From my window here in Burnaby, just beyond the view of the Skytrain monorail, the snow-capped peaks of the North Shore Mountains cut the horizon in two: half grey sky, half damp yet earthy living. The train cuts past like clockwork, the echoing screech of metallic friction breaching the windowpanes. This is the view from my apartment. From my home. But every moment I look upon it, at the city between, I see Canada. It is so familiar, so analogous to life in the United States, it can lull you for a time into forgetting the difference, though a thousand reminders remain.
Some weeks after I arrived, I was taking the train downtown to work. It was early in the morning, and the carriage was full with commuters. It can be borderline impossible not to eavesdrop on conversations, so I’ve largely stopped caring. The best way to understand a culture is by observing it, and if people wanted privacy, they wouldn’t be speaking loudly on a train. Maybe that’s wrong. Who fucking knows.
An older couple, one a greying man from Australia, the other a woman from Vietnam, began a casual conversation with four seated men, recent refugees from Syria. The conversation lasted for the majority of the ride. The couple were polite, asking about life in Syria. How they were adjusting to their new home. The men were polite in return, appreciative of Canada. They mentioned opening a restaurant in Vancouver, bringing their culture and cuisine with them into their new lives.
Listening, I couldn’t help but compare this conversation to the dialogue in the States regarding Syrian refugee. Trump’s violently dismissive rhetoric regarding immigrants, talks of a Muslim registry, all big-umbrella nativist policies straight out of the 1800s, once wielded against Catholics, the Irish, Germans and Chinese. No matter how much we seem to progress, we seem to slip, again and again, into xenophobic blindness, in the violent otherization that puts men like this outside safe borders, abandoned by the modern world.
I felt connected to these people I knew only peripherally. The man and woman reached their stop, and left. Polite goodbyes were exchanged. Two stops after, the Syrian men. The next, mine. And so life, and all the myriad crises of the world, continued.
We are aware we are individuals. We are aware there are other individuals, and there is a “Them” and an “Us.” We are aware there are many such as us. We are aware they are in families and churches, businesses and schools. We are aware of our families, friends and social groups. We know that some of the others are dear to us for other reasons, moments beyond a tribe and more of a memory. Some are only sometimes dear. Some come and others go. Some are never dear yet always near, enemies and burdens to the ‘I’. But so still are they “Us,” as the length of that “Us” extends as far as we permit it. “Us” can mean a family, a friendship. It can mean a union or a coalition, willfully agreed upon for its communal benefits. It can mean a culture, gender, creed or orientation, a region, a nation. It can mean the entirety of those who are called homo sapiens, bonded and defined by those genetic traits we share that stretch beyond any borders, or even, in a realm beyond that, to that order of sentient creatures, the entirety of Earth-born life. The elements themselves, proliferating the void, producing inhabitable planets, our preexisting conditions for a tangible reality: All us. Depending, of course, on who is speaking.
The seed of this idea (clumsily explained here by yours truly) is well understood by the Stoics, an ancient Greco-Roman school of philosophy preoccupied with living life virtuously, in accordance to nature and reason. They called this feeling Oikeiosis, that sense of affection that allows us to see past our animalistic self-involvement to the hierarchical levels of social groups that we naturally identify. Hierocles, a Stoic, saw these levels of self-ownership (this group belongs to me, it is my identity) as a model of concentric circles, beginning inwards with the self, pushing out through widening social groups (e.g. family, country, religion). The goal, in his mind, was to contract these circles and minimize the distance between ourselves and others, making the individual as reasonably equal to all other living things as was possible.
The idea is well-tethered to schools of modern thinking. There is an instinctual understanding in oikeiosis, in the ever-present chain of othering that gives us a semblance of social order. “These are me and mine. Countrymen, family, friend.” someone might say. “These are different. Foreigners. Strangers. Enemies.” The roots of our foreign policy, race relations come from how much value we attribute to others. The roots of capitalism, at who deserves the benefits of our labor, who we defend and assault in business and law, in social policy and rhetoric. If we sustain these impressions of division, if we push apart the circles, they become more solid, separate. If our impressions influence our actions, and our actions have consequences, then how we see the world helps shape it. Our words and opinions have weight.
With the rise of fascistic ethno-nationalism, it can be all too easy to see the world of choice and consequence ending within our borders. But in an increasingly, irrevocably globalized society, that sort of thinking is as dangerously short-sighted as it is offensive. We understand the human mind is limited by its reach and depth. It is best, then, to seek experiences in life that challenge our assumptions. To follow the model of Hierocles, if we are to bring the circles together, we must understand them. We must experience what it means to be a family, opposed to not. We must learn who is a friend, and how that group is defined. We must witness the differences of culture, all the manners of life. We are required, then, to actually live. To experience and understand each other, as best we can.
It feels ridiculous to feel the need to explain the benefits of caring about people other than yourself, to pay special attention to the way you affect all these widening social circles, yet here we are. Most of you who elect to read this will likely already be vocal advocates for equality and social justice, and the rare few of you who don’t demonstrate a desire to listen and learn that precludes the militant racists, bigots, misogynists and xenophobes. My objective, then, is to make an argument in the strategic value of sympathy and cooperation.
In America, it is easy to think that the concerns of America concern only Americans. Why should other countries care about how we conduct ourselves, unless we’re invading them? The idea that we are an island (an empire, even) onto ourselves is exceedingly prevalent, controversial as it may be. “America First,” says Trump, echoing the poisonous rhetoric of the past. And so it goes.
Here in Vancouver, an hour from the American border (though beside benign Seattle), I am provided ample evidence otherwise. Two months ago, as the autumn air first began to chill, the streets outside my office were filled with First Nations protesters outraged by the atrocities at Standing Rock. These people face discrimination and abuse here, as well, but the steps the government has taken to honor them go far beyond what paltry measures my homeland has.
This battle did not come from a vacuum. There would be no pipeline if there was not a pressing need for newer channels of oil. You could argue, “for greedy corporations sake”, sure. But greedy corporations satisfy their greed through exploitation of the worker-consumer, to sustain our way of living. Granted, we are not all active fuel-guzzlers, but the culture, the economy, the infrastructure, all of it are connected by simple economic cause and effect, creating situations in which those with the absence of morality and the abundance of power ply their trade.
It is easy for the self-involved to rebuttal with some line of thinking essentially akin to “But they’re not me.” Something like “they could just move, it’s not really sacred ground,” or “they just want a cut of the action,” all preemptive hypotheticals that negate the merits of acting with diplomatic honesty due to perceived holes in the system. They deny and pass by. These same people expect sympathy in return when times have fallen hard upon them. For all of its incredible and glaring flaws, Obamacare has still inspired a wave of begrudging appreciation for its protective measures, to the point that Trump himself has softened on his proposed cut to the unpopular program. Simply put, people lose respect for social safety nets until they themselves have need of it.
There is no denying in 2016 our voices can, when amplified, cover the globe. So, too, can word of our conduct. Our reputation internationally has diminished with the rise of Trump, as Canadians look on with bemusement and dread at our newly elected leader. His brash habit of tweeting has turned foreign policy into a fast-paced game of saber rattling. With our support, he endangers our relationships and standing on the global stage out of nothing more than toxic id. We have entered a world where chaos theory and entertainment potential of the disgruntled, disaffected masses has endangered our futures.
So, then, if we understand that the people we hurt may one day hurt us in return? Can we not see that this issue of ISIS stems from a decades-long empirical pillaging of Middle Eastern countries? A nationalist response will do nothing but continue the struggle. We go to Korea, Vietnam, to Iraq, Afghanistan. Each time, we leave a toll of bodies in our unending proxy wars. These wars deplete our resources, decimate the homes of innocents, radicalizing them. Obama did not found ISIS, but with the continuation of war, he provided a galvanizing agent of oppression to justify it to men and woman whose world has collapsed around them.
And now, in fear of the enemies we have created, we galvanize and otherize. We separate the circles. And the world, which should feel open and free, grows ever fortified to hatred and violence, in repressive systems and justifications that carry home, off the battlefield. In war, we select who merits empathy, and who deserves destruction. In perpetual war, we allow this dismantling of empathy in ourselves and loved ones, until the time comes that they are given the option to succeed at the expense of other Americans. And they choose it. Because the enemy at home is such an enemy as the one abroad. Because anyone can be an enemy, if we allow ourselves to see people as such.
In our jaded souls, we give permission to those above us in the strata this “out”. And so, in not expecting sympathy in ourselves, we stop expecting it in others. And some of us, without pressure, will allow any atrocity in order to advance. So we have President Trump. So we have America. So we have us.
The circles remain. Real human beings occupy them. Each of them could be you, from someone else’s eyes. We must expect better from ourselves if we are to expect better of each other, and to build a better, fairer world, where the bounty we have been given can be savored. Where the freedoms we believe our souls are merited can be expressed and explored without fear. To live in the communal machine we call society, and by giving each of us the best of what we ourselves desire. We, humanity, are each and all. It’s time to act like it again.