On the 15th November 2015, I joined with hundreds of people in silent vigil outside the ruins of St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry. We gathered, on that wet evening on the cusp of winter, to remember the destruction of the city and its cathedral in the folly of total war, 75 years earlier. We also gathered with more recent events playing upon our minds; the night before, 129 people had been killed on the streets of Paris.
This time last year, the world was looking like a darker place. 2015 had seen the election of the first conservative majority government since 1997, while the number of refugees fleeing the world’s many conflicts had spiralled.
In spite of all that, as we gathered on the streets of Coventry, I felt hopeful.
Thirteen months later, and yet again I am faced with trying to understand a world where people seek to destroy each other. Last night, fourteen people were killed in Berlin, just outside another church which bears the scars of total war. Where does that leave us?
If things looked bleak last November, how much bleaker do they look, one year on? The attacks in Paris were but the first of a growing swath of violence which has touched Brussels, Berlin, Nice, Turkey, Egypt… In too many places, the diversity of voices which enrich our societies are being silenced or homogenised. A country founded on the belief that all people are created equal has elected a President based on a campaign of systemic racism. In countries which birthed the enlightenment, populist, nationalist politicians gain ground. The cradle of civilisation continues to tear itself apart, with little regard to the human cost.
I can think of few no major geopolitical events in 2016 which have given me hope. From Brexit and the US election, through to the ongoing horror of the Siege of Aleppo and the murder of Jo Cox, 2016 seems to be filled only with negativity. Talk of a new Cold War seems ever more reasonable. Superpowers seek to expand their control, from the Baltic to the South China Seas. And of course, a great number of amazing people, people who lived lives of intelligent engagement and who offered examples to the rest of us, have died this year.
It would be easy to believe that, like a runaway train, there is little we can do to stem this tide of hatred. Demagoguery, bigotry and selfishness seem to have the upper hand, and it often feels that, for every step forward the world makes, it takes two backwards. In particular, we could consider Brexit and US election, and conclude that there is no longer space in our society for people who are different, that we lost the generosity we once had.
But the truth is not that simple. We have not lost who we are. You see, I am not naive. I know there is good and evil in the world, and in all of us. I know that we hurt each other, even when we don’t want to, and I know that all our progress has given us more ways to do just that.
What has changed is not our nature, but our priorities. Perhaps we have indeed lost sight of our values. But they are not gone for good. They are buried by our own concerns. If Brexit and President-Elect Trump have shown us anything, it is that great swathes of the population feel that the world doesn’t work for them; people who have seen their communities rust, who face unemployment, austerity and insecurity, and who have seen their lives only worsen over years or decades. There is nothing immoral about wanting your community to flourish, about wanting a comfortable life for you and your family. When everyone else seems to have it better than you, resentment is a natural human response.
We, as a world, need to regain sight of perspectives which are bigger than individual self-interest. We need to accept that concern for our own needs should not force out concern for the needs of others. We need to hold on to the fundamental belief that only by constructive discussion can we move forward in the face of disagreement. We need to hold on to the strong institutions and active civil society which are crucial to democratic flourishing, even when we don’t like the specific direction of a given institution.
If you ask me “what kind of year has it been”, I will be honest. It has been painful. It has been heart-rending. It has been one bitter disappointment after another.
2017 need not be the same. If we engage with each other, if we accept that we are social animals, and attempt to live accordingly, we can turn things around. Each and everyone of us faces a choice. We must all chose how we want to live, and we must be constantly making and remaking that choice. There is always scope to turn things around. As a great anthropomorphic personification says, There is always time for another Last Minute.