The 18th-century Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith believed that we needed two qualities in order to be a good person: a degree of intelligence and a capacity for self-control.
In one of his works, The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, he wrote, “The furious behaviour of an angry man is more likely to exasperate us against himself than against his enemies.”
Smith had a strong interest in decency and lived to practise what he preached as best he could. As an economist (he wrote the hugely influential Wealth Of Nations) he was an advocate of free markets but railed against the pursuit of fame and fortune. He possessed a keen grasp of human nature and knew that we humans can be as dim-witted in our pursuits as we are well-intentioned.
For Smith, the nature of our desires could be summed up in one sentence: Man naturally desires not only to be loved but to be lovely. In other words, we want to be good and long to be respected. Unfortunately, human nature often gets in the way of this ideal.
I wonder what Smith would have thought if he could have travelled in time and logged onto social media after the inauguration in the United States last month of President Donald Trump?
It’s true that politics has a way of whipping up emotions; however, Trump’s presidency has proved to be the catalyst for some rather explosive reactions.
In any functioning democracy, it is right that people should be allowed to express their opinions and protest wherever they feel injustice exists. But the advent of social media has created the opportunity for millions of people to express themselves with alarming aggression, thanks to the immediacy of digital communication and the sense of detachment that it offers.
On both sides of any fence, we see vitriolic comments and arguments flaring up that do nothing to further constructive debate. Instead, people are enabled to dig their heels in further without the need to consider the bigger picture of how their contributions affect the behaviour of others.
Mother Teresa once said, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” When it comes to politics, it’s important that people’s voices are heard, that lively debate is encouraged, and ideas are expressed and heard. But in effecting any kind of change, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
In Buddhism’s teachings we find the verse, “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.” How many of us have had our minds changed on a subject by someone yelling at us that our views are wrong? It’s more likely that we become further entrenched and will look to shout back even harder. In the end, no one listens, and we’re left with little more than a shouting match as we all throw alternative facts at one another.
To effect positive change or to turn around a difficult problem, surely it’s best to lead by example and work to create the kind of world we would like to see? Actions not only speak louder than words but their consequences are also far-reaching. While it’s easy to get caught up in the commotion of conflict and carried away by our emotions, it’s worth remembering that whatever happens on our streets and in our communities, towns and cities, we are all affected by the world that exists around us.
Another of Mother Teresa’s quotes presents a strong call for unity: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Perhaps this is the lesson that’s easiest to forget: that none of us exists in a bubble. We are all directly or indirectly reliant on each other for our success, happiness and health.
With this in mind, by listening to different views and trying to foster understanding, we can begin to work with each other rather than keep fighting against one another.
It’s tempting to see people with different perspectives to our own as being absolutely wrong, and it can feel, for a short while at least, satisfying to try to bring our opponents down.
The only trouble is, if we all strive to bring each other down, pretty soon there’s no one left standing to do what’s necessary and right. And we all suffer for it.
It’s great to have the freedoms that democracy affords us, and while we often look to blame the politicians, our opponents, the system, and so on for what we perceive to be wrong with the world, perhaps it would be more productive if we stopped and asked ourselves: How is my example helping to make the world around me a better place?
Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create.