Justine Huxley writes about the perilous combination of disinformation, polarisation and climate breakdown, and explores the theme of moral courage as a necessary capacity we urgently need to grow to prevent our social fabric from unravelling.
What does it mean to be a peace-maker in an unravelling world?
We are living in a time of untruth, witnessing the strategic use of disinformation, by many different actors and states, to dismantle our sense of shared reality. We are watching tribal divisions deepening. We may not yet be as polarised as the US, but if we do nothing, that could be the trajectory ahead of us. We are also living in a time of distrust, where confidence in both our political and religious institutions is at an all time low.
When these factors are seen alongside ecological collapse (of which covid is simply a foretaste), the picture looks gravely concerning. Whilst there are many ways in which dissolution of current structures can ‘unbind’ us from the patterns that lie at the root of our malaise, that is not a given. There is also a real danger that when we begin to feel the impact of climate breakdown more intensely in the global north, this added pressure will cause a hardening rather than an opening, a fracturing rather than a coming together, which could further contract into control, violence, scapegoating and a loss of morality that would cast darkness over our world. Despite our recent years of deep adaptation training and my commitment to never shy away from worst case scenarios, I confess I often do not want to imagine that. But I do believe there is a pressing need for us to do so – to look with open eyes at the crossroads before us and ask: how can we weave ourselves back together before the divisions and the systemmatic use of untruth set us further along an unthinkable path?
Seeds of hope
One seed of hope, for me, emerged at a recent conference at Cumberland Lodge which sought to explore these two simple words: moral courage.
I don’t know what scenarios come to mind when you plan for your own personal future. In my mind, first world dilemmas such as where might I like to live when I retire have long been replaced by altogether different questions such as: If water is rationed and I am given the last container while those behind me in the queue have none, what will I do? If I see free speech being eroded in my own communities – how will I respond? If climate refugees show up in my street – what will I do? Or, if the authorities begin scapegoating whoever is convenient – how will I react? Covid has already delivered moral questions for which we have no precedent. Undoubtedly more and greater dilemmas are on the horizon which stand to break our current shaky ethical frameworks.
Where can we source the moral courage we will need to traverse this dangerous time? How can we root that courage in shared values, that unite rather than divide us? How can we repair fundamental collective truths and ground ourselves in the real? How will we build containers to evolve our capacity for moral imagination, together? And who among us has, or will claim, the authority to call us to that task, at the scale it needs?
These are questions we have been asking at St Ethelburga’s, those two words taking root in our hive mind. Moral courage. In what remains of this blog, I want to set out a few simple inner and outer components which could form the beginnings of a community enquiry, an invitation to engage your collective intelligence and join us exploring different facets of this theme in the months to come.
In the first instance, we need a large dose of moral courage simply to face the danger we are in. To take this seriously, means to relinquish many of our individual aspirations for how our lives might otherwise have panned out, and replace them with a willingness to serve the needs of the moment. A key opportunity in every crisis is for it to show us what really matters. To be resilient in this new era will be like passing through the eye of a needle – there is so much we carry – patterns, beliefs, stuff – we will need to set down.
Last year I read an article (which I can no longer find), written by a young person from a country in collapse, heading towards a totalitarian state. Her advice, spoken from a place of grim experience, was this: write down your values now. Keep comparing your behaviour to those values, otherwise collective moral decay will cause you to drift from them and not even notice. What a warning! We are attached to so much that we no longer need, that weighs us down and keeps us stuck in the destruction. But holding fast to a few fundamental values is one thing we simply cannot afford to lose.
We will also need a certain inner strength to keep us from being eaten alive by this culture of division and untruth. Krista Tippett’s theory of change for the podcast platform On Being is this: “Deepened inner life creates space for the moral wrestling that can transform relationships”. Often we are not aware of how our inner life is being polluted along with our biosphere. Discipline, spiritual practice, time unplugged and a direct relationship with nature can all help us dig in to a place of depth. A friend recently took up ocean swimming, braving the icy weather because, “At least it’s real!” It makes sense to me that in this unfolding madness, a daily blast of wild, freezing waves could keep us in touch with something essential. Deepened inner life and a ferocious clarity about what is real and essential may be the groundwork for this precious quality.
Stories that inspire
To begin kindling the fire of moral courage in our hearts might also mean to seek out the stories of those who have lived that courage in divided times. Emily Buller, author of Darkness over Germany (1), is one such example. A college educator in 1930s England, her efforts to engage equally with both Nazis and Nazi resistors in Germany, were extraordinary. She was relentless in her attempts to stay in relationship with both sides. More recently another educator, Bret Weinstein, a professor at liberal college in the US demonstrated a different kind of moral courage when he saw anti-racist programming conducted in a way that limited the possibility of genuine dialogue and critical thinking. He remained committed to staying in relationship with both sides and speaking his truth despite immense pressure, displaying an honesty and clarity which eventually cost him his job.
Such inner work might form a prerequisite to the most critical facet of moral courage and imagination – how we can use that courage to stand and act for unity. To stand for unity means to grow our awareness of how algorithms and echo chambers are daily shaping our own personal beliefs and perception of reality. It means to take on the psychological understanding of the dynamics of ‘othering’ – how we judge and project onto those who are ‘not like us’ – at an individual level and at the level of our own communities and ideological allies. It means to be willing to look at how these inner and outer dynamics of darkness interact and take responsibility for how they operate in our own lives and communities. Most importantly, it means to reach out beyond the comfort zone of our own tribe to be curious about the needs and concerns of those whose perspectives we may find abhorrent. And to create containers and mechanisms whereby we can build reconciliation into our projects and communities, to lead from a place of unity.
We all responsible
What does it mean to be a peace-maker in an unravelling world? I don’t yet know how to answer that question, but sense that moral courage in its different forms, is something every single one of us will need to do this work.
There may be aspects of climate breakdown that are now unavoidable. Our economic model may no longer be fit for purpose. There may be malign actors seeking to dismantle democracy. And our sense of collective truth may be breaking. But what is not yet broken is the individual human heart. And it is in the hearts of ordinary people that the courage we need can be ignited. Courage that will transcend our divisions and tribes – including the division between humanity and other species. The courage to lay down our sense of being right, in order to stand together in a meaningful way and protect our Earth and that which is fundamental to human life.
What will it take to light that fire?
If you are interested to join us in this work growing our capacity for moral courage, watch this space!
- According to the Britain’s Choice report, the UK is not yet as polarised as the US and may be able to take preventative action.
- The British Attitudes survey, 2019
- Darkness over Germany, re-published by Cumberland Lodge in 2017 because of its relevance to the present moment.