Moving beyond an amoral world of winners and losers

Opinion: Dame Anne Salmond argues the election results here and in the US offer a world beyond rampant individualism and contrived divisions.

Dame Anne Salmond

The latest elections in New Zealand and the United States, as much as anything else, have been struggles between different ways of thinking about the world.

The Enlightenment brought ways of dividing the world up into mutually exclusive boxes.

From the invention of Linnaean taxonomy, classifying the living world into different genera and species; to cartography and surveying, dividing space into boxes defined by latitude and longitude; to censuses, sorting populations into different categories – age, gender, ethnicity, occupation; and the different disciplines, splitting knowledge into different ‘fields’, gridded thinking became ubiquitous.

In contemporary life, where digital realities are underpinned by binary logic, Outlook calendars, planning maps, spreadsheets, organisational charts and balance sheets all reinforce this way of framing the world.

Time, place, people, institutions and resources are all categorised and tabulated, the origins of silo thinking. No-one should be surprised if digital media are polarising, because they’re based on either/or choices.

This feeds into identity politics, where communities and kin networks are split into women vs men, black vs white, Māori vs Pākeha, left vs. right and so on.

Watching reporting of the US election, one can see a country divided into states that go red or blue, shaping reality as it is described. This translates into a sense of being enfranchised or disempowered, into outbursts of exhilaration or fury.

Silo thinking has never been the only habit of mind available to us, however.

During the Enlightenment in Europe, for instance, thinkers including Comte de Buffon, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander von Humboldt understood reality in terms of networks and webs – the ‘web of life’, as von Humboldt called it.

While acknowledging the utility of sorting time, space and other people and life forms into bounded boxes that can be measured, counted and controlled, they insisted on the interconnected nature of reality, and the power of relational thinking.

With its emphasis on reciprocity and exchange, this kind of framing was strongly associated with the emergence of democracy, the emancipation of slaves and women, and the ecological sciences. Its contemporary reflexes include complexity theory and the world-wide web.

In te ao Māori, too, the world has long been understood in terms of relational networks, through whakapapa for example.

In our own times, the extreme individualism of neo-liberal theories and libertarian politics offers a heightened example of gridded thinking, where societies and communities are fractured into disconnected, mutually exclusive units.

Every person is seen as a cost-benefit calculating individual, seeking their own advantage.

In politics, this translates into a combative approach, an amoral world of winners and losers in which truth, justice and decency are irrelevant. Rather than a unique, aberrant phenomenon, Donald Trump (and other leaders like him) can be seen as an epitome of this way of thinking.

The latest elections in New Zealand and the US have taken place in the shadow of a global pandemic. Covid-19 has offered a sharp, sobering reality check for these different habits of mind.

As many observers have noted, libertarian politics – as expressed in the US and elsewhere in the right to congregate and not to wear a mask in situations where you might spread or be infected by a potentially lethal virus – is literally a matter of life or death, and not just for that individual.

By insisting on your rights, it’s not just your own life you might put at risk, but that of your wife or husband, parent or child, grandparent or grandchild, your co-worker or close friend.

The fact that so many people, in the United States and elsewhere, have been prepared to make such choices shows the power and danger of fractured thinking. Equally, its limits are made obvious by the infection and fatality rates associated with such decisions.

In other areas of contemporary life, the lives of others are equally endangered by the ruthless pursuit of self-advantage – in climate change, for example, and the destruction of habitat and other life forms; radical inequalities; or in the degradation of waterways and the ocean.

What is different about Covid-19, and why it has made so many of us stop and think, and shift our priorities is because the risks are so personal, and the outcomes so devastating and immediate.

It's vital, however, that the lessons learned from the pandemic are extended to these other existential dangers. As Sir David Attenborough and many others have made clear, it's not just individual lives that are now at stake, but human survival.

In the latest elections in the US and New Zealand, the binary language of left and right, red and blue doesn’t do justice to what has happened. We chose leaders who are relational thinkers, who stress the need for working across these lines, and for community, national and global goodwill and co-operation in tackling these challenges.

But it is not just Covid-19 that they must face, or climate change, or collapsing ecosystems. There are also those who will continue to pursue power and wealth through the self-serving politics of division and deception.

Relational politics is a two way street.

We can’t just sit around waiting for our leaders to fight these battles, to save the future for our children and grandchildren. That’s a responsibility shared with media, academia, business, farming and forestry, the civil service, iwi, regional government and the wider community. It’s time to get off our backsides, and play our part.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in anthropology at the University of Auckland and 2013 New Zealander of the Year.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Moving beyond an amoral world of winners and losers 10 November 2020.

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