TED, why are we such awful people?

Note: This piece is also published on campus.ie. Ireland’s largest student web-site with 28,000 followers.

I imagine a coffee-shop conversation: ‘Isn’t that awful about the famine in Africa?’, to which the reply comes, ‘Yes, those poor people, I put some money in a collection for them just yesterday’. Our imaginary friends would then progress to more ‘philosophical’ discourse; ‘It is hard to know what is worse, the physical suffering over there or the mental suffering here?’. Seamlessly, having lingered long enough on global inequality, the conversation would progress to that ‘thing’ they bought for that event tomorrow night. The conversation demonstrating our innate human ability for empathy and compassion juxtaposed beside an uncertainty as to why famine or depression exists and what role that ‘thing’ might contribute to it continuing.
It was a different Ted that inspired me to write this piece, a more recent one. I was struck by the appearance of the Catholic Pope on the ideas sharing platform ‘TED talks’; a more serious representative of the church than our Irish island friends. But did he have any more answers than Fr. Ted might have? He carefully addressed leadership, humility, self-control, empathy, luck, compassion and just about every key ingredient you could imagine that would be needed for a better world.
And I did imagine. I imagined a religion of philosophy. I imagined if all the religions of the world were without titles and instead called ‘philosophy’; would philosophical leaders have a wider reach than religious ones? I imagined instead of suggesting meaning belonged to a higher power, they could teach people how to cultivate their own meaning to live fulfilling lives, rather than be slaves to what a society might expect of them. And half way through what I thought was going to be the most graceful Facebook post, I stopped.
I stopped because I realised I was rehashing the words of a John Lennon song written the year after I was born. I thought that if we didn’t listen to him 30 years ago, why would we listen now? Almost lyrically, Lennon led me to Geldof. I imagined the fire that must have burnt in him all those years ago, he must have believed – this is it – we can stop hunger. I thought of all the world leaders he had access to, the publicity, the global reach and then I thought: why are we such awful people?
Asking the right question
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes” – a quote from Einstein prompted me to consider have we been asking the wrong question. Are we asking, ‘how much money do we need to raise in order to solve inequality?’ and should we be asking, ‘why does inequality exist in the first place?’ and ‘why is money always the first thing we turn to as a solution?’
If the question is inequality, intuitively our answer is to put money in a collection to restore equality. If I have 15 and you have 5, surely if I give you 5, then we both have 10. But we’ve put the money in collections for some time now and all that seems to change is the number of collections – they increase. Cancer, famine, suicide, war; the list is endless and the causes increasingly man-made. If we are asking the right question but not doing enough, are we bad people? I don’t think so. Could we give more? Definitely. A bigger problem is that the difference between the man with 15 and the man with 5 is that, although equality can be restored briefly, the man with 15 has the opportunity to give away 5 and make more. The man with 5 can receive 5 but does not have an equal opportunity to make more. Before long, disparity is restored.
Ignoring the suffering of millions
Geldof, Lennon and the Pope share a philosophy based on human decency. It appeals to most of us as we are capable of empathy and compassion. More than that, social interdependence is an important part of evolution that enabled us to survive and research suggests that we innately prefer decency over deception under ‘normal’ non-survival dependent conditions. Most of us would not walk past a child hit by a car without stopping to help; it is an immediate concern we cannot ignore. Global inequality or issues hidden from view (mental health) are distant and this perhaps explains why we cannot ignore one child, but are very capable of ignoring millions.
It appears we are shackled to an economic system that controls us. The health of the economy has become a default measure for the health of a nation – so much so we don’t even question it. We have been conditioned to want more, experience more, eat more, travel more and we are fed a myth that hard work is the answer to unlocking this land of ‘more’. We have the ‘freedom’ to choose to live a successful life of ‘more’ or an unsuccessful life of ‘less’. This is not true. This implies that everyone is created equally with the DNA, environment and series of life events that make it a simple choice. The reality is that none of us are truly responsible for the success or the failures that society deems us to have had.
Those (including me) who hit the model of what society deems successful in work or life in general serve as examples to make others who have not had the same DNA or environmental circumstances feel less worthy. As we strive to do more and consume more, we do not realise that this obedience to our economic masters serves to sustain poverty, famine and refugee crisis. We are often blissfully unaware that we are part of the problem, not the solution. Putting money in the collection, whilst well-meaning, ignores the complexity of the problem in favour of simplicity, an innate human desire that leads to us making all sorts of poor decisions.
Where to from here?
Since money is the only thing we’ve been conditioned to understand, I wonder can we use it. To give an example of how humans can be nudged in the right direction, I’ll use the pension. Aging is a challenge for us as individuals and those around us (society). Individually, we need enough money to live in retirement and society needs us to have enough money so that we don’t become an economic burden. Yet when it comes to saving for retirement, we are quite poor at it. Usually because we are too concerned with our immediate selves i.e. getting that ‘thing’ for that event tomorrow night. However, there is hope for us as it has been proven that those who are auto-enrolled in an optional pension are far less likely to opt out. This protects the individual but also the greater good (society). This demonstrates that with the right encouragement, we are not awful people. Short of an auto-enrolment ‘national’ and ‘international’ inequality tax, what else could we do?
Why don’t we don’t we stop raising funds to treat the symptoms of our ignorance and instead raise funds to treat the cause. What if we could raise enough money to give ‘back-handers’, ‘expenses’ or ‘brown envelopes’ to politicians to tax big business fairly? What if we raised enough money to give to banks so that they would ban credit-cards. Then, instead of having debt availability to fuel our consumerism which is destroying the planet and millions with it, we would have to live within our means?
What if we invested in a philosophy school that could burst the myth of ‘hard-work’ and ‘freedom’ to choose success? Would that at least make us humbler and those around us feel less inadequate? What if we invested in independent news media so that instead of sound-bites used to control us by government and big business, we would have to read more than 1,000 words in order to understand the complexity of a situation? What if we raised a fund to support those who feel they are in meaningless jobs (there are many) that serve only to make profit for re-investment? Could we retrain them with skills more valuable to society?
What we if we knew that the ‘thing’ for that event was a symbol of our lack of freedom to choose in the interests of ourselves and others; and served only to punish those less fortunate than ourselves……what if, there was a generation far cleverer than I to make this happen?