Beyond the Constituency - Seeing Ourselves in the Advancement of All
The body politic has been likened to the human body: its advancement as a whole is best served by the collaborative functioning of its subsidiary parts. In a world becoming more interdependent by the day, the importance of these ties is clear. Yet, today, it seems like the individual parts each function for themselves, not the whole. The transformation required for humanity to continue to advance calls for a profound reassessment of the parts—the various constituency-based identities we hold so dear.
This is not to undermine healthy forms of identity. The legitimate pride members might feel about advances made by their group, or the power of collective action taken around shared concerns, could be likened to strengthening muscles or increasing lung capacity within the body. These dimensions of human existence are helpful insofar as they work in service of the whole. But to the degree that attachment to limited definitions of “we” undermine collective well-being, they are no longer productive.
This is not an issue of parochialism alone. Clearly, it is problematic if I care primarily for those who are demographically similar to me, and exclude others from my circle of concern. Yet a more subtle challenge lies at the structural level. More and more, we recognize that a roomful of people who are all committed to the advancement of humanity in its entirety will, nonetheless, struggle to the degree that their efforts are pursued through the paradigm and machinery of constituency constructs.
From a historical perspective, the capacity to conceptualize humanity as an organically united whole is both recent and quite revolutionary. Our ancestors gradually developed more expansive notions of identity as society was organized at wider and wider scales. But, by and large, a global vision was not required for the species to advance. Today, human activity in one corner of the world can have profound effects in another. If we ignore the reality of our unity, we do so at our own peril.
Given the historic changes of the past two centuries, it is not surprising that our social institutions struggle. Most were initially established to serve a geographically limited, and often relatively homogeneous, population. Those numerous systems and structures were then gradually linked to one another through the web of treaties, agreements, and institutions known today as the multilateral system. These were steps forward, to be sure. But today’s patchwork system of rigid sovereignty overlaid over increasingly fluid and cross-cutting identities is altogether insufficient, whether at the global, national, or even local level.
The United Nations, an institution with which I am closely involved, provides a case study in the advances humanity has made in recent years within the limitations of constituency-first thinking. Created from the ashes of a war that saw the horrors of discrimination in all its forms, the UN did much to advance thinking around collective needs and aspirations. To “achieve international co-operation in solving international problems” (a notion that is taken for granted today, but which is profound in the scale of human history) and “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” are among the visionary aims enshrined in the UN’s founding charter. And, at its inception, the member states acknowledged the relationship between the advancement of the particular and the advancement of the whole, with perhaps more clarity than at any previous time in human history.
This line of thinking has been challenged in recent years. Narrowly-conceived state sovereignty has regained ascendency, and its logic of placing in-group interests above all others has been extended to numerous forms of identity. Means intended to advance the common good have been taken as ends in themselves: the human body is being sacrificed for the advancement of its constituent elements. Within the biological realm, this would be a description of cancer. And it is definitionally unsustainable.
Clearly, a cultural shift is needed. Paradigms that place the advancement of limited constituencies in opposition to the well-being of the whole must be replaced by those that value the progress of both as indivisible and complementary. If we hope for a world that does not pit one group against another, we must practice living in that way. If we aspire for relationships of trust to characterize the international order, we must demonstrate our own trustworthiness. The dangers of adversarialism and political posturing must be acknowledged as we engage in our advocacy and policy work.
With humility, we must be willing to admit how much remains beyond our current knowledge and comprehension. None of us knows what a civilization free from hunger looks like or how a society that truly reflects the equality of women and men functions. Laying such foundations will require a posture of inquisitiveness and detachment, an approach centered on learning and a generation of knowledge and insight. In frankly acknowledging our present limitations, we must also have faith that the knowledge, capacities, and potential of the varied segments of humanity will allow us to overcome our ills. In this sense, conceiving of each constituency as a piece of a larger puzzle may be helpful. It allows us to see ourselves in the rich tapestry of the entirety of humanity. Moreover, it speaks to the benefits of retaining a vision of the oneness of humanity as we work together to construct more humane and elevated models of civilization.
The world is often approached today through socially-constructed categories such as nationality, religion, and race. Ironically, the one element not constructed in this way—our common human-ness—has not been seriously considered as the starting point of thoughtful deliberation on the challenges we face. This is curious, indeed, given that the oneness of the human family uplifts conceptions of identity and belonging. It is expressed not only in our political and philosophical thought, but also in the spiritual and ethical traditions that have shaped personal lives and anchored civilizations. “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens,” declare the holy writings of my own religious tradition, the Baha’i Faith, giving expression to the universal spiritual truth that all are created in the image of God. The task today is to give practical expression to this ideal within the context of an emerging global civilization—to translate that which has been written into reality and action.
In response to a perspective such as the one above, many would rightfully wonder about the implications for our day-to-day endeavors. A few points in this respect bear mentioning: first is the humility and willingness to learn inherent in this approach which allow for us to demonstrate greater flexibility, devoid of ego or pride, in the face of new information. Second is to see the nobility and dignity in all, regardless of secondary aspects of identity. Being a global citizen essentially gives permission to the human heart to empathize, to connect, and to convey joy and optimism to those around us. Though there are many other ways-of-being consistent with global citizenship, perhaps most impactful is how we choose to demonstrate our commitment to the oneness of humanity through our daily actions: from how we spend our money, to how we organize and use our time. All of our choices leave a trace in the world around us. Everyone makes decisions that reflect their values. Those that reflect oneness and contribute to unity will redound to the benefit of humanity.
Every cell of the human body, every piece of the puzzle, is, by definition, a part of a larger system. Likewise, every human being is a part of the body of humanity. With this as the starting point, the contributions of each constituency can take their rightful place in service to the whole. Otherwise, the puzzle will remain unfinished and its potential unrealized.
By Daniel Perell, a Representative of the Baha'i International Community United Nations Office