In the wake of the horrific act of terrorism in Manchester on Monday evening, a wave of inspiring stories of altruism and humanity have emerged. Of the taxi drivers offering free lifts, the medical staff voluntarily returning to their place of work on hearing of the incident, of homeless men caring for the injured and dying, of Manchester residents offering their homes as a place to stay to people caught up in the chaos. We have all been stirred by this wave of compassion, of generosity, of altruism – of humanity, in the wake of the utterly inhuman act of one individual.
George Monbiot is right however to point out that we shouldn’t be surprised by these acts. They are part of what it means to be human. The ability to empathise and relate closely to the predicament or another, even someone unknown to us, is part of what makes us unique as a species. It is in our very nature to act as so many have acted in the past 48 hours. That does not make it any less laudable that people do. Nor should it refrain us from praising and highlighting these acts of generosity. They may be natural, but they are worth celebrating all the same, especially in the face of an act designed to erode our solidarity and abuse our humanity.
A Monbiot says:
‘Altrusim and empathy are what binds us together, and what defines us. We should let no one distract us from the central fact if our nature: neither terrorists not those who, in response to them, demand we slam our doors in the faces of an entire community or an entire religion’
We must believe in the innate nature of our altruism in an age when political forces prey on our tendency to favour fear over trust. We must live and act in faith that to be human is to experience and empathy and offer love. That means not only being empathetic and loving ourselves, but living on the basis that we will receive it from others.
Which is why I was alerted yesterday by a friend’s testimony from some work he was doing in our own community. We are exploring the possibility of setting up a community resource called a Street Association. These are groups of 5 -6 people in streets and small neighbourhoods who work together to bring greater neighbourliness by throwing street parties and BBQs and addressing some of the felt needs of that street. In Birmingham 7 have been set up with the support of the local council. A recent analysis suggests that in one year they have saved the Council £36,000 in public resources through greater neighbourliness, experienced as reduction in the use of police time on issues of neighbourhood disrupted, anti-social behaviour etc. In other words, by at least this measure, they work.
My friend asked residents in a local social housing tower bloc two simple questions: ”How many of your neighbours do you know? Would you like to know more of your neighbours?” The answer in a depressingly high proportion of cases was; “very few” and “no”, respectively. This area, of a coastal Dorset town, not exactly a centre of cultural and ethnic diversity, shows the need for faith in the humanity of humanity. And it shows perhaps the silent work of fear, created not so much by terrorists but by the same forces that have brought us into a place where Brexit was possible and the rise of far-right parties a reality. Which is perhaps why we shout all the louder when we see acts of humanity from stranger to stranger, from the homeless man to the affluent woman, from the Muslim taxi-driver to the white-British man. For it takes an attack on a whole community to bring that latent humanity to a level that, for a period at least, seems to embrace the whole community. And that is something we long for.
So what do we need? We need leaders. People who believe in the inherent worth of community and solidarity that they will lead others in the reinforcing the local networks and other forms of social capital that have been eroded in the past few generations. We need people who will perhaps forgo or adjust the atomised life of the affluent commuter in order to plant their feet firmly in their own community for the common good. We need organisers who will not allow the insidious effects of individualism and consumerism stop them from believing in the innate value all human-beings place on community and solidarity. We need people who will remind us again what community looks like by showing how to get there again.
The American farmer and poet Wendell Berry once said ‘what I stand for is what I stand on’. We all stand with Manchester this week. Let us also commit to standing with and standing for the communities, neighbourhoods and gatherings of humanity that inhabit the same ground we stand on.