Ellen Joëlle Dalzell – 16th September 2022

The School of Artivism series discusses subjects, concepts and contexts relevant to the challenges faced by grassroot campaigners and is designed to provoke thought and action that empower more impactful, creative and effective campaigning.

Virtue signalling is inherently more concerned with the image of self than the subject of the signal being sent. In the same way that ‘philanthropy’ doesn’t do a thing for anyone in need of genuine systems change, virtue signalling doesn’t aim to address the issue at hand but first and foremost the deeply personal need to be seen to care. Ever thought about what the opposite of virtue signalling is?

To me the answer is clear: Altruism. I’ve been somewhat obsessed with this subject ever since learning about Darwinism at my staunchly Catholic German middle school, when, in the middle of a biology lesson, my teenage self loudly rejected the idea that life, the universe and everything was about ‘Survival of the Fittest’. It wasn’t the first time I’d been sent to the school’s rector for arguing with a teacher but that time left me confused enough to tell my dad about what had happened. He wasn’t even annoyed at me.

Instead he explained, “‘Survival of the fittest’ doesn’t mean what you think it means. And also not what your teacher says it means. Darwin wasn’t saying ‘fitness’ to mean being able to run the fastest or throwing spears the farthest. He meant adaptability; that those who can reshape themselves to circumstance are those able to survive when everything around us changes.”

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, not just what my dad had said, but that my teacher had kicked me out of class when he was the one misunderstanding the subject he was supposed to teach.

Don’t we all know people who are only too happy to refer to the evolutionary sense in ‘the selfish gene’, those who pray at the Altar of The Go Getters, those who are able to put aside community benefits for personal gain and dress it up as aspirational success stories? This doesn’t happen in the absence of conscience (after all, every arms dealer will volunteer the justification that if they weren’t doing it someone else would do it in their place) but in the dismissal of the importance of moral backbone and the very individual, personal responsibility toward the human community.

Yes, we might not like it but we can intuitively sense there could be an evolutionary reason in selfishness – you survive and the poor schmuck who doesn’t just wasn’t fit to live. But if Me First was the only thing worth doing why would altruism evolve and hold any social importance at all? That, too, with some research, makes perfect sense, even to an egocentric: Humans live in societies, and all of us need help from time to time. If I give help it may be reciprocated in kind further down the line when I need it.

There is a significantly more beautiful reason why altruism is sticking around and it concerns the miraculous transformation from newborn to altruist. How does it work? Trauma. Not beautiful and often extremely disproportionate, but universal and necessary. All children suffer some sort of trauma, even if it is, best case scenario, ‘just’ the trauma of separation from a parent for a few hours or being told “No” even though we really wanna! Studies show that altruism arises from the aftermath of trauma, but so does what we perceive as callous selfishness.

When trauma happens in our life there are two ways to get through it: Either we do or don’t receive (and are able to perceive!) help. Those who do not receive help from outwith themselves in order to manage the stress are likely to turn out below-average levels of altruistic thinking and behaviour. Those who do receive help (and are able to understand it as such – this is a matter of understanding and speaking the language of self-reflection, which we will talk about this in a future episode) turn out to show above average levels of altruism. This effect doesn’t vanish after childhood, though neural pathways in children and teenagers are designed to be most malleable, and, for obvious reasons, least biased by counter-productive life experiences. The older and more set in our ways we are, the more often we need to tread new thinking paths through the long grass of our cerebral experience jungle before we can easily find and habitually follow them.

So how do you make an altruist? Help someone. Help anyone you’re able to. Help them several times if necessary – and if you want to save yourself some time and effort, don’t avoid discussing and reflecting even on difficult topics: the greatest trauma we each face is being left to our own devices with our demons, failings and fears.

The good news is that this isn’t an intergenerational issue: Despite the stereotype that young people are selfish, self-absorbed and self-centred, Gen Z, Gen X and Millennials have all been found to be more altruistic, environmentally conscientious, and mental-health aware than previous generations. They have had the benefit of growing up with and around adults and in societies that evened the road to the Now, even if this was based more on Zeitgeist than our greater scientific understanding of these concepts today. Humanity is doing things right and the generations coming up behind us really do have better honed skills to deal with the glaring, planet-threatening issues of our and their time.

Feeling a bit cynical about that? Are you wondering: Where are they, then? With both the impatience of youth and the urgency dictated by a planet literally on fire everywhere, the younger generations are waiting in the wings of life, waiting for Mr Survival Of The Fittest and Ms Me First Go Getter to vacate the positions of power and influence by one means or another. Yeah yeah, those two archetypes struggled for years to get where they are, without help, they’ll have you know, didn’t do them any harm, though it was hard, let the baby snowflakes of today prove themselves and then, maybe, some of them will come to the fore and reach the pinnacles and status all by themselves!

Well, frankly, none of us have time to wait out the current trajectory of transition of power from single-minded, individualists to skilled, altruistic collaborators. All the unavoidable issues humanity shares, from the climate catastrophe, utmost social and financial inequality to calcified, self-satisfied democracies on the brink of collapse, require empathy, magnanimity and solidarity to solve.

It takes a village to raise a child. It’ll take those young adults to elevate the global community. You can help all of us by helping your peers and self-declared betters to deal with the social impasse that has resulted from poorly digested personal trauma. Earnestly, respectfully help them experience and recognise what survival of the fittest really means. They’ll adapt.

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