What happened to Liberté, égalité, fraternité?
Sometimes we need physical or tangible things to happen before we take a problem seriously and react. In April such a call tolled furiously when a terrible fire tore down some vital parts of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In the aftermath of the fire and the analysis, it became clear what symbolic meaning the church has - especially for the French. In the immense rubble of both tangible and symbolic character, many of the French and worldwide leaders pointed out how the fire also had burnt deep inside their very soul.
One reason to the huge coverage and our emotional outcry may be rooted in our common cultural relation and heritage to one of Christianity’s and French culture’s greatest bastions. The huge twin towers and the spire of the cathedral, apart from the religious significance, have also been a witness, a kind of evidence of strong and invincible power, somewhat unbreakable and an integrated part of us. So, when the fire was trembling and rattling this monumental piece of architecture it also rattled our belief of what is or used to be solid and strong and gave birth to some anxiety. The accident ought to lead to some reflection of what our great institutions stand for. France and their cultural heritage has gifted quite a few valuable institutions to humanity and to our societies around the globe during history. Besides a long list of spectacular architecture, pieces of arts and gastronomy, most importantly, The French have also given us the keys to modern democracy with the revolution of 1795 and the immortal: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. The cornerstones to understand, to abide and to comply with modern democracy.
I am sure I was not the only one to think that the fall of the iconic spire from The Notre Dame was a “sign of the times” – a kind of warning. A message telling us that we can’t or should not rely even on a rock-solid cathedral from the middle ages. And, nor should or can we expect to rely on a cornerstone like democracy in the same way we did only a few years back. The democracy the generations in Western-Europe and North America grew up with after World War two is definitely on fire these years and has already suffered several burnings. Most notably by populist movements, attacks on the media and disrespect or simply neglectance of the separation of powers. And even you may hear the slogans or the terms mentioned you do not see much freedom, equality or brotherhood these days. As with Notre Dame, we must react and rebuild, not only the cathedral, but also the inner democratic DNA of our souls.
One central element I sense under attack and constantly threatens to tremble the fundament of our democracy is our way of handling mutual dignity. Our ways of treating others, and even treating ourselves have undergone a very ugly development into fully accepting smears, bullying and verbal attacks leaving open all the flood gates to fights, physical violence and warlike scenarios.
We have seen, especially, political leaders deliberately use this strategy. We know it from Germany in the 30’s, from all over Latin America to Asia and apparently we now are left with the phenomenon in the western world as well. One thing is to have another view, but to openly mock and bully your opponent constantly - that is below any standard. but, even worse when it hits innocent people. One sad example of lack of decency was the apathetic handling of the so-called Governmental shut-down in USA in January-February. It was sad because despite perfectly knowing the procedures and time frames, politicians didn’t take action and let thousands of public workers go without pay checks for more than a month. The employees became innocent hostages of a political fight about the famous border wall, a discussion that had nothing to do with what a lot of these people actually worked with. Never the less, nobody really helped them out. Nor were there huge crowds in the streets to point out the unfairness or supporting the unfair treatment of these employees. There was no pardon from the system, on the contrary there were even some malicious tweets and hilarious statements claiming their situation was self -inflicted.
The shut-down, apart from being outrageously wrong, was an example of how low and undignified we have become capable of treating others and I don’t know how humiliated these people must have felt, how unworthy and left alone.
When I drive myself and my car around in unsustainable ways due to the long distances in Miami, I listen to a lot of radio programs. Despite it takes some time to navigate through the noisy chaos of silly programs, there still are some people who find it worth to create good serious radio. One of these is WLRN; it is this kind of radio I grew up listening to in Denmark with one certain theme and participants who seem to know the rules of discussions and having conversations without shouting or throwing shitty comments at each other. It was during one of my rides I heard that strange word from a vocabulary belonging to a bygone age. Dignity – I kept my hands firmly on the steering wheel and tried to keep cool. The program danced around the term and couldn’t stop filling logs of wisdom to another burning fire, but this was of nobility, respect, decency and other similar words of grandeur. It was like poetry and sweet music for the listener like sitting at a camp fire watching the sparks fly around. And the radio media itself for once secured me how dignified and a worthy representative for democracy the dialogue still is. A famous Danish philosopher once said, “democracy is dialogue”. As simple as that.
Integrity and integration
A couple of days later, I got further hope of a better world from the church I occasionally go to. Integrity was the word this time. It came from pastor Al and was used to describe how he had sought for some advice of what to focus on when he got to practice as pastor. Integrity was the answer from his teacher. A very interesting term I also have met used by some companies in the business world when to hire people working with compliance. A quick investigating of its synonyms includes several sub-meanings of honesty, showing moral and if we use the adjective it leads us to descriptions of unity and being united. The catch with a term like integrity is that there is no magic formula to learn or secure integrity. It is a feeling and a behavior you build and with life learn how to show and comply to. Integrity’s etymologic cousin, integration, has been a key word the last 10-15 years, primarily due to discuss and measure how people coming to the western world should or could cope and fit in modern western societies. But as with integrity, you can’t force or create integration with a magic wand. This is why so much of e.g. integration of immigrants has gone wrong or misinterpreted.
We might have freedom, some kind of equality and democracy, but these fundamental values of our society only work if they are nurtured with some dignified, integrated and careful thoughts and action behind.
So, what is it that has made it so difficult for us or so many of us not to show dignity or integrity? Why are the news, the society and our politics filled with anger, hatred and undignified and disintegrated behavior and thoughts?
Recently I participated in a 6-week upgrade of my sustainability wisdom. A course in Concepts of Sustainable Development from the University of Leicester, UK. Amongst many eye-opening elements during the course, especially one stood out as a core point of understanding sustainability and development as such. It was how to look at concepts as complex (opposed to linear and simple solution thinking). In several professional circles and at university level this is perhaps old news, and I myself remember getting confronted by chaos theories back to the early 90’s. But it seems as if many professionals, especially amongst politicians, but also among us, the people (influenced by politics), more and more lean towards simple and quickly taken decisions and opinions unconcerned whether these are sustainable and good for the long run. And often even added with a little spice of disrespectful comment or attitude. This development is as devastating as any downfall of iconic historical buildings.
Our mutual communication, sustainable projects whether they are of healthy, environmental or otherwise add to big scale society renovation definitely need to have integrity and dignity on board to succeed.
And, it is important that we early in life learn that integration and integrity as well as the famous slogan from the French revolution do not come easy, either. We need to protect and defend the values our society were built upon and not allow to go low and simplify just because it is easier to do so.
I am sure one reason of why we see such division in societies around the world today lies in we have not understood or accepted that we live in a complex world and we have to solve things as good as we can over time. No border walls or divisive attitude will help this. But surely more dignity, integrity will, and lead to a more sustainable world.