The elephant(s) in the room

by | Jun 14, 2020 | 0 comments

By Sitara Morgenster

How often do you completely ignore someone’s question, to broach the subject you actually want to talk about? I don’t know about you, but it seems drilled in to me to try and answer someone as accurately as possible. Especially in formal situations, where I feel my reputation is at stake. I even seem to have developed an antenna to give the “asker” the answer I think they want to hear.

I’m not talking about a politician evading a direct answer to a question from an interviewer, by presenting a whole lot of waffle. No, I’m talking about the politically incorrect way of changing the topic to address one or more elephants in the room. The way that tickles our innate inclination for curiosity and true exploration.

The way of pushing boundaries to create real human growth. The way historian Rutger Bregman did at the World Economic Forum in Davos, at the end of last month. Sitting on the Time magazine panel on equality, he was asked a question about his book, but instead of politely answering, delivered a one-and-a-half minute speech confronting all the rich, tax-evading millionaires, billionaires and zillionaires to start paying their share.

He explained later in a talk show in his home country that he’d been feeling increasingly uncomfortable during his stay at the high profile global event, “like a firefighter at a firefighters conference, where no one is allowed to talk about water.” So, the night before his appearance on the panel, in his hotel room, he memorised what he really wanted to say, and sprung it on the unassuming audience and panel leader when asked, well, something completely different.

“I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share,” he said. Of course, it wasn’t just the fact that Bregman challenged the status quo and the powers that be, that got me excited, but the content of his message.

“We can talk for a very long time about all those stupid philanthropy schemes, but we’ve got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. All the rest is bullshit, in my opinion,” Bregman said. He also dared to mention that he felt it was odd that around 1,500 Davos participants traveled there by private jet (to hear David Attenborough talk about climate change!). I’ve always felt a frustration with charitable organisations, because none of them proposes any fundamental changes that will begin to profit all of humanity.

Charities do fantastic work, but always only with a fragment of life on earth to try and make the world a better place, whereby they operate within the framework of the existing power structures. Oscar Wilde, in “The Soul of Man”, called charity “a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution… usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise private lives [of the poor]”, as well as a remedy that prolongs the “disease” of poverty, rather than curing it.

I couldn’t agree more. The wonderful thinker Slavoj Žižek says it even more brutally honest: “When confronted with the starving child, we are told: ‘For the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can save her life!’, the true message is: For the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can continue in your ignorant and pleasurable life, not only not feeling any guilt, but even feeling good for having participated in the struggle against suffering!”

I’ve always felt that there (still) are enough resources in the world to feed everyone and to provide people’s basic needs for a fulfilling, healthy and happy life. In that sense, charity is a natural phenomena and operating on the principle of individual sacrifice.

In his book, “Utopia for realists, and how to get there”, my Davos-hero Rutger Bregman shows that poverty has nothing to do with laziness, or stupidity, a personality defect or lack of character. It’s caused by a lack of cash. And there are a few very effective, creative and relatively easy ways of solving this problem. All we need to do is come together for the sake of all humanity and make the necessary sacrifices. It can be that simple. The necessary political clout will follow. It will have to.

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