We will not defeat harshness and extremism with even more unpleasantness. It is time to bring back civility to public life.
We have forgotten what our parents taught us. They told us to be modest, to be generous, not to take too much, not to contribute too little. They told us to be patient. And, occasionally, they warned us that life isn’t always fair.
We were told. But exciting modernity tantalises with offers of infinite and instantaneous pleasures. The science fiction of our youth has become everyday reality. The world is open to us, at our fingertips. Almost anything is possible, if you can afford it. And even if you can’t afford it, well, modern finance may find a way round that too, for some.
The story for those who are on the highest incomes, or who have inherited wealth, is good. But for the great majority things look different. Is it any wonder that people are unhappy? Their economic futures are uncertain. The robots are coming, apparently to take 47% of the jobs if you believe the most extravagant of the forecasts. Official data may say one thing about Gini coefficients and relative inequality. But most people see only this: huge and growing wealth at the top, a struggle for the rest. Some worry about how to spend it, the majority worry about where it is going to come from.
This all applies, with added intensity, to younger generations, who will have to take on large amounts of debt to receive a university education and will not, without a parental hand-out, be able to buy a home for decades, perhaps ever.
Of course people are anxious and angry. They naturally seek simple solutions and are seduced by those who offer them. Who has time for nuance, elaborate arguments, or complicated speech? Take back control. Make America great again. That is what many people want to hear, and vote for.
This is where the financialisation of life and intense (global and domestic) competition have brought us. In developed economies there are only a few winners in this game, and many losers. As Margaret Heffernan has argued, there is in fact a bigger prize to aim for – a more collaborative approach to achieving worthwhile things in business and in life. Less comparing ourselves with others, more seeking happiness in simpler and sustainable activity. Fewer attempts to scramble up the career ladder, more time spent with family and friends. A return to restraint, to modesty, and a curbing of excess. Less materialism, more humanity.
This may be too much to hope for. But there is something we could do about one of the most obvious and unappealing consequences of the harsh times we are living through. And that is to reassert the need for civility, and kindness, in our dealings with others.
Farage and Trump are appalling role models. Of course racist attacks and hate speech have risen in the wake of their successful electoral campaigns. They have stirred up and exploited populism of the ugliest kind.
But we do not have to succumb to it. We can refuse to sink to that level. We can choose to be kinder to each other. Not in the sense of the once briefly fashionable “random acts of kindness” way. No: a conscious and considered decision to be civil, to listen more, spout less, and be kind.
A well-known Quaker saying goes like this:
“I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Selfish, thoughtless individualism has brought us down. The prime minister is right: the economy is not working for too many people. Something more collaborative, more sustainable, more human, more kind, is needed. It is up to us to bring it about.
Stefan Stern is a management writer and business professor at Cass Business School. He has been banging on about leadership and management over two decades and sees no reason to stop now.