Grief. Compassion. Solidarity. Outrage. Hope. In the four weeks since our previous edition was published, the public’s collective consciousness has fluctuated between these various emotions, in response to a tumultuous set of events that have tested our mettle, both as a nation and as individuals. Terror attacks in Manchester and London, and the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower, have highlighted the fractious divisions that still exist within our society; but they have also shown us the best in people, in the way communities of relative strangers have come together, and in the bravery and skill of our emergency and health services.
In the middle of all this, the surge of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was a much-needed fillip. Never before in my lifetime has the political left seemed so energised, sweeping up the mood of a country jaded by austerity and buoyed by the optimism of youth. Beginning when Corbyn addressed the crowd at Prenton Park, and spreading into clubs, pubs and political gatherings around the country, the “Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn” football chant became the embodiment of this blossoming hope. This positive movement – infectious, giddy, even sexy – propelled us so close to the change we all craved: yet, the fact remains that we fell just short. At time of going to press, Theresa May remains the Prime Minister of Broken Britain (even though it’s looking increasingly likely that May will not be PM when you read this), with the chief architects of Brexit presiding over our government. That should be enough to burst hope’s fragile bubble, but, miraculously, it’s holding firm. In Corbyn we have seen that the appetite for change is alive and flourishing, and right now he has momentum.
In many ways, the recent election was like the UK in microcosm: hopeful for a more harmonious way of doing things, yet still deeply divided. You only need to look at the reactions of the political establishment to see this. While the public praises Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to the grief-stricken victims of the fire at Grenfell Tower, the right retreats behind its wall of contempt and continues to snipe. Just when we need togetherness, fearmongering rears its ugly head. Not that we should be very surprised by these actions of an out-of-touch establishment and commentariat, hidden away in their hall of mirrors. Our electoral system actually does very little to strengthen the bonds that are vital in holding the country together. A two-party political system encourages tribalism and petty squabbling between increasingly partisan sides, pushing people further into entrenched positions and resulting in a kind of détente. This is not what a country that is made of a spectrum of beliefs needs. A country is not one person: it isn’t even one political party. It is a wide range of competing opinions on a number of complicated issues. We cannot expect to achieve unity by forcing groups of people to comply with one set of rules of governance, only to throw them all out five years later when the electorate is deemed to have changed its mind. In order to work together, I believe we need to govern together, as difficult as that may sound.
In his fascinating book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari charts the evolution of homo sapiens through the great stages of human development: the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. One of the most fascinating tenets of the research is that humanity has developed a way of binding together in groups over hundreds of thousands of years, doing so via complex socio-political structures that require belief in a set of shared ideals. The modern cynic or atheist may scoff at the inter-subjective notions of religion and myths, but they have been vital in helping humanity to develop beyond their small bands of a hundred or so hunter-gatherers to create cities, vast empires and nations. It is only in times of real hardship that we see just how important these imagined beliefs are in uniting us: the average person can feel empathy for someone they see suffering in the street, or someone they know – but how does that extend beyond our immediate experiences to feeling grief for people we’ve never met? In Harari’s hypothesis, he believes that this compassion comes from our imagined belief systems that provide a shared identity – for example, the nation of the United Kingdom, political systems, football teams – and this is a massively powerful part of our humanity. If we hadn’t developed such an instinct, our ancestors would never have emerged from their close-knit tribes of foragers in the first place.
Our cultural beliefs, the things that we hold dear and believe are immutable, are but constructs of the human mind, devised to help us work together in greater numbers. It may seem like I’m deriding the specifics of religious creeds or cultural customs, but I’m not: I am, in fact, praising how important they are to each and every one of us. We should never disrespect the cultures and beliefs that any other person has, no matter how alien or abhorrent it may seem to us. Attacking the foundations of people’s identities is a direct affront to their place in the world, and it can only bring about anger and enmity.
The terrorist attack at Ariana Grande’s Manchester Arena concert was a vicious blow striking at the heart of our shared ideals (in large parts of the world, at least). The response from the public in the wake of this atrocious act – and after the London Bridge, Finsbury Park and Grenfell Tower incidents in London – showed the massively compassionate side of the human condition, shunning division and opting for solidarity. The choruses of Don’t Look Back In Anger that rang around Sound City and the Stade de France illustrated how our empathy and belief in the goodness of other humans is fundamental to our being. Alexis Petridis summed it up perfectly in a column he wrote in the Guardian shortly after the Manchester Arena attack: “Music aimed at teenage girls is derided but the likes of Ariana Grande provide the kind of empowering, transcendent experience that terrorists hate.”
Reactions to events such as these are massively important to us, as social animals, and it’s why so much scrutiny is placed on the way we respond. People sending bundles of clothes to survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire won’t prevent another building from suffering the same tragic fate, or solve the victims’ immediate need for housing; but these acts of generosity are vital, in a broader context, in letting people know that they do not suffer alone. The reactions of communities in banding together, like many did recently for the Great Get Together events in memory of Jo Cox, shouldn’t surprise us: it reminds them, and us, that we are all part of a wider support network of fellow humans.
I will never apologise for our overuse of the word ‘community’ in these pages when it comes to describing the network that we’re part of. It’s what unites us, what gives us a shared identity that makes us feel part of something. And, in times of hardship, we need these bonds more than ever. We need outpourings of emotion from our global superstars, to renew our faith in ourselves and bind over the wounds. We need to be able to sing along to popular songs with people we’ve never met, even when it doesn’t immediately make us safer. What we need is each other, more than ever before.