“Tied in a Single Garment of Destiny:” Ethno-Centric and World-Centric Perspectives on the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Dale T. Snauwaert*, The University of Toledo

The focus of this short essay is a discussion and analysis of the underlying perspectives that inform the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  I argue that a profound transformation in ways of thinking and understanding is required to effectively and humanely deal with the crisis.  The larger crisis that the pandemic discloses includes world-wide inequality, social injustice, socio-political polarization, and environmental imbalance.  It requires the emergence of an understanding of our world that is global, holistic, and grounded in the values and principles of justice, mutuality and interdependence of all life.  This transformation can be described as an essential shift from an ethno-centric to a world-centric perspective, conceived and exemplified by the philosophy of nonviolence, which recognizes the inherent dignity of living beings and establishes their standing in a universally inclusive moral community.  Furthermore, the basic purpose of peace education is explored in terms of the development of this world-centric perspective.

An ethno-centric perspective

Human beings understand the world and its problems through a world view or perspective; we think, act, relate, understand, and respond to our environment from within frameworks of understanding that are shaped by our core beliefs, ethical values, and intellectual and moral principles.[1]

I believe that many (but not all) governments’ understanding and response to the Covid-19 epidemic has been shaped by what we can refer to as an ethno-centric perspective.  An ethno-centric perspective perceives the world in terms of the division between in-group and out-group, between us vs. them.  It is “tribal” in its orientation.  It thereby conceives the moral community as exclusive, with members of the in-group possessing moral standing and thus deserving moral consideration, while members of the out-group do not.  Membership in the community is defined by different variables including shared ideologies, ethnicity, and/or religious affiliation.  In turn, the truth is grounded in a partial perspective defined in terms of religious belief and/or what is beneficial to the in-group.  The truth propositions of the in-group tend not to be open to falsification on the grounds of counter-evidence generated through impartial inquiry.

An ethno-centric perspective in US society and politics manifests in at least two ways: the propagation of disinformation and socio-political polarization.   In the context of the rise of the ideology of political populism, disinformation is widely propagated.  These attempts at disinformation often involve attacks on truth, expertise, language, and education. The delegitimization of truth is often expressed as hostility toward verifiable reality, including the idea of truth itself, the idea of rational inquiry, and evidence and standards of validity. These attacks are a prominent feature of attempts to distort and undermine the recognition and understanding of verifiable truth and understanding. These attempts are often executed by repeated dishonesty and the advocacy of conspiracy theories. Furthermore, accompanying efforts to delegitimize institutions that promote and sustain independent thought, in particular, universities and the free press are continually pursued, which in turn undermines the value of expertise as a source of truth. This attack on truth and its institutions degrades and debases public deliberation, turning it into sloganeering rather than reasoned, evidence-based argument.[2]

Efforts to delegitimize institutions that promote and sustain independent thought, in particular, universities and the free press are continually pursued, which in turn undermines the value of expertise as a source of truth. This attack on truth and its institutions degrades and debases public deliberation, turning it into sloganeering rather than reasoned, evidence-based argument.

Ethnic identity polarization (“tribalization”) is also a social force that emanates from an ethno-centric perspective.  When social group identities are sorted and aligned with a political party or faction, then partisan victory becomes the sole priority, to the neglect of social cooperation to pursue the common good.  Civil discourse breaks down into divisive rhetoric.  Polarization undermines the possibility of rational discourse among citizens, including reasonable disagreement.  From within this perspective, political opponents are perceived as enemies. The possibility of cooperation, reasonable disagreement, compromise, and toleration sharply decline.  Even when there exists significant policy agreement, identity-based political polarization prevails, resulting in anger-driven political activism instead of reason-driven participation.  Identity politics privileges separate opinion over reasoned deliberation—it is in tension with civic discourse, which leads to a polarized politics and paralysis.[3]  Polarization significantly impedes the identification and organization of coordinated responses to the crisis, necessary to serve the common good.

Polarization undermines the possibility of rational discourse among citizens, including reasonable disagreement.  From within this perspective, political opponents are perceived as enemies.

These two features of a ethno-centric perspective has driven understanding and response to the Covid-19 pandemic, causing an inadequate response and consequent suffering.

The philosophy of nonviolence and a world-centric perspective

The title of this essay is a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.  It expresses a core principle of the philosophy of nonviolence:  unity/interdependence.  King wrote:  “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”[4]  Gandhi expressed the same principle: “I believe in the essential unity of man and, for that matter, of all that lives.”[5]

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nonviolence follows from the unity and interdependence of humanity and life; violence damages all forms of life, including one’s self. To harm the other is to harm one’s self. Nonviolence rests upon an awareness of our fundamental interconnection.  Therefore, we have a moral duty to do no harm as well as to prevent and resist violence and injustice in all its forms.  In the philosophy of nonviolence this duty is understood in terms of a form of “love” expressed by the Greek word agapeAgape is the moral disposition to respond to others with unconditional compassion and good will.  It is universal, in the sense that agape does not discriminate among diversely identified persons but responds to the inherent dignity of every human being.  It gives moral standing and membership in a universally inclusive moral community.  It expresses a universal duty of respect for persons as ends.  Nonviolence, moreover, is grounded in and requires truth.  While acknowledging the experimental nature of truth and the fallibility of human reason, the philosophy of nonviolence rests upon the impartial pursuit and expression of the truth.  To lie, to misinform, to deflect from the truth, to ignore evidence, is to disrespect others and thereby to inflict harm upon them. [6]

These three core principles of nonviolence–unity, love, and truth–comprise a world-centric perspective.  This perspective constitutes a capacity to impartially see, understand, and respond to others with universal care and respect.  It transcends tribalism to embrace humanity and beyond to all sentient beings.[7] This perspective is necessary for participation in the identification and pursuit of the common good.  Applied to the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as future public health and other crises, a world-centric perspective based in unity, love, and truth would demand a scientific application of social intelligence balanced with fundamental concerns for social and distributive justice.  Justice entails a relationship between citizens defined in terms of rights and obligations regarding the provision of substantive social goods and opportunities necessary for human flourishing. Justice thrives under conditions of fairness requiring that citizens acknowledge and affirm their duty to each other out of respect for each person’s dignity as a human being, and not merely as a member of one’s in-group.

Conclusion

A world-centric perspective, in contrast, suggests a response in tune with a recognition of interdependence, moral duty, good will and compassion, and the pursuit of truth.

Historian and political commentator Jon Meacham has described the Covid-19 epidemic as a “partisan pandemic.”[8]  Meacham’s insight suggests that the understanding and response to the pandemic is conditioned by perspective.  It has been suggested in this essay that two opposing perspectives–an ethno-centric perspective and a world-centric perspective–are informing the response to the pandemic.  The ethno-centric response is driven by the features of division, tribalism, and partial truth which manifests in many ways including exaggeration, hopeful thinking, deflection, unfounded scientific claims, speculations, and prescriptions, among others. A world-centric perspective, in contrast, suggests a response in tune with a recognition of interdependence, moral duty, good will and compassion, and the pursuit of truth.  As we move forward into a future that will inevitably confront us with further public health, environmental, economic, and political crises, we face the choice of emphasizing our differences or our commonality, erecting barriers or seeking cooperation, dismissing evidence and reason or being guiding by them, pursuing tribalism or moving toward a more perfect union.  From the perspective of a peace educator, to help meet these challenges it is our obligation to help promote and develop a world-centric perspective as widely as possible.  [9]   The purpose of peace education should be the development of a expanded perspective toward unity, good will, and truth.  The transformative purpose of peace education is best summarized by Betty Reardon:

“… the general purpose of peace education, as I understand it, is to promote the development of an authentic planetary consciousness that will enable us to function as global citizens and to transform the present human condition by changing the social structures and the patterns of thought that have created it. This transformational imperative must, in my view, be at the center of peace education. It is important to emphasize that transformation, in this context, means a profound global cultural change that affects ways of thinking, world views, values, behaviors, relationships, and the structures that make up our public order. It implies a change in the human consciousness and in human society of a dimension far greater than any other that has taken place since the emergence of the nation-state system, and perhaps since the emergence of human settlements.”[10]

Following Martin Luther King, affirming our place in an “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” creating educational opportunities for the development of a world-centric perspective is essential to meet the global demands of current and future crises.

Notes & References

[1] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996; Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

[2] Frum, David. Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. New York: HarperCollins, 2018; Kester, Kevin, Toshiyasu Tsuruhara, and Tim Archer. “Peacebuilding Education in Posttruth Times: Lessons from the Work of Betty A. Reardon.” In Exploring Betty A. Reardon’s Perspective on Peace Education – Looking Back, Looking Forward edited by Dale T. Snauwaert. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Press, 2019; Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2018; Stanley, J. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Random House, 2018.

[3] Mason, Lilliana. Uncivil Agreement:  How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

[4] King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In The Martin Luther King Papers Project, edited by Stanford University, 1963; King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Nonviolence and Social Change.” In In a Single Garment of Destiny:  A Global Vision of Justice, edited by Lewis V. Baldwin, 125-32. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.

[5] Gandhi cited in Naess, Arne. 1974. Gandhi and Group Conflict. An Exploration of Satyagraha. Theoretical background. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, p. 43.

[6] Gregg, Richard B. The Power of Nonviolence. New York: Schocken Books (republished by Forgotten Books), [1966] 2012; Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Second Edition ed. New York: Concord Grove Press, [1973] 1983; King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.:  The Power of Nonviolence. Culture of Peace Series. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1999; Naess, Arne. Gandhi and Group Conflict. An Exploration of Satyagraha. Theoretical Background. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1974; Shelby, Tommie, and Terry M. Brandon, eds. To Shape a New World:  Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018.

[7] Wilber, Ken. Trump and a Post-Truth World.  Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2017.

[8] Meacham, Jon. Coronavirus has become a partisan pandemic.  https://news.yahoo.com/jon-meacham-coronavirus-become-partisan-114337650.html

[9] Snauwaert, Dale T. “The Peace Education Imperative: A Democratic Rationale for Peace Education as a Civic Duty.”    Journal of Peace Education, 2020.   DOI: 10.1080/17400201.2020.1713068

[10] Reardon, Betty A. Comprehensive Peace Education: Educating for Global Responsibility. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988, p. x; Reardon, Betty A., and Dale T Snauwaert, eds. Betty A. Reardon:  A Pioneer in Education for Peace and Human Rights. Edited by Guenter Brach, Springer Briefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice, vol. 26. London: Springer, 2015.


About the Author*

Dale T. Snauwaert, Ph.D. is Professor of Philosophy of Education and Peace Studies, Co-Director of the Graduate Certificate Program in the Foundations of Peace Education and the Undergraduate Minor in Peace Studies in the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership, Judith Herb College of Education, The University of Toledo, USA. He is the Founding Editor of In Factis Pax: Online Journal of Peace Education and Social Justice. He is the author of Democracy, Education, and Governance: A Developmental Conception (SUNY Press, 1993), and with Fuad Al-Daraweesh, the co-author of Human Rights Education Beyond Universalism and Relativism: A Relational Hermeneutic for Global Justice (Palgrave McMillan, 2015).

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