I am happy to say the vast majority of people I’ve met throughout my 72 years have been pretty good sorts. It has led me to believe people to be essentially good, which in turn, has raised the question: If people are essentially good, why do they do so many terrible things?
One need go no further than one’s local Member of Parliament. I have met a number of politicians, and with only one exception I can think of, they struck me as intelligent, well-intentioned women and men with high ideals and worthwhile intentions. Yet put them in the halls of Parliament House, and the ideals seem to evaporate, apparently along with their moral fibre, intelligence and compassion.
That which is required for a successful and harmonious nation are well-known and proven; a compassionate and hospitable society with justice and equal opportunity for all, respect for the individual, minimisation of the gap between haves and have-nots, tolerance of difference, good and free education, widely available and affordable health care, security for the aged, protection for the environment, etc.
Compare this to that which our politicians have given us: a rapidly widening gap between rich and poor with a huge percentage of the wealth of the country in the hands of a few; a failure of the nation play its role as citizen of a world increasingly desperate for control of green house gases, protection of endangered species, peace, elimination of hunger and poverty and provision of homes for refugees; its politicians more focused on getting re-elected than serving the nation and playing on fears which, in turn, evoke racism, jingoism and xenophobia.
Ask any individual to do something obviously evil and he or she will very likely refuse, even if offered money to do. For example, if a refugee made himself or herself known to a typical Aussie, and asked for help with accommodation or a job or food, 9 (and probably more) out of 10 would go out of their way to help or else find someone who could help. Yet, as a group we lock up refugees (including their children) in concentration camps on Nauru and Manus Island for an indefinite time, subjecting them to physical, mental and emotional deprivation and abuse.
Ask individuals if they would adjust their life-styles in order to protect their environment or to pay more tax so as to improve healthcare and education, and most reply in the affirmative, yet as a nation those same people elect governments which promise to lower taxes, support a private education system for the privileged and promote the mining and export of coal.
I don’t mean to pick on Australia. People have ever been so everywhere. I am sure very few individuals would have killed a neighbour who was accused of being a witch in Salem, Massachusetts, but put few of them together, and they would have a bonfire going in minutes. Ask a Mississippi man to hang a black man in the early 20th century for nothing more than asking a white girl on date, and very few would do it, but round up a few more, put hoods over their heads so they remain anonymous, and a KKK lynch mob is born.
You would have had a hard time finding a German in the 1930s who would be willing to kill a Jewish neighbour, yet as a group they participated in the murder of six million. This story has had many similar instalments over centuries of ‘ethnic cleansing, each one demonstrating the submergence of people’s goodness under a tide of mob rule.
It seems clear that groups have no conscience, no moral code, no accountability. This should not be a surprise, for groups have no compassion, no empathy; they only exist for themselves. There is only one guiding principle by which groups function: to maintain themselves. They are the constituents of that which St. Paul called “principalities and powers.” Even the church, as an institution falls, into this category.
The only right and good way for each of us to never give oneself to a group, even to a church; certainly not to a political party, a tribe or even a nation; never to an ethnic group or race or gender identity or belief system. Yes, participate in all of these groups if you wish, and use them intelligently, but never give oneself to them. We belong to God and to God alone, and no group, even family, has a prior claim upon one.
“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” (William Shakespeare)
As oft has proven to be the case, the Bard was spot-on, for to be true to oneself is to be true to the One to whom one belongs.