Are we really 'all in this together'? Challenging the limits of community

When we challenge humanity to "work together as a species," are we making an unreasonable demand? Nahlah Ayed and Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip discuss the meaning and limits of concepts like ‘community’ and ‘the common good.’ They respond to recorded provocations on the topic from various thinkers.

Sharing space respectfully is a tall order for humans, argues poet M. NourbeSe Philip

'How are we going to share this land together so that we all respect each other and justice is done for those who've had injustices done to them,' Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip tells IDEAS. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)

*Originally published on September 9, 2020.

Words don't get much more politically charged than the simple pronoun: 'we.'

Most of the heat around the word in recent Canadian politics concerns the WE charity and its dealings with the government. But there's a much more thorny 'we' controversy every time governments say one of their favourite go-to phrases lately.

"We're all in this together."

People's starkly different experiences of pandemic life make it clear how limited those words tend to be in reality.

"Were we truly 'in this together,' we would not be in 'this' together!" says M. NourbeSe Philip, Tobagan-born Canadian poet and essayist. Speaking to IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed, Philip connected the current moment to the system of international capital and its roots in the slave trade.

"The first globalization I talk about: the globalization of skin," explains Philip. "So, no, we're not in this together. Never have been."

M. NourbeSe Philip's book of essays and interviews titled Blank explores questions of race, the body politic, timeliness, recurrence and art. (Book*hug Press/Gail Nyoka)

Philip's most recent book is a collection of essays and letters, Bla_k. It gathers together her thoughts on community, poetry, and activism from the past three decades.

While almost all political leaders make a habit of expressing belief in the common good during an international health crisis, many scholars advocate keeping a critical or skeptical lens on such language.

Italian political philosopher Giunia Gatta tells Ayed she doesn't even like the term 'the common good' in the first place.

"I'm always immediately focusing on the impossibility, really, of the common good," says Gatta.

"It seems to me that it ends up always being the good of, you know, the people who have more leverage in society."

The idea of a community working together towards a common goal may often be good thing, Gatta says.

"We don't want to live in an atomistic dystopia. Whenever we mobilize politically, we have a vision of the good. But I guess my suggestion is that we should be suspicious of that very good [and] always be very attentive to possible exclusions."

'Empathy and solidarity beyond our closest communities, beyond our social circles has to be worked on. Solidarity is not something that just comes naturally. It is an act of conscious reflection,' says academic and author Priyamvada Gopal. (Submitted by Priyamvada Gopal)

For the Cambridge literature professor Priyamvada Gopal, the elephant in the room when discussing the common good is — what she sees as — a vast effort by well-funded media organizations to spread straight-up lies.

But, in speaking to IDEAS, Gopal also pointed out the more mundane problem of people running out of time and energy to spend on caring about the suffering and interests of others.

"Like everybody else in modernity, my day-to-day life is often spent in figuring out my own survival and my own flourishing, and that of my immediate family," Gopal says.

"So it would be absolutely dishonest of me to say that I spend several hours a day reflecting on the fate of the stranger floating in the Mediterranean."

An empty phrase

Patti Pettigrew is a member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation. She's currently trying to get a healing lodge built in Toronto for Indigenous women who have been recently released from prison.

Pettigrew works daily with some of the most marginalized people in Canada, and facing many barriers and obstacles to getting them the help they need. She hears phrases like "We're all in this together" as hollow coming from premiers and prime ministers.

"They're not talking to Indigenous people as far as I'm concerned, or people of colour," Pettigrew tells IDEAS.

"I mean, we may all be living in a world with COVID, but the degree to which it affects us is much different."

It's been over a year since the filing of the national report from the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. On June 5, 2020, a rally took place near the Saskatchewan legislature to raise awareness about what protesters say still needs to change one year later. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

"For so many years, nobody cared about the women, Indigenous women who were going missing and who were murdered. And I see the same thing for women who are incarcerated. Nobody really cares," adds Pettigrew.

"And when we look at the Canadian history, we can see the systemic factors that play into all of this."

Reflecting on how to react to talk of 'the common good', M. NourbeSe Philip offers a possible reframing of the typical language.

"If we don't say the 'common good', what is it we're doing? What we're doing at a fundamental level is we're trying to share this land," says Philip.

"We're trying to share this space. You know, we're all breathing the air. And how can we do that in a way that is respectful, cherishes, nurtures everyone? That's a tall order for humans. Very, very tall order."

Guests in this episode:

M. NourbeSe Philip is the author of Zong!, She Tries Her Tongue — Her Silence Softly Breaks, and Bla_k: Essays and Interviews. She is the winner of the 2020 PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature and the Casa de las Américas Prize.

Priyamvada Gopal is a professor of anglophone and related literatures at the University of Cambridge. She's the author of Insurgent Empire: Anti-Colonial Resistance and British Dissent.

Giunia Gatta is a political philosopher in the department of Policy Analysis and Public Management at Bocconi University, Milan. She's the author of Rethinking Liberalism for the 21st Century: the skeptical radicalism of Judith Shklar.

Edward Jones-Imhotep is a professor and cultural historian at the University of Toronto. He directs the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and is the author of The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War and the forthcoming Unreliable Humans/Fallible Machines.

Patti Pettigrew is the founder and executive director of the Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society. It's a project to create an Indigenous-led centre for recently incarcerated Indigenous women in southern Ontario. They aim to build the lodge in 2021.

This episode is part of our series on the idea of the Common Good — the eternal search for humankind: what does it mean to live together in society, and how might we best share the world we live in? Find more Common Good episodes here.

* This episode was produced by Tom Howell.

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