António Rolo Duarte
For the past three years, I have periodically come across a quote which has never failed to keep me thinking. This particular quote is carved into a wooden wall in the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons – a twenty-four hour study center at The University of Manchester – and was apparently written by the late Marie Stopes, a botanist and women’s rights campaigner who was the first female academic to be hired by the University. In a dark shade of brown, evident against the lighter plywood which covers the walls, the words read: “We are surrounded in this world by processes and transmutations so amazing that, were they not taking place around us hourly, they would be scouted as impossible imaginings.”
From my point of view, Stopes conveyed in a literary fashion what is, in fact, a much more practically applicable notion – that we would often benefit from lifting our eyes away from the grand scheme of things which our conscious minds often dwell in. Rather than searching for meaning in an obviously meaningless great galaxy of a world, we would do best to enjoy the daily events which build it, the “processes and transmutations” which are so remarkable and which we often fail to pay attention to, given the frequency with which they occur. By taking life a moment at a time we may find the most incredible adventures in what could, otherwise, seem like a huge bore of normality.
This advice would serve us well for most of the time. However, it does not seem to me that 2017 follows the norm. One only needs to have a quick glance at the headlines while waking up on any given day this January, to immediately understand why, again, there would be a benefit in simply rolling over and burying one’s head under a stack of fluffy, duck-feathered, sound-muffling, reality-proof comfy pillows instead of going out into the wilderness of the modern world. Donald Trump is president, the UK is going for a “hard Brexit”, Marine Le Pen is leading the polls in France, Chelsea is top of the Premier League, and who knows what else may be around the corner. To appreciate the “impossible imaginings” taking place around us seems to be a recipe for hardcore depression.
What I propose when looking at politics in 2017, then, is that this year we do exactly the opposite of what Stopes implicitly recommends. Looking at the remarkable events of daily life will not bode well for mental sanity this year. In 2017, optimism involves engaging in a spate of temporary amnesia which can make us dismiss the daily news as completely irrelevant, and, instead, look at the larger realm of things.
I say this because the big picture is rather positive. Humanity today is working out political and social issues better than ever before. Genetically, we are pretty much the same as the humans of a century ago. We are, indeed, still quite similar to our gorilla cousins – with whom we share 98 per cent of DNA. But the big difference is that we now live in a political system, the modern liberal democracy, which is better than ourselves. Nature does not give an equal voice to everyone; liberal democracies do. Nature is, as Thomas Hobbes once described, “a condition of war, of everyone against everyone”; yet two liberal democracies have never fought each other. In nature, the strongest man rules; in liberal democracies, the strongest man is chosen by the people, and even then there are checks and balances which mean that if terrible candidates, such as Donald Trump, are elected, they are constrained by parliaments, courts, social movements, a free media, and all of the limitations which come with a free market. Humans may still be terrible animals, but the system we live in has created societies which have the highest potential for success ever.
Furthermore, we may be living in a time of post-truth and “alternative facts”, but this is only noticeable in the context of a society where truth itself is a valid idea. The West is the first civilization in history where the concept of “truth” has been employed in a meaningful way. Consequently, it is the first time that the strongest is not necessarily the one who is considered to be right. We saw this recently, for example, in the deliberation of the UK Supreme Court in favor of Gina Miller, a common businesswoman, in a case against the British government. Truth and falsehood might still not be of interest for many, but they are more embedded than ever in our institutions, and are used to limit the arbitrary pursuit of power. As a result, we live in the fairest societies humanity has ever seen.
We may be living in a time of post-truth and “alternative facts”, but this is only noticeable in the context of a society where truth itself is a valid idea.
A system of inclusive institutions which balance pluralism and centralization of power has allowed for countless scientific wonders. The miracles of medicine are so extraordinary that I will not even try to delve into them here. I will just note the fact that science is so advanced that it can even explain why we are voting for people like Donald Trump – social scientists at Stratfor, a political analysis firm, have linked support for the now-president to the mental effect of the fallout from the Iraq War and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, which led individuals to feel cheated for being led to believe in false arguments and for not seeing those responsible appropriately punished (as a result, they punished the establishment at the ballot boxes). There may be unpleasant events happening around us, but we are understanding them better than ever before.
We are also living better – both with others, and with ourselves. The possibilities provided by the internet mean that a disabled, widowed pensioner in the suburbs of Manchester today no longer needs to live in loneliness, or in the shadows of society. He or she can be using online platforms to make friends with other people their age in Munich, Minneapolis and Mumbai – empowering individuals, connecting cultures, transcending acrimony and fostering cosmopolitanism. Social movements, such as those for LGBT or women’s rights, have been strengthened by the advent of new technologies. They have made gains to the extent that in some countries, such as my own, Portugal, it is now both legal and socially accepted for two people to live together, marry and adopt despite their sexual orientation, race or social class. The equal right to vote, laws cracking down on discrimination in the workplace, and the enforcement of property rights have equally empowered people to pursue their dreams and aspirations, creating stronger, fairer and more interesting societies.
The world is better today than it ever has been (particularly in the West, where all these marvels are accentuated). But even if all hope was flying away, we could still hold ourselves to one very steady prediction for success – millennials are starting to take over. This can only be a good thing. The new generation is more liberal, better educated, increasingly interconnected and more powerfully aware than the previous ones. Thanks to extra learning and better nutrition, we are also smarter and better at problem-solving (The Economist’s claim, not mine). There are 1.8 billion of us and we are already populating the lower ranks of governments, businesses and institutions. Most significantly, perhaps, is the fact that we are also creating our own projects, ideas and conceptualizations of what the future should behold. Every year that goes by we are dealing with people who are more capable, and adapted to the modern environment, than ever before.
All this tells us that 2017 has everything to be another great year for humankind. We may have a long way ahead of us, but we also have solid foundations to build on. Thanks to the social, political and scientific developments of the past decades, human life on Earth has never been as amazing as it is today. Being optimistic this year, then, does not involve engaging in a state of denial about what is happening out there. It purely means devaluing the importance of the daily news as compared to the extraordinary features of society in the twenty-first century.
We must continue to be informed about Donald Trump’s provocative policies, the road ahead for Brexit and Diego Costa’s latest goal for Chelsea. But we can also lift our eyes up from our smartphone screens every now and then, and remember, for example, that these “smartphones” did not even exist when Barack Obama stood for President. Humanity has not changed much, but the system we live in is more extraordinary than ever. Instead of being depressed about yet another piece of news, let us be consoled by the titanic marvels of life today, indeed those “impossible imaginings” of a different sort which show us how far we have come as a civilization. Are those not the ones that matter?
António Rolo Duarte is editor-in-chief of The Manchester Magazine. He is a Politics and International Relations student at The University of Manchester