Let the 2020s be the decade of empathy and kindness

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that the key to ensuring happiness in the social realm was empathy and kindness towards others. It is only through forgiveness of mistakes and appreciation of difference that one can reveal all, and be at one with both themselves and those around them. Arendt’s entire political scheme relates to the social; the wonderful communicative relational realm in which people come to act. Act not to help themselves, nor achieve anything in particular, but to achieve a personal and social euphoria which is the highest end. This is not just something that we aim to achieve, but something that we cannot exist without. It is a coincidence of existence; it is what makes us human.

I think that anyone today, regardless of political persuasion, or whether they care about politics at all, would admit that the 2000s and 2010s were a rough twenty years. War returned to our fold, hatred grew rife, and anger and distrust became the normative values which dominate our discourse, our thoughts, and our actions towards one another. If the 1990s were the decade of ambivalence, then the 2010s was the decade of all-out rage.

One of Arendt’s greatest interests was how raptures in history can alter our moral dispositions and entirely change our way of acting. Her focus varied from the death of Socrates to the atrocities of the Holocaust. But today we have to ask ourselves: how did we get here? How did we reach a point where families no longer discuss politics, and we fail to have a common discourse on controversial matters? Where loneliness has become the norm for the elderly and where more young people than ever suffer from mental illness?

I am not someone to decry the progress we have made, with global poverty falling, and new medicine ensuring that many don’t have loved ones die young. But the past decade can only be viewed as one lost opportunity. Technology, expressing the highest results of human creativity, have often been utilised not as a social bridge, but as an isolator. Perhaps the most poignant phrase that Arendt used often was that ‘We men, not man’: Humans are fundamentally social beings. According to Hegel, that which separates us from animals is our capacity to establish shared meanings of sociality which enable emotional and empathetic communication. We act not according to base drives, or reactive instincts, but socially created interrelations of meaning. It is from this that we establish the ultimate form of relationship, one of love. Yet today to suggest that our being is motivated by love would be a fallacy to the word.

Today one could best describe society as hateful and mean spirited. Our political leaders seek to sow division as a means of gaining power. We are itemised by our economic system. We are Remainers or Leavers. Democrats or Republicans. Believers or non-believers. Our causes, our motivations, our justifications, are no longer social, whole, relational, but small, short, and brutish. We don’t seek to build bridges, or do anything; we seek to get by, minding our own business. We mock how no-one talks to one another on the tube, but does this mocking not reflect a deep discomfort at what we’ve become? Does it not suggest that we ourselves could do better? Does it not suggest that we ourselves realise that we are falling further and further within ourselves? Perhaps the real decay of the last decade was not the anger, for at least anger is emotion, but rather our greatest decay was the slow acceptance of a humanity without humans in the plural.

But we can change this. Arendt argues that the death of Socrates and the fundamental misreading of Aristotle led to a long-term trend of rationalisation and individualisation which ultimately caused the Holocaust. To suggest that thought can affect action in such a fundamental manner and lead to such an atrocity is a harrowing idea, but perhaps one that can be utilised to reverse the trend of our current modernity. If raptures in social meaning and our social selves can cause negative outcomes, then they can also cause positive ones.

It is through empathetic retrospection that we can look back at the last decade and all of its flaws, and better ourselves because of it.

The positive thing about meaning is that agency does exist within it. Humanity need not fatalistically accept isolation from itself, it need not bow down to anger and hatred. It can resist and build new meanings, new understandings, new bridges. It is within us to harness the new communication technologies we have not for a hate, and online vitriol, but for communicative action in a new social sphere. To build relations, make new meanings and relate to, rather than disregard, one another. By equal measure we can revive old means of interrelation, but use them for new socialisations within temporal spaces. We can rebuild community centres, use churches, reshape and revive religion. Have a bigger and more active society in which individuals can be pulled out of themselves. We can give more to charities, work with others, and build the bonds of friendship and love that we have long forgotten.

This may be a lofty ideal, people may challenge it and suggest that people don’t want to change. But it is here Arendt offers a final scheme: retrospection. Arendt argues that meaning can only be formed from retrospection; it is impossible for humans to predict the future because our action and its potential consequences are too innumerate for human conception. Therefore, we can only form meaning, and therefore frame the parameters of our future endeavours, by looking backwards, with retrospect. But her understanding of retrospect is not an insular individual attempt, but a social communicative interaction. There is debate, there is disagreement, but there is no animosity and that is because of the kindness and forgiveness best described as being encompassed by empathy. It is through empathetic retrospection that we can look back at the last decade and all of its flaws, and better ourselves because of it.

Of course, we cannot predict the future: human capacity is far too great to be predicted, but we can form it. We can tailor and we can make it responsive to our needs. We can and we must be empathetic towards our past, but that will involve critical reflection and acknowledgement of our lack of love and sociality. It is only through social retrospection that we can be empathetic enough to ourselves to appreciate our own loneliness and how lost we really are. But to find ourselves will first require us to rediscover the other, to build new bonds with them, and reflect upon ourselves consequentially. It is because we are men not man that we are in this current situation, but it is also because we are men not man that we that we are capable of solving it.

About Alex Baxter

Alex Baxter is a Politics and Philosophy student at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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