2018 Renate Kamener Oration                            August 26, 2018

 

“How can we live together?”

 

It is an honour to today deliver this oration in memory of a remarkable woman who, by example, taught us that it is possible for people to live together in harmony.

Renate was dedicated to social justice and talked of the dignity of all people. She had faith that a better world for our children was possible if we worked harder to achieve it.

Somewhere on Earth is a child, probably born quite recently, who could be alive 150 years from now, or maybe even longer.

What will this child, most likely female, do with her life?

Will she spend more time climbing a corporate ladder? Take more holidays? Plan a longer retirement? Make grand long-term plans? Love better or hope more?

Geneticists believe half the babies born in 2018 will live to older than 100. By the end of the century, life expectancy in Western nations could be 150 to 200 years.

Would doubling our lifespan make that much difference spiritually, ethically or personally? Would we choose to love more, to give more? Would we become more spiritual or more ethical?

Well, probably not. It seems that no matter how much time humans have, we remain essentially the same. Morally, we are no better or worse than those born a century ago.

So what does the future hold?

The satirist John Sladek said the future will be exactly like the past, only far more expensive.

There is a thought-provoking quote by Jonas Salk, who said, "If all the insects were to disappear from the Earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within 50 years all other forms of life would flourish."

 

 

To survive we need to work together

So, to flourish – or even just survive - we need to work together.

For thousands of years, the people who lived along China’s Yellow River  - now known as  the "cradle of Chinese civilization" - were members of diverse tribes. The tribes didn’t communicate with each other. When devastating floods and droughts came, these independent tribes could do little to alleviate the suffering because each tribe controlled just a small part of the Yellow River.

Over time, in the 3rd Century BC, the tribes came together to form the united Chinese nation and together they built canals and dams along the Yellow River. They unified to solve a common problem.

This raised prosperity for everyone. And of course we have seen examples of this sort of unity  in many places in the world.

 

Nationalism vs globalisation

 

For many centuries, nationalism and patriotism worked quite well. Wars aside, patriotism was a natural affection for our home and gave us the ability to care about each other and to come together in collective action.

This was fine when most if the important issues we faced were on a national scale. Now the most important issues are on a global scale and nationalism can’t solve them.

Our political leaders tell us it’s just a matter of pulling the right levers to bring about change. But that’s a deception.

So as a politician you can get into high office, find that you are ultimately ineffective  to bring about real positive change and disappear as Malcolm Turnbull has.

No single  nation can solve the problems of climate change, international trade rules, rapid economic transformations or global poverty. They can only be solved through global co-operation. We don’t need global government but we need global governance.

To be rabid nationalist in the 21st century really means you have to deny the global problems exist. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

With many societies feeling an increasing sense of cultural insecurity, politics has become sectarian and polarised. It seems all restraints are gone as external forces such as migration are being wrongly blamed for the erosion of traditional values.

The great tragedy in all of this is that the biggest losers of blinkered nationalism thinking are the world’s most vulnerable people. They are seriously threatened by this retribalising.

I feel a great a sense of shame about Australia’s border policing policies. The White Australia policy of yesteryear is now a ghost that haunts current policies. National rights seem to trump human rights.

The old sentiments of 'blood and soil' and 'heritage and nationhood' are on the rise and, in turn, making retribalisation prevalent across the globe. This has created comfortable conditions for racism and xenophobia to take strongholds in everyday society and policy making.

Our own leaders tell us we are a generous nation, yet according to the OECD’s global ranking we have fallen from 17th last year to 19th in giving of foreign aid. This is the third year in a row that Australia – the 13th largest OECD economy – has dropped.

We give proportionally less aid than nations not as wealthy – including New Zealand, Ireland and Belgium.”

With the world fast ‘retribalising’ and leading democracies turning inwards, now more than ever, we need to speak up for justice and the world’s poor.

The issues facing Australian policy are not isolated but, rather, part of a larger picture that consists of Brexit, a fractured European union, Middle Eastern divisions and the rise of popularist fear-generating leaders. From vaccines to climate change, a new age of denialism is upon us.

The previously unthinkable has become the new “normal”. The way people become political leaders has changed dramatically in recent years.

There is a zeitgeist of authoritarian head-in-the-sand leaders…….Donald Trump, Hun Sen in Cambodia,, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Vladmir Putin in Russia.

It would seem that Putin wants to push the clock back to the Tsarist era, with himself of course as the new Tsar.

That insidious reactionary emotion, nostalgia, seems to be as much a part of the modern world as new technology.

The more rapidly we are propelled into an uncertain future, the more we seem to yearn for life in the past lane; for the imagined safe world of yesterday.

This is a retrograde vision summed up in Donald Trump’s provocative statement “Let’s make America great again”.

That gained more traction than French President Macron’s recycled Trump slogan “Let’s make our planet great again”.

We want to believe that yesterday was simpler and more secure -- even though we should know that life has always been on a razor's edge.

We are subdividing even as our world gets larger because we are desperate for a place to belong.

The old divide between “left: vs “right” has been replaced the real divide between national and global.

Science has shown that tribalism is hard-wired and pervasive. Our opinions and emotions, loyalties, customs and perceptions of right or wrong/good and evil are shaped by our need to belong to a group — and sometimes by our willingness to hate rival groups.

The world seems split into divergent camps defined by nationalism, ethnicity and fundamentalist doctrines.

We are defined in tribes by our gender, skin tone, politics, religious beliefs, sexual preference,  birth place, nationality, football teams—and that list could go on.

I do think people have to find a tribal identity. That's fundamental human nature. We are tribal by nature.

We need to answer the questions: Who are my people? Who do I connect to?  How does that nourish me and overcome isolation?  Where is the place where we appear to be safe and understood?

 And another question. If we can be loyal to our family and to our community and to our nation, why can't we also be loyal to humankind as a whole?

No matter where, when and how, people should have the right to exist within their tribes but realise these tribes are also connected to larger tribes. Region, state, country, cause or planet to name a few. Conflicts generally start when one believes it has a superiority over another.

While we belong to our tribe, we still need to see value and kinship in others.

Unfortunately, we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles.

We are failing to distinguish aggressive nationalism from patriotism and love of a particular place. I believe we need to relearn how to live an ethical life that is committed at the core but open at the edges.

In the 1940s George Orwell argued that nationalism causes people to disregard common sense and to become more ignorant towards facts.

 Orwell said his definition of "nationalism" is not the same as what he and most people mean by "patriotism": "Patriotism is of its nature defensive.… Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power".

Nazism was used as an example of how nationalism can cause havoc between groups of people and even instigate the ignorance within such groups.

Orwell gives the name nationalism to the propensity of "identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests".

Orwell argues that the obsessive nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.

 

The inhumanity of tribalism

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During the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland, commander of the US forces, commented that Asians were ``not like us'' and therefore he could wage war on them. The general said Asians did not mind dying and did not have the same respect for life as Westerners.

 He had dangerously divided the world simply into ``us'' and ``them''.

That’s tribalism at its worst.

Genocide, wars, the covering up of child abuse to protect churches – all a case of tribe first. Morality second.

A professor of history and theology --Howard Snyder--- once asked an interesting question.

How would one go about intentionally undermining community; isolating people from one another and from a shared life?

First, he said, you'd have to fragment family life, then move people away from the neighbourhoods in which they grew up rather than allow them to live near relatives and friends and among familiar landmarks. .

Then separate the places people work from where they live: divide their lives into as many worlds as possible. And gradually move people farther and farther apart through ever-larger yards, bigger houses, or through walls, fences, and "apartments."

Then, fill their houses with “things” that distract.

 

Social media fuels tribalism

 

The internet has helped fuel a new distraction and a new tribalism, because it’s so easy to find and stick with a narrowly-defined group of people who share our own interests and values.

No longer are we merely holding opinions different from one another; we’re also holding different facts.

We know that this micro retribalising has created a world where people only consume the news and views that agree with their political beliefs. Where alternative facts – prepacked on Facebook and other social media – can reign unchallenged.

The transformation has been astonishingly swift.

Social Media users in Australia are some of the most prolific in the world, with a total of around 60% of the country’s population active users on Facebook, and 50% of the country logging in at least once a day.

Aussies spend an average of 5 hours and 34 minutes daily on the internet. The majority of that time is spent on social media.

The real danger of the internet is not that our emails or bank details might be hacked but that our feelings of fear and hate and vanity can be hacked and exploited.

US technology guru and author Tom Mahon preaches the need to reconnect technological capabilities with moral responsibilities.

 Mahon recently said technology had satisfied one numerical wish -- for material riches -- but provided little foundation for happy living.

 Mahon argued for a more lasting foundation and appreciated ``the wisdom of the ancients'' in setting up a Sabbath ``simply to suggest that for one seventh of the week, you should pull back from the grind of daily life, reconnect with your family . . . and ponder transcendent issues such as the meaning of life''.

 He said the problems of disconnection were not really about technology but about us.

 He said ``Our faith tradition in the west says God didn't make a universe; God made a `bi-verse' -- two universes, one of spirit and one of matter. We're taught that the sacred is found only in the realm of the spirit and the material world is a separate construction, an obstruction on the spiritual path. The earth is seen as a penalty box''.

 Mahon's version of a better world is one in which technology ``leverages our souls''. He believes we have the tools but lack the will.

A few years ago, French social scientist Alain Touraine explored the question of how we might live together in a truly globalized world society.

Touraine rejected the idea of a global mounting pot and mounted  a powerful attack on the idea that we now live together as equals, sharing the same social and cultural values.

 If anything, he argued, our differences are being heightened, as communities increasingly define their identities against the encroaching forces of globalization.

 Touraine argued that the twin processes of globalization and particularization are pushing us further and further apart. On the one hand, traditional values and forms of cultural expression are being eroded by homogenized mass culture. On the other, communities are becoming more introverted as they fight to defend themselves from outside influences

The answer would seem to be a more humane, better regulated and more democratically responsive form of globalization.

 

Universal basic income?

The technology of capitalism is a monster. It is beyond our control. So is the rise of artificial intelligence.

We humans can do many things but capitalism  has reduced us to one cog in an assembly line. We are not being creative. We suffer alienation because at heart most consumers just want a cheaper digital TV. Cheaper stuff..

In the end,we are all going to be working only 20 hours a week. So I think we have to learn to trim the roses, play music and write poetry to occupy our minds and souls.

Retailing analyst Victor Lebow declared as long ago as 1955 that productive economies “demand that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of

goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and ego gratification in consumption’’.

He said: “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing rate,’’

Consumerism is “the modern theology’’ and social morality is necessary as a counter balance to self-interest.

A universal basic income might become necessary to stave off revolution.

The global studies show that many people around the world feel their jobs have little meaning. They do insecure jobs they hate to buy stuff they don't really need.

So why not create meaningful work that people find happiness in? Work that is not valued by the size of a pay packet but by the meaning it provides.

There have several experiments with guaranteed basic income and related systems.

In 1974, all residents on the town Dauphin, in Canada, were guaranteed a basic income, ensuring that no one fell below the poverty line.

The experiment, which continued for several; years, was heralded as a success. Most people didn't quit their jobs. They just found them more satisfying.

Data collected has shown a number of positive effects, ranging from improved school results for children to a reduction in mental illness and domestic violence. Bills were paid and there was food on the table.

Poverty was eliminated for the five years the experiment ran.

Other basic income experiments are going on in other nations.

There is even talk in Australia. John Quiggin, professor of economics at the University of Queensland, last year described the implementation of a universal basic income in Australia as “challenging but possible”. He calculated the cost at between 5-10% of GDP.

Faith’s role

What we know is that that religious world view is fundamental for dealing with issues of justice, issues of environment.

If the faith community can not sustain the message of hope, love and care, then who can?

As Pope Francis recently said:  the only future worth building includes everyone.

You have to agree with his wish that the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion.

He said: “How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries.”

Our planet is full of challenges, such as the debilitating poverty, child slavery, injustice and disease.

If we feel the need to solve problems that really exist in the world, why should we not need to give our hearts and minds to a greater cause..

The spirituality that moves us is more than psychology, philosophy, politics or physics.

 It cuts straight to the heart of our existence, and the importance of feeling more than mere intellectual empathy with others on the planet. We need courage and creativity rather than just good intentions.

From a faith viewpoint I believe God loves cultural diversity. The truth is always multi faceted and you have to listen from  down below and be prepared to be challenged.

 Aristotle said we always have to choose between reality and illusion. Changeless reality was always “there to be accepted’’ but could only dawn on an unclouded mind.

We’ve got to deal with the global problems, but we’ve got to deal with it in a way of actually emphasizing our common humanity.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, investigated how an idea or behaviour moves from the edges of society to broad acceptance. Along the way, there is a tipping point that transforms a minority perception to the embrace of the majority.

Our collective sense of peace and justice for all has clearly not yet reached the tipping point. But that doesn’t mean it cannot.

The universe is still full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel said: "I came to a conclusion that the peril threatening humankind today is indifference, even more than hatred. There are more people who are indifferent than there are people who hate. Hate is an action. Hate takes time. Hate takes energy and even it demands sacrifices. Indifference is nothing, but indifference to hatred and injustice is encouraging hatred and is justifying hatred".

If we want to  live meaningfully and well we must enthusiastically help enrich the lives of others, because the value of a life is measured by the lives it touches. The welfare of each of us is bound up with the welfare of others.

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, we are tied together in a “single garment of destiny.” We must all learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will all perish together as fools.