“Should I stay and fight, or just pack up and leave?”
This was the recent query of a very intelligent, thoughtful friend trying to balance personal interest and public responsibility in these “best of times, and worst of times” which are in full raging torrent in America right now.
When such a torrent builds it always seems to catch thoughtful people by surprise, a rude disruption of the halcyon present. I mean, here we smug, progressive people all were, intellectually resisting Francis Fukuyama’s theory about “The End of History” while fully embracing the inevitability of liberal democratic capitalism at emotional and experiential levels through our comfort and complacency. Then ... WHAM!
While that scenario may explain our present dumbfoundedness, it doesn’t excuse the excesses or the deficiencies of the current contagion. Nor does it relieve us of our responsibility to rise to the occasion and aggressively restore the social order. Not the socio-economic order per se, or the social class order, or any other order which puts and keeps people – pick your favorite minority or “other” – in their places, but the social order reflected in civility, erudition, rationality, temperance, self- and reciprocal respect, knowledge, etc. In short, those aspects of orderly social interaction which allow both individuals and society at large to move forward, to “progress,” as it were.
We resist a conclusion that this ebb and flow is endemic to the human condition because that means we are fated to an endless repetition of fix and bust, and fix, and bust, and fix, and ... Ugh! But this pattern is certainly consistent with much of history, and it is also consistent with the intrinsic nature of individual human beings. To wit: we come into the world as selfish critters and initially experience it clannishly, and it is only by long education and positive experience that our horizons are gradually expanded to include the grand sweep of humanity as a work of cosmic art, as divine creation as it were.
It’s a relentless process. Each new human being starts out as pretty much a tabla rasa of selfishness and potential, and then a whole bunch of circumstances start affecting the course and character of the little bundle of joy until after about 80 years – and two or three genetic replications, if one is lucky – the individual piece of performance art begins to wind down and then returns to dust; and the whole process then starts all over again. Over and over, by the billions now.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that in the course of this helter-skelter system of human development that the numbers sometimes get skewed toward the selfish and self-centered end of the spectrum and away from the elegant and elevated (civilized?) end. And when they do, it’s time for all hands on deck to restore order, to restore the sense of sanity which can rationally anticipate the perpetuation of the species instead of the sense of insanity which is bent on tearing up the whole place in order to get what it wants, or what it thinks it deserves, or what it believes has been taken away from it.
Thus my feeble answer to my friend that there is a place in this conundrum for both individual action and collective responsibility. For individual shame and for collective guilt, but also for individual dignity and collective elegance. For the ebb and flow of both the individual and the collective experience. Our civic responsibility is to detect the imbalances sooner and then address them more effectively. And our moral responsibility is to listen and learn, and to then speak and act, always in the service of the good.
It’s the only way forward we have.
Russell C. Fericks is an attorney at the Salt Lake City law firm of Richards Brandt Miller Nelson.