Surviving Selfishly

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This article was published on PETRIe,  on August 23, 2016. You can read the original here.


In his 2010 book, The Last Train from Hiroshima, author Charles Pellegrino quotes a Hiroshima survivor stating that the ones who survived the bombing were those who looked after their own safety first. In such a case, people were clearly just reacting to emergency, literally a matter of life or death. However, we often witness emergency scenarios in which human beings have enough time to decide whether to put their own safety at risk and help others, or to deliberately disregard them. In nature, humans survived with nurture and care from their tribe. In contemporary societies, we survive by abiding to unwritten rules to care for our neighbour. So what can we make today of this instinctive reaction to sacrifice the other?

Since 2015, the consequences of the war in Syria have forced European nations to address the refugee crisis. Some major European cities have led the way to welcoming refugees, and are providing newcomers with jobs, education and housing. However, many NGOs consider there’s room for improvement. For example, Moving Europe, a joint initiative of NGOs, provides independent information about migrants and refugees at the borders of Europe, challenging mainstream narratives of migration, citizenship, and austerity.

Despite such efforts to show the gruesome realities of refugees, many Europeans seem unimpressed, even suspicious of migrants and their intentions. A recent survey shows that a majority of Europeans believe that immigration can increase the chances of terror attacks. From this belief to labelling immigrants as dangerous is a small step. Arguably, this is one of the ways we sacrifice the weak, in order to protect ourselves, creating phobias and legitimising egotistical decisions. An indication of it is the rise of right-wing political discourse across Europe.

This phenomenon is not new; Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front in France, or UKIP in the UK have been active for a while. Traditionally welcoming countries, such as Sweden or Denmark, increasingly oppose immigration, which has resulted in unusual xenophobic attacks and demonstrations in these societies. In fact, emerging far right political parties capitalise on this instinctual fear of foreigners, and become strangely popular. Denmark’s People’s Party, and the Sweden Democrats are two good examples of this.

We are innately afraid of the new and the strange, and this is understandable, as it often keeps us alive. However, it makes less sense to choose selfishness over solidarity, or own comfort over human lives, when there is time to do things right. Nevertheless, many Europeans have been defeated by fear, and believe that the fast way out is the best. As a result, extremist political parties and other fanatic social groups have turned this into a surge of hate and racism. Is our inherited instinct of survival selfishly telling us to ignore the pain of others? And if yes, is there a way to evolve?

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