I’m extremely nervous about mentioning what’s currently happening in the US, being neither American nor black, and thus almost certain to say something wrong. There again, I can’t not mention it, as it’s so hugely important. So I’ll do my best, and please forgive me if I say anything ignorant and/or offensive.
Trevor Noah’s commentary on George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin strikes me as brilliant and insightful: he says that the social contract that enables societies to function was broken, and is broken every day for black people all across America (and in many other countries). He says that the looting of Target is retaliation (and mild retaliation at that) for the metaphorical looting of black people’s bodies by police officers, vigilantes (Ahmaud Arbery), and privileged people like Amy Cooper who weaponise their whiteness, knowing they can use the colour of a person’s skin as a presumption of guilt, and that they can count on the police to be their allies.
Trust is a central plank of the social contract. We trust that everybody will generally observe the rules of a civilised society so that we can all live in harmony. We accept some limitations on our freedom to do what we damn well please, in the faith that everybody else is likewise accepting the same limitations, for the benefit of all.
Generally, when one person ruptures that pact, society calls them a criminal, and punishes them. The greater good requires that there are sanctions against breaking faith with the social contract.
So what happens when the person who creates the rupture is a police officer? (or a president?) When a man whose mantra is supposed to be to protect and serve, kills in cold blood one of the people he is supposed to be protecting and serving?
And the tragic Floyd/Chauvin story is far from exceptional.
According to The Atlantic, “Of the 1,146 and 1,092 victims of police violence in 2015 and 2016, respectively, the authors found that 52 percent were white, 26 percent were black, and 17 percent were Hispanic”, but only 13.4% of the US population is black, so the proportion of victims is around twice what it “should” be. According to several different studies, black men aged 15 to 34 are between nine and 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other people.
And the deaths are only the tip of a much bigger iceberg of over-policing, harassment, and disproportionate incarceration. To many, especially people of colour, “American justice system” seems like an oxymoron.
The outrage that greeted the news that Dominic Cummings, a senior adviser to Boris Johnson, had broken the lockdown guidelines that he helped to draft, may seem disproportionate, but there are some parallels. When people have made personal and economic sacrifices for the common good, and one person – especially a person in authority – acts as if they are above the law, the moral indignation is visceral.
As in any relationship, once trust has been lost, it is very hard to win back, and when trust has been lost in the key institutions of a country – its judiciary, police force, media, and/or government – then little stands in the way of anarchy.
I don’t want to end on a negative note, so I will do my best to offer a pointer as to what needs to happen, not just in the US, but anywhere that injustice and inequality threaten. According to chaos theory, a change to a complex system requires two complementary actions:
- Random shocks must be introduced into the existing regime. Yes, we have these, aplenty.
- A seed for the new order must be created outside the existing regime. Hmmm….
But I do believe those seeds exist. There are communities and groups finding new ways of living. But are those seeds strong enough? Will they fall on fertile soil? Will enough of them germinate? Only time will tell.
The Biggest Little Farm
Speaking of fertile soil, if you are in need of upliftment, I highly recommend The Biggest Little Farm, a gorgeous film about a couple who take on two hundred acres of barren earth outside LA and turn it into a regenerative farm. John Chester was a wildlife film cameraman in his previous life, so the shots of animals are just beautiful. You can go deeper with the Chesters on the Rich Roll interview.
Here’s a question for you. The Biggest Little Farm is a perfect example of a complex system, in which everything is interconnected. Are there any lessons we can take away from it to help inform the changes that need to happen in our human complex systems?
I’ve got 10 free passes to CogX (June 8th-10th), featuring Jane Goodall and Samantha Power, amongst others, on the theme of “How do we get the next 10 years right?” First come, first served. To claim your free pass, follow this link.
I’d also like to point you in the direction of an interview I did pre-COVID with my friend, Sue Brayne, who I in turn interviewed for my latest book, The Gifts of Solitude. She generously implies that I had some inkling that a major disruption was coming. Well, I did, but that was fairly obvious to me – I just didn’t know what, and when. If my crystal ball was as accurate as Sue suggests, I would do a lot better on the stock market!
I’m currently recording the audiobook of The Gifts of Solitude, hampered by the fact that professional sound recording studios are still closed. Living in the countryside as I do, I have to wait for all the birds to go to sleep before I can start recording, which around this latitude is getting on for 10pm, and I am so very much not a night owl. If you know anybody in or around Gloucestershire who has a private recording studio, please let me know!
I’d also like to remind you that my previous two books are available on Audible, narrated by yours truly. So if you enjoy listening to my dulcet tones, check out Rowing the Atlantic and Stop Drifting Start Rowing.