State of the Nation

Summary of the Gandhi Oration, delivered by Hugh Mackay at the University of New South Wales on January 30, 2017.

Despite Australia’s affluence and positives, he believes all is not well in Australia:

He describes Australia (and Australians) as “edgy, anxious, (and) too-violent” & an “uneasy blend of arrogance and timidity”

He wonders if these problems stem from inequality, while noting anxiety and depression are not confined to any particular social or economic stratum.

He wonders if “all this anxiety” could be the result of declining respect in the community for our institutions – the church, politics, the banks, the trade unions, the media, big business, even universities – that has led to widespread disenchantment and disillusionment – because these very institutions – supposedly in existence to serve us – seem to be corrupted by their own power and/or self-interest.

He cites an international survey conducted by Ipsos which he says showed:

  • more than 70% of Australians believe the nation “needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful”;
  • 68% believe “the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful”; and
  • 61% believe “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me”.

He believes Mahatma Gandhi – if he were alive today – would have wanted to remind us that if we lose our capacity for unconditional compassion, if we lose sight of our true nature as members of a society – and if we focus too much on our own wants, our own entitlements and our own gratifications, with little regard for the needs and wellbeing of others, there will be an inevitable threat to our mental health.

‘We don’t know our neighbours’

MacKay notes that his own research has consistently identified “loss of community” as one of the most common concerns among contemporary Australians – that local neighbourhoods are not functioning as well as they once did.

  • He believes feeling like a stranger in your own street is bound to fuel your insecurities.

He notes that a “disturbing piece of research” from Edith Cowan University has shown that only one-third of Australians say they trust their neighbours. Clearly, that could not possibly mean that 65% of neighbours are untrustworthy – he believes that what it must mean is that most people in our society don’t know their neighbours well enough to have learnt to trust them.

He is not suggesting that the erosion of our commitment to the community we live in is the sole cause of anxiety in Australia, or even the primary cause in many cases – because it is known that anxiety and depression are often the result of a complex blend of biological and social factors.

He believes that when the health of the neighbourhood suffers, we all suffer – because a sense of belonging is fundamental to our wellbeing.

Winds of social change

He notes a number of factors that have been propelling Australians in the direction of becoming a more fragmented, more individualistic, more competitive, more aggressive, less co-operative and therefore more anxious society:

  1. the rate and the relentlessness of social, cultural, economic and technological change over the last 250 years including the Industrial Revolution, the gender revolution, economic restructuring, the information technology revolution, and cultural identity change.

He notes that the symptoms of those revolutions are familiar to us all:

  • changing patterns of marriage and divorce, with 36% of contemporary marriages expected to end in divorce and the consequential disruptions of families, friendship circles and communities – including for the 1 million dependent children who are now living with just one of their natural parents;
  • a record low birth rate: meaning children, the great social lubricant, are in shorter supply than ever (while compensatory pet ownership has soared);
  • the rise of the two-income household, with a greater sense of “busyness” and less time and energy available to nurture the community;
  • our rapidly shrinking households, with the average now down to 2.6 persons per household and single-person households the fastest-growing type, expected to reach 30% of all households within the next ten years – increasing the risk of widespread loneliness, social isolation, even alienation;
  • our increasing mobility (we move house on average once every six years);
  • our almost universal car ownership reducing footpath traffic; and
  • the IT revolution that has led us to confuse data transmission with communication, altered our perceptions of privacy and identity, and – above all – made it easier than ever to remain apart from each other (while seemingly communicating).

He believes it is already clear that many of us are severely stressed by the struggle to keep up with the rate of change in our lives. Consequences of that stress are anxiety; violence – both physical and emotional – often in response to a seemingly small irritation that turns out to have been the last straw.

All about me and my happiness

The second factor is, according to MacKay:

  1. the pressure towards individualism based on what he describes as “powerful propaganda” – from two different sources – while carrying the same essential message:
    • It’s all about me – informed by the pervasive influence of consumer mass-marketing which promotes materialism and greed – more things will save you; more stuff will save you. This message is reinforced every day by political and other leaders who insist on reducing everything to economics. But the deeper message is that it’s all about my comfort, my prosperity, my wellbeing.
    • Essentially the same message – though in a very different guise – comes from the “happiness” industry, promoting the idea that we are all entitled to happiness – indeed, that happiness is our default position.

He says: “don’t get me wrong: I love being happy – who doesn’t? I’m not an “anti-happiness crusader”, as someone recently suggested.” However, he believes if you pursue happiness, it will elude you; if you think you’re entitled to be happy, then you’ve missed the point of happiness; if you privilege happiness above all other emotions, then you’ve failed to grasp one of the loveliest truths about the human condition – that we have a full spectrum of emotions for dealing with what life throws at us (the highs, the lows, the disappointments, the triumphs, the sadness, the gratifications, the pain, the loss … and the tedium) and every point on that spectrum is as valid, as authentic as every other point, because every point on the spectrum has something to teach us about what it means to be human.

And no point on the spectrum makes sense without the context of all the others.

Why isn’t it turning out the way my parents said it would?

He believes that the effect of all this propaganda can be seen everywhere in the burgeoning “me culture” that has Western societies like ours in its grip.

  • Think of the epidemic of selfies.
  • Think of the primary uses of social media – not to communicate but to brag.
  • Think of the growing emphasis on personal entitlement rather than civic responsibility.

The message of the me culture is antithetical to our true nature as communitarians; as people genetically programmed to co-operate rather than compete; as people whose very identity is inextricably linked to the groups we belong to; as people who will shrivel up (emotionally, if not physically) if we are not nurtured by the experience of engaging with the lives – and sharing the pain – of those around us.

  1. He believes another contributor to our present level of anxiety is the growing rumble of the three big threats – climate change, international terrorism, and the threat of a major global economic disruption making humans feel so powerless, so vulnerable, that many of us deal with our anxiety – or our fear – by simply retreating into a shell of self-absorption.

I can’t control any of that, so I’ll focus on what I can control – the bathroom renovations, the school I send my kids to, the quest for a perfect latte.

What MacKay is suggesting is that, under the influence of all these factors, we are losing our sense of human connectedness and therefore our sense of compassion.

We are not living as if we need each other, though we do. We are not living as if our own health depends on the health of the communities we belong to, though it does. We are not living as if we understand that a good life can only be a life lived for others, though that’s all it can ever be.

How else can you make sense of the idea of a morally good life? You can’t be good on your own: morality is only ever about how we treat other people; goodness is inherently about responding to other people’s need of our kindness, charity, compassion, respect – our love.

He believes a mental discipline is required regarding our commitment to the idea of kindness and compassion as a way of life. It’s the discipline of approaching every situation with a charitable disposition, with an inherent sense of respect for the other person, and with a determination to be kind – no matter what our differences may be.

This is the way we defuse violence. It’s the way we turn conflict into co-operation.

One of Gandhi’s wisest contributions to this way of thinking was to urge us to acknowledge that when we find ourselves in conflict with someone’s ideas, it is the conflict itself that is our opponent – not each other. MacKay believes Gandhi was really about replacing the force of violence with the combined force of truth and compassion – what he called “soul force”.

MacKay believes compassion is key and that we need to redefining the meaning of “neighbour” to include everyone – not just those who are like us and those we agree with, but those who are decidedly not like us and those we disagree with, as well.

It’s easy to be kind and compassionate towards those we like; not so easy towards those we don’t like. And yet how we respond to those we don’t like is the ultimate test of whether we have acquired the discipline most essential to mental health: the discipline of a loving/compassionate disposition which eschews revenge (as it lowers both people).

He believes a better society is possible by:

  • responding to bad behaviour with good behaviour;
  • responding to ugliness with beauty;
  • responding to treachery with integrity;
  • responding to lies with truth.

We can change

He believes there is a very long history of human societies placing too much faith in their leaders to save them from whatever they think they need saving from.

He believes people need to look differently at the situation and take matters into their own hands by embracing the idea that the state of the nation actually starts in the street where you live.  He also believes:

  • We can’t manage the economy, but we can decide to spend and save wisely, and to be more generous to the needy – the marginalised, the disadvantaged, the brutalised.
  • We can’t stop the rising tide of technology but we can be its masters, not its servants.
  • If you think people aren’t as friendly as they once were – that, especially in Sydney, avoiding eye contact with strangers has become an art-form? Then be more friendly. Start making eye contact with strangers. No – do better than that – start smiling and saying hello … at the bus stop, in a lift, in the checkout queue, and especially in the street or apartment block where you live.
  • You don’t know your neighbours? Try knocking on the door and introducing yourself. Become the kind of person who is always alert to the possibility that someone needs your help or attention.
  • Join a local book club or a community choir;
  • participate in a community garden;
  • play a team game with a local club;
  • become a regular at your local café. In other words, engage. Be there.

And don’t worry about how you’re feeling about any of this – whether being kind to people is making you happy. That’s not why you’re doing it.

If you’re looking for something to worry about … worry about whether you gave someone your undivided attention when they needed it – whether you really listened, or just pretended to.

Worry about whether you apologised quickly enough – and sincerely enough – when you wronged or offended someone; whether you forgave someone readily enough when they wronged or offended you; whether you were there when someone – perhaps even a total stranger – needed your encouragement and support.

If enough of us start living as if this is the kind of society we want it to be, that’s the kind of society it will become. As Gandhi put it:

You may never know what results come of your actions but if you do nothing, there will be no results.

Source: The Conversation @

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