My word for 2017? Solidarity.
In the last years compassion has been slowly cannibalising solidarity. Sympathy numbed by terrorism clickbait: children dead on Turkish beaches, children buried under Alleppoean rubble, Yemeni children bleeding to death. It’s becoming impossible to feel any sort of connection with this plethora of foreign images. My life is far removed, the only dead person I’ve ever seen is my grandfather. I can’t relate. I feel no solidarity. I feel only pity.
“Distant suffering” is how Boltanski (1999) refers to this outcome of exploitation and repression in places seemingly far away from the “West”. Solidarity is hard to muster even if people suffering in these (not-so-far-away) places are actually similar to us. They have parents, siblings, friends, lovers. They study, work, think, write blogs, probably binge on chocolate just like me. But there is some difference, some removal and I can’t see myself in their position. The suffering is distant. I can’t relate. I feel no solidarity. I feel only pity.
Even local suffering is hard to relate to. I am becoming more used to walking briskly past the beggars at Lund Central Station. They seem so different to me. I don’t need to offer them a cup of coffee or to use my washing machine. They are distant. Used to their suffering. I feel no solidarity. I feel only pity.
Pity is one way of dealing with undeserved privileged. Washing one’s hand with donations to the deserving poor. Recreating social stratification. Not dealing with the need to create a society where everyone has equal worth, an Australian ‘fair-go’. A society where there are no poor, deserving or otherwise. If you feel pity you are a good person, there is no urgency to tackle our in-egalitarian system. Compassion exonerating the need for solidarity.
Solidarity is not a moral obligation of the privileged to feel compassion for those in need. It’s the ability for people to feel each others’ feelings. Solidarity is empathy plus unity. To feel and then share: to be able to see from others’ perspective and create mutually beneficial outcomes. Understanding those with more privileged is just as important as understanding those with less. How else are we going to deal with the Trump palava in the coming years?
How else are we going to deal with the coming climate change challenges? As a researcher I’m interested in the social repercussions of climate impacts. Unlike predicting responses from natural systems, there is a risk with social science that the way in which we discuss social responses to climate change may contribute to self-fulfilling prophecies. The sea will rise, regardless of the political discussion, but the social response is very much tied to dominant discourse. If we don’t feel solidarity with different forms of humanity, the way we talk about responding to climate challenges will exclude certain ways of being, and lead to oppression of groups who are not like researchers.
This is happening already. Up to 50,000 people in Sweden are paperless. Without claim to legal employment they work on the black market, often under poor conditions. To handle this, parliament is currently discussing lowering legal working conditions. The people deciding seem unable to imagine themselves in the precarious position, and so use pity, and economic forces, rather than solidarity to frame the discussion. However, if we do widen gaps between working conditions there is a clear danger that this will only legitimise inequalities, and not provide a better life for all. Not create a society where everyone has equal worth. We need solidarity to create rules that care about everyone having the best chance to contribute.
We need solidarity to make us care about positive global conditions for everyone. To create a world where we all have equal opportunity to thrive. And equal opportunity to contribute to improving the human experience. As evolutionary biologist Gould (1979) put very nicely ‘I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.’ More solidarity will provide better chances for everyone to make an Einsteinean contribution. Let’s have more solidarity in 2017.
Moments of solidarity
Having dinner with a new friend at Open Table Melbourne
Hanging out at Kontrapunkt Malmö
Reading And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini