In his novel, “Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad explores the nature of civilisation and concludes that our “civilised” behaviour is only a thin crust over a depth of negative and destructive tendencies in human beings. The main character, Kurtz, lives far removed from society’s rules and laws, and has become a monster, unanswerable to anyone and free to indulge his darkest desires. The key point Conrad makes is that Kurtz is only doing openly what all of us think about privately. He has thrown off the “superficial” rules that usually control our behaviours. That crust of accepted norms of behaviour – honesty, integrity, tolerance and peaceful coexistence – is necessary to allow us to live together in society. But those things we try and control and keep under the surface – bigotry, racism, hatred, anger and selfishness – break through, given the right circumstances. Francis Ford Coppola took Conrad’s book into a new context in his movie, “Apocalypse Now”.
We all need to know and follow the accepted rules governing relationships, community and society in general. But those rules have been changing over the past fifty years, as more attitudes and traditions are being questioned, and there has come with that a rise in cynicism and disillusionment. What used to be called “good manners”, and other traditions like respect for authority, unquestioned obedience to law and the unwritten rules governing society, have been largely put aside.
Political disillusionment has grown to a degree that politicians are almost automatically assumed to have their own agendas, possibly be corrupt, too closely tied to party, representing themselves or their own place in the hierarchy, than the people who elected them. This is a well-known aspect of modern society, and one that, I believe, has been fostered also by a growing belief that we humans are just machines, animals who happen to have gained a position of dominance on the planet. The foundations of morality have been undermined by ideas like “my country, right or wrong”, or “greed is good”, and, that favourite of the Kurtz-like, “I’m only telling it like it is”. All used to rationalise arrogance, rudeness and negativity
Direct talk is good, and open dialogue is essential in a free and informed society. But using that freedom to simply attack, criticise and destroy is nihilistic and destructive.
But it seems that a line has been crossed this year, and it is one that may prove incredibly significant for all of us. Perhaps the rise of the Internet has been one of the most important steps in this process. When people find themselves able to comment anonymously, or just to total strangers across the world, some have exploited that to be rude, arrogant, to make racist or bigoted remarks, often unprovoked and unwarranted. The fact that there are no negative consequences to their behaviour only encourages them to continue.
The rise of Donald Trump may not seem particularly significant for us here in eastern Ontario, but it is a clear sign of how far we’ve fallen from any sense of integrity or honour in public life. Trump has made a virtue of lying unashamedly, of making allegations against others that are baseless, of attacking personally those who disagree with him ideologically. The horror, to use Kurtz’s word, is that this has brought him success so far, beyond what anyone ever expected. It seems that his followers don’t care that he lies and bluffs and has no genuine policies; that his idea of building walls and closing doors against “foreigners” is both impractical and stupid.
We’ve had some experience of politicians like that here in Canada, and even in eastern Ontario, but Trump is really a new step in the process of removing integrity and honour, not to mention public service, from society and political life.
His attacks on Hillary Clinton have been extremely dangerous to the public good. If he gets elected President, we all have to fear for the future. If he loses, then his accusations of criminal, even treasonous behavior against Clinton could easily inspire one of his adherents to do something violent. He has broken with all the norms of political discourse. But he has appealed, successfully to date, to a certain segment of the public. He is not alone, just the most egregious example of the phenomenon. No-one really expected Britain to vote for Brexit, and now they wonder what the future holds as a result. No-one expected Donald Trump to win the nomination to run for President.
The more you look at what’s happening in the world, the more you have to appreciate Canada and the basic decency of the place. First Nations are being treated abominably, there are too many living in poverty and despair. Many and numerous are the problems we face. But, so far, we have maintained a level of “civilised” discourse, and a belief in our common humanity in the face of selfish ambition. Lessons need to be learned, steps need to be taken to ensure we keep that character; not by aggressive attitudes towards others, nor withdrawal into isolation. But by reaching out, embracing diversity in unity, and giving the world (and our nearest neighbour) an example of what a nation can be that is built on tolerance, acceptance and diversity. We stand on guard, with open arms.