yet when someone falls in the street, many people will rush to their aid; when someone is drowning, strangers will risk their lives to rescue them; and, more mundanely, many will still give up their seat on a bus or train to someone who looks in need of it. In recent years it has been argued that kindness is fundamental to human nature and Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, supports this positive view , offering the antidote to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies with the true story of a group of Tongan boys, similarly marooned together, who create their own small community of cooperative survival.

The ‘kin’ at the heart of ‘kindness’ means race or kind; also nature and the natural order. In the past, kin units may have failed to see each other as of one kind. But as the world has shrunk and societies have mingled, and as we begin to recognise that we live in one biosphere, we are slowly coming to recognise that humankind is one interdependent whole.    

The cooperation so desperately needed now has played a key role in the evolution of our human species. Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, in The Social Conquest of Earth, argues that ants (yes, ants!) and human beings are way ahead of all other species in their extreme sociability, having evolved in groups, with the most cooperative of them succeeding genetically. In addition, the size of the human brain and our linguistic capacity have given us levels of intelligence and creativity that are unique, making us capable even now of creating a ‘permanent paradise’ on earth.

Since Covid-19 reached our shores the number of inspiring poems and challenging, visionary articles in circulation has rocketed. Work that was once described as menial is now at last being honoured as vital, the gross societal injustices associated with race, class and gender are being brought afresh to our attention. And, significantly, it is women leaders who are offering the best leadership in the crisis, addressing their people empathically and reasonably and winning their cooperation. New Zealand’s premier Jacinda Ardern has said explicitly that she wants to her government to ‘bring kindness back.’

The UK government’s response to the crisis, particularly in terms of economic intervention, has stood past policy on its head, finding money where there was none and hugely increasing the role of the state in securing the wellbeing of society. This has opened up a public space in which ideas such as a universal basic income and a ‘doughnut economy’ can be seen to make sense, while the quiet roads, bird song and clean air open minds and hearts to the idea of radically reduced car use and simpler, greener lifestyles.

The tide turns…

There is a long way to go to reach any general recognition of the human and planetary threat posed by the militarisation of geo-politics and the need for serious steps to address it. However, the huge financial cost of militarism, together with its irrelevance (to say the least) to real security, have been given more attention than I can remember in mainstream media. Paul Rogers has revealed the potential paralysis of the UK’s nuclear weapons fleet during the pandemic. Marina Hyde’s mockery of the military metaphors used in relation to disease, and ‘fights’ against it, has exposed the deeply ingrained culture of militarism that needs to be addressed. Maybe the tide is starting to turn.

Many are asking in what ways our society will have changed when we emerge from the current crisis. We must move from wondering to determination, asking ourselves and each other how we can take this opportunity to ensure that we are beginning to move in a new and better direction, and starting to act. If we value democracy we cannot just leave it to government.

Our extreme sociability can result in a desire to conform and please others. When that prevents us from speaking out, it gets in the way of change. Now is the time to take social risks for the common good, to speak out loudly as well as with courtesy, resisting the tide of ‘business as usual’ and using all our social skills to communicate clearly and positively with those we need to persuade. We must share ideas as never before and build the practical cooperation and human solidarity that can create a different future. Each one of us has something to contribute. And now is the time. 

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

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