A.L. Kennedy: To be learned, to be remembered

Covid-19 has been a terrible moment, but an educational one. Now we need drastic action, argues the author of We Are Attempting To Survive Our Time

A.L. Kennedy
Penguin Perspectives: A.L. Kennedy
Image: Tim Lane/Penguin

Like all terrible times The C-19 crisis is educational, not just devastating. The truth is always true. Less challenging realities allow us to compromise on how much truth we accept, but this distorts our position in reality and leaves us vulnerable when the testing times come, as they always will. Kindness was never weakness, foolishness was never fun, cruelty was never strength or a sign of health, lies were never anything other than dangerous, knowledge was always power, education was always meant to help us, unity and cooperation were always precious, hatred and division were always an unaffordable luxury, hope was always necessary, being mistaken was always reversible, malignant narcissism was never an outlook that would heal, build or sustain. We have been burned back to first principles and allowed a period a fundamental insight – whatever we do next has to be based on truth, unity, kindness and flexibility.

The preservation and enrichment of human life should always have been the goal against which we judged and measured every action, thought and plan. No one is disposable, everyone is necessary. When we abandoned that as an idea central to our society, we guaranteed our own downfall. This is reversible, but won’t be for long. For years, much of our public discourse has been about learned helplessness, despair, displaced rage and fundamental fear. None of that is useful to us and better narratives are already available.

Those of us who are not suffering can learn most from those who are suffering most and must help them most. This has always been true and has always been imperative.

'The higher the level at which corruption operates, the more of us it will kill.'

For decades the status quo has steered us towards sociopathic behaviours and this has allowed sociopaths to become elevated in all areas of our public life. This has always gone against natural, healthy human behaviour and has endangered us all. Oversight needs to be set in place to ensure everyone’s safety, from human rights law, to control of corporate behaviour, to good governance of financial systems and reforms of local and national government. Corruption isn’t just morally repugnant, it ruins lives. The higher the level at which corruption operates, the more of us it will kill.

For decades we have been trained to accept the idea that those who govern us can represent themselves as being against government, so that they can gather as much power as possible, while shedding all the responsibilities of government. That narrative has to be challenged at every turn, it leads to unsustainable, systemic failures. Public service and public servants need to be admired and rewarded at all levels – delivery drivers, nurses, care workers, shelf-stackers, council leaders, bin collectors, MP’s – they are all meant to provide essential services and should be adequately rewarded and subject to oversight.

In these past weeks, we have been able to appreciate what actually sustains us – natural beauty, created beauty, health, compassion, human contact and communal action for the greater good. Our future has to safeguard all elements of a full life. We have to protect our environment and prepare for the continuing multiple impacts of climate change. That will involve national and international action. We have to protect the rule of law in every area of private and public life. We have to make sure that our health and social care sectors are working to sustain those in temporary and ongoing need, rather than working to punish and remove our weakest. The state has to stop acting to waste lives and begin supporting them. Arts activity – something which enriches and sustains us, which gives voices to the marginalised and which encourages empathy – needs to be supported, both as a useful source of employment and one key element in a healthy society. We urgently need to examine our use of language. Precise use of simple language has always helped us. In our education systems, our journalism, our care systems and our local and national government the principles of accuracy, clarity, utility and beauty of expression should always be applied. We need to be supported in communicating our needs, our laws, our access to assistance, our communities and ourselves. Flasehoods flourish in environments of habitually blurred language.

'We have seen our common humanity and the extraordinary strength of ordinary human beings'

We have been already taken huge actions in unity across nations. We have seen failures in good governance anywhere threaten us all. We have seen demagogues and dictators cannot respond to challenges in positive ways. We know how small the world is. We have seen our common humanity and the extraordinary strength, courage and beauty of ordinary human beings. We can build the world we deserve, before we forget the truth again and begin to fail each other. As Climate Change progresses, we have to accept that our next educational experience may crush us absolutely – we must work to avoid that.

Perspectives is a series of essays from Penguin authors offering their response to the Covid-19 crisis. A donation of £10,000 towards booksellers affected by Covid-19 has been made on behalf of the participants. Read more of the essays here.

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