The United States is split in two. On the one hand are Donald Trump’s supporters and on the other side are Joe Biden’s. America is an increasingly polarized and divided country. In the effort to better understand what is happening in America — and beyond — InsideOver interviewed Gabriele Segre, director of the Lugano-based Vittorio Dan Segre Foundation, which seeks to extend and promote a culture of political and social coexistence.
Is coexistence still possible for the American people?
It’s very simple. What is happening at present repeats what happened during the months of the election campaign, when the opponent was delegitimized, refusing to recognize his values and intrinsic dignity. But this goes far beyond America. It is the same dynamic that appears in any competition, whether political, social or in human relationships.
Could you clarify that point?
When you delegitimize the other’s ability to manifest their identity, to express it fully, you create a rupture. When you delegitimise this ability, you are removing the basic conditions for coexistence. We see it in every type of identitarian manifestation: identities are multiple, mutating, they change over time. So each of us is the bearer of dozens and dozens of identities on an individual level, let alone on the social level. Our identities are religious, social, gender, political and so forth. When we refuse to recognize some of them rather than others, we’re playing a very dangerous game. We’re creating the need to legitimize our identity by the negation of the other’s. Moreover, historically, identities have also been affirmed through conflict.
Could you explain that?
Most conflicts, including wars, are the result of social interaction. When it is internal to a society, it takes on the terms of civil war, riots, protests, upheavals. We see it in America today, without reaching the extreme consequences of a civil war that hopefully will be avoided. When there is a confrontation between identities, historically, either there is a clash and war breaks out and whoever wins has a supremacy of identity deligitimization or, to overcome the conflict or clash of identities, a space is created above identity that encompasses all other identities. These two forms of identity relationships are unstable and inevitably create social instability, a level of disagreement at first individual and then collective that leads to a clash. Because as an individual you feel lost in a society that doesn’t keep you safe, that fails to acknowledge your needs. This is what is happening in America.
Speaking of coexistence, there is a phrase from Terence, the Latin playwright, which I believe is pertinent: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” It means “I am a man, I do not consider anything human alien to me.” Is it on this basis that coexistence is founded?
It certainly is. Humanism is another of the main factors in the culture of coexistence. There is a mistaken interpretation of humanism in the conventional wisdom. We’re all human and so being members of the human race is sufficient to guarantee coexistence. That isn’t the case. Coexistence is based on three principles. First: the dignity of a specific identity. Second: the mutual recognition of the dignity of the other. Third: humanism. Humanism is fundamental, it is central, but be careful not to identify humanism with human identity. Human identity is one of many identities.
The fact that I am human must not downgrade whatever else I am, man or woman, Italian or American, Democrat rather than Republican. Each of these identities is at least as valid as my human identity. This understanding of humanism is fundamental to recognizing that there is a lowest common denominator, but that it should not detract from everything else. Which is a bit of a risk when we talk about human rights. A problem is created which is equal to that of the non-recognition of humanism. It becomes an ideal totalitarianism that must be avoided.
How can we live together in the time of COVID-19?
The virus has hit the nodes of relationships in society. We had built an ecosystem that had its own logic and balance, certainly fallacious and perfectible, but it was still in place. The cultural, social, educational, generational and political dynamics that existed in society have been undermined by the infiltration of the virus. The related connections and relationships have also become unhinged. Intervention on one element had a domino effect on all the others.
So we find ourselves in a completely new reality in the making, in which we ask ourselves how we can strike a balance between the different parts of the system? This concerns first of all identities, with the ability to read and understand which parts and positions are at stake, and then to understand their relationships. Promoting a coexistence between them, the ability to find an ecosystem balance, is a task that lies with the public institution, the state, and we knew this before. But the state alone is not enough. We have developed the concept of the economy of impact, which existed even before the virus. The virus, in this case, acted as a catalyst for a dynamic that was already taking place.
And what happened next?
The state is no longer able to shoulder the agenda of total public interest, meaning the relations between different identities. It is no longer able to create a system of sustainable coexistence. Therefore each identity has to shoulder its own piece of responsibility, not as a passive subject, but as an active player in the relationship between identities. In the sense that the world of economics must no longer be irreconcilable with the private interest, it is necessary to develop a vision of the state in which the private interest coincides with the public interest.
Please note, we are not talking about socialism: the segment of corporate activism has to take charge of what the state is no longer able to take responsibility for. This is true of the third sector, schools, corporations and trade unions — whatever the type of representation.
Does this mean that private individuals have to replace the state to some extent?
Private interest as such no longer exists. Under the principle of coexistence, the virus has removed the possibility of watertight compartments, it has removed the correlation of private interest with someone else’s private interest. This today determines a new level of symbiosis, of interdependence that has to be faced differently.
What are the biggest risks for coexistence?
That there is no discussion. This is because coexistence is first of all culture. There is no appropriate recipe in terms of living together. There is the possibility of understanding the reasons for living together and interpreting them in specific areas of action. The first thing to do would be to look at people through the lens of the culture of coexistence so that they engage in coexistence, but this is not happening.
Are there examples of coexistence around us?
Yes. In the business world, for example, coexistence is becoming an increasingly important concept. There is greater attention to the role that has to be played in internal relations. Companies are also taking care of the needs of their workers, obviously as far as possible, where the state fails to offer its assistance, say. Companies are now increasingly taking responsibility for the community in which they operate. I am not speaking only of the environment, but also of society.
The world of finance itself is developing a new understanding of what is profitable. If we think that three years ago the president of BlackRock said to all its subsidiaries: “It is not enough for us that you are sustainable from an economic or environmental point of view. We need to see that our business has a positive impact on society.”
This completely changes the dynamics of relations between work and the impact it has. So there is a direct interest of the company to do something good within society. Good not in Christian terms, but in terms of a positive impact on the public interest. This is because this is the way business models are measured. That’s how they get their investments.
Before the coronavirus emergency exploded, there was a lot of talk about the relationship between people and the environment, about coexistence between nature and humanity. Is this also a form of coexistence?
Definitely. But be careful not to confuse the culture of coexistence. Coexistence with the environment should not be confused with coexistence in the environment. Because the concept of coexistence presupposes mutual understanding. And in the relationship with nature there is no understanding and so no coexistence.
There is coexistence between human beings within nature, as well as within the context of the virus. We have to start thinking of our relationship with nature in these terms. If I pollute the air I’m not usurping the air, I’m usurping someone else’s ability to breathe clean air because I have polluted it. So it’s always a human relationship, but in different contexts.
Action can be taken to develop an awareness of the environment from the Paris Accords on. It has to be done, but it needs to be accompanied by a strong investment in the culture of coexistence. It is not just about saving the planet, but about saving the planet to save the coexistence between us.