Тhere was a time when I wondered at what propelled people to spread religion, to work at converting the heathen and nonbelieving masses, and egged on crusaders and missionaries alike. Surely, I thought, why should you spend your time worrying about the souls of others, so long as you’re certain that your soul is going unto salvation?
Then, one day, pacing through the labyrinth of my family’s dusty apartment, I suddenly felt I understood them.
When we (and I pause here and wonder what exactly I mean by “we”; the Westerners, the higher-educated, the unpersecuted, the financially secure…?) speak of “progress” and “civilization,” we take our own (wholly secular) vision of things as they are and should be, and accept and project the idea that our values, our distinction between right and wrong, are universal. And to peoples who do not share these values, we extend a hand, in a fashion, and say, convert – and we can show you a better world. We can save you in this life.
When Vera Brittain in her Testament of Youth (having just finished the book and allowed Brittain’s thoughts and thought processes to influence mine over the past couple of weeks, her Testament has, admittedly, some connection with what I write here) calls the British Empire “that conveyor of civilisation to primitive peoples” (p. 586, Penguin), the reader of 2015 winces. In a world that has inherited the postcolonial legacy, such words and thoughts are inadmissible.
But I wonder if there still is a force in the world that considers itself – without qualms – to be a “conveyor of civilisation.” Certainly, such a force no longer possesses a distinctive national character – one may even call it a globalized force – but it exists, ready to propel its values of equal rights and individual freedoms onto all those who should wish to accept them, certain, like the missionaries of old, that it is doing good.
And perhaps it is doing good. I am not protesting that we (again, that elusive and incriminating “we”!) are making a mistake in believing equality and personal liberty to be of the highest importance. After all, our definition of a civilized world is probably not what it had been under Queen Victoria. I simply see that we echo the missionary rhetoric.
We echo the missionary rhetoric because we have found that we cannot be Crusaders, not anymore. To bring the world “onto the right path” by force would be tyrannical, despite the righteousness of the position, and we, remembering imperialism and fascism, and having tried and miserably failed to secure a stable world order by those very methods, are certain, at least, that such methods must at all costs be avoided. World leaders and international organizations are straightjacketed more than ever. It is the U.N. syndrome: good intentions all around, but an inability to act upon them, for fear of infringing upon the self-determining rights of another social or political body. Teetering between “progress” and powerlessness, the representatives of governments resign themselves to sulky sanctions and passive-voice speeches.
We, cosmopolitan citizens, don’t know what we want, of course. (I am drawing closer to the title and point of this post.) At first there is a call that the West should stop its invasive tactics and leave other countries alone. Then the bodies of displaced peoples start washing up on European shores; now we say that the West must fix what it broke in the Middle East and make the place habitable again so that the migrants can go home and we can all live jolly and separate in this world.
Everybody is busy building walls at furious speeds, certain that if we push the uncomfortable, the terrible, behind the wall and leave it to sort itself out, we’ll be able to live in peace, each of us staring in opposite directions.
But walls will not work anymore – not when most of the human beings on this planet are connected by an instantaneous network that laughs in the face of spacial and physical barriers.
The famous commandment runs, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself – and in this brave new world, where we each have more than a billion neighbors, is it one’s duty to love them all?
And that, that is the millennial problem. The world has always been a horrid mess, but for the first time in human history we can see this horrid mess before us, every single day, on our virtual walls and newsfeeds and in 140 characters or less, and this proximity evokes a sense of personal, individual responsibility. The millennial problem is not arrogance, or cold estrangement, or superficiality. The millennial problem is cognizance.
I wanted to say, originally, “the millennial curse” – but “curse” has a negative connotation. Perhaps this cognizance is a negative thing, but the immense power of cognizance, and the immense power of the tool that grants this cognizance, cannot be denied.
I don’t know what we’re fighting when we vacillate between philanthropic and Darwinian urges – a human condition, maybe, internal and external to ourselves. It’s the eternal question of whom we’re living for. Shall we stick to selfish survivalism? Or shall we give the coat when they have taken the cloak? Is there even a point to giving the coat – haven’t we, for so many centuries, across the dogmas of so many religions and so many civilizations, been busy confusing charity with change – and ought we confuse the two still?
I don’t understand why older generations should be surprised when the same social media that makes us feel responsible becomes our method of action, no matter how vain and senseless. Is it surprising that we should choose to express our concern, our guilt, maybe, through the “shares” and the “forwards” and the donations to the HONYs of the world? I have listened to my peers wrestle with the same questions I’ve posed – good, cognizant, worried people, who demand of themselves, “Must I care? Is it right to care? Am I guilty before somebody, or am I not?”
As I type this, I am angry with myself; I had let these thoughts simmer and linger for a couple of weeks now, and as I finish this post, I am aware that my writing is unorganized, my thoughts and examples vague (in that abstract, polite fashion of politicians and government representatives who seek to offend no one and thus say nothing). I want to return to Vera Brittain for a moment, because she, at least, did not shy from directness and clarity in her opinions, and no matter how much I may disagree with some of them, I appreciate her ability to deliver an opinion so clearly that the recipient knows where she stands on it. Some of Brittain’s observations, now a century old, still apply today, as it often curiously happens, proving that human nature is unchanging, specially, temporally:
“Now, like the rest of my generation, I have had to learn again and again the terrible truth of George Eliot’s words about the invasion of the personal preoccupations by the larger destinies of mankind, and at last to recognise that no life is really private, or isolated, or self-sufficient. People’s lives were entirely their own, perhaps – and more, justifiably – when the world seemed enormous, and all its comings and goings were slow and deliberate. But this is so no longer, and never will be again, since man’s inventions have eliminated so much of distance and time; for better, for worse, we are now each of us part of the surge and swell of great economic and political movements, and whatever we do, as individuals or as nations, deeply affects everyone else. We were bound up together like this before we realised it; if only the comfortable prosperity of the Victorian age hadn’t lulled us into a false conviction of individual security and made us believe that what was going on outside our homes didn’t matter to us, the Great War might never have happened. And though a few isolated persons may be better for having been in the war, the world as a whole will be worse; lacking first-rate ability and social order and economic equilibrium, it will go spinning down into chaos as fast as it can – unless some of us try to prevent it.” (p. 472.)
This was post-war Vera, writing in 1925; in 1915, the bright-eyed centennial and her intelligent, academic peers concluded of the age they found themselves in:
” (1) The age is intensely introspective, and the younger generation is beginning to protest that supreme interest in one’s self is not sin or self-conscious weakness or to be overcome, but is the essence of progress.
(2) The trend of the age is towards an abandonment of specialisation and the attainment of versatility – a second Renaissance in fact.
(3) The age is in great doubt as to what it really wants, but it is abandoning props and using self as a medium of development.
(4) The poetry of this age lies in its prose – and in much else that I have no time to put down since it is nearly 2 a.m.” (p. 125)
Such words, in their loftiness, in their 2 a.m.-ness, make me smile. Apply them to Brittain, apply them to us. Is there a difference? Perhaps there is, in fact, no such thing as a millennial… only youth.