Humility in the Public Sphere
“Humility must be central to the reconstruction of the notion of the common good,
without which no ‘we’ society can prosper.”
commenting on Michael Sandel’s recent book, The Tyranny of Merit (2020).
I read Martin Kettle’s essay in “The Guardian” (Nov. 26, 2020) with a sense of deep appreciation and a sigh of relief. Humility is such a powerful, life-enhancing virtue, yet it seldom receives the widespread front-and-center attention it deserves. Without humility, how can we truly nurture our personal and collective well-being? Humility puts our individuality in proper perspective; it shows us that, given our fundamental interdependence—our inescapable involvement with the wholeness of life—there is always more to learn about ourselves and our world. And it sets the stage for the emergence of what the great theologian, Paul Tillich, called “the courage to be,” which convinces us that we are indeed capable of taking on the challenges of exploring new fields of experience. Humility tells us that we belong to a world that is always we-oriented, whether we recognize this fact or not, and courage allows us to trust the kind of selflessness that this implies.
As Kettle suggests, we need humility today, in both our individual and collective lives, perhaps as never before, because we face an unprecedented “turbocharged renewal of individualism, inequality, and hyperpartisanship” in the public sphere. Of course, there have been times when humility was generally accepted as an asset in public life, and no doubt there are always some individuals in the public sphere who exemplify it as a virtue. However, at the present time, “the toxic polarization of our politics” around the globe is an all-too-clear indication that there is a far greater pull towards self-serving individualism, along with the divisiveness, inequality, and suffering it produces, than towards a public-service oriented humility, and the acceptance, cooperation, and social harmony it engenders. Given this polarization, what greater issue could there be than the need for governments to turn their efforts toward ways of bringing people together? Surely, there are ways to make the divisions among us permeable, so that all members of our societies can be genuine participants in the activities that determine how they are governed.
Of course, it will take time to learn how to resist the self-serving allurements of a “me-first or us-first” political orientation in favor of the more encompassing benefits of a “we-oriented” political landscape. Kettle suggests that this learning process can begin by prioritizing “listening and then talking to others” with a mind energized by the virtue of humility—a mind that is willing to “find things we can all agree about” like fairness, patriotism, helping one another, and agreeing about facts. But as implied by this last item, if our interactions with one another are to bear good fruit—the fruit of enhancing the common good—what we discuss needs to be based on mutual trust, which is in turn based on a commitment to truthfulness. And unfortunately, truthfulness (as reflected on in an earlier blog) is one of the most ravaged casualties of our current obsession with individualism. So, as Kettle observes, “we need to build herd immunity to untruth, and to glib easy answers too, and all those who purvey them, in whatever form.” In other words, we need the strength of humility—with its unswerving focus on a unity-building acceptance of things as they are—as an antidote to what divides us.
“Humility of heart is a great treasure because it keeps us honest,
cutting away self-deception, falsehood, and inauthenticity. It forces
us to be real, even when it is uncomfortable. It rescues us from superficiality
and compels us to always be true to ourselves and to others.”
From: The Mystic Heart (1999/2001)
Leave a Reply.
About the Blog
Living in the middle of things involves a willingness