"We Have to Look After Our Own" - How to Make Generosity Mean


"We need to look after our own" is one of a family of phrases which are dangerous despite being superficially reasonable.

No, it's not just common sense and pragmatism. At root it is an expression of egotism, exclusion and callousness, although it worms its way into our minds by preying on our healthy desire to care for our family, friends, and other loved ones. One minute we want to care for someone close to us, the next minute we are parroting fascists.

Far from being pragmatic it is based on a fantasy: that life is some kind of zero-sum game, where refugees and native homeless people must duke it out lest society collapse. Actually, there's enough for everyone. In Ireland there are even 300,000 vacant homes. Maybe our jibes would be better directed at the hoarders in suits on the 92nd floor's boardroom. The people who flutter in private jets as children's legs are blown off by land mines, counting zeroes as the rest of us build the world for a pittance. Your enemy is above you, not in front of you.

But not only is 'we need to look after our own' selfish and based on a fantasy, it is highly illogical and arbitrary. Who is 'our own'? Is this tribalistic rule of thumb merely geographical? Or is it racial, gendered, or categorised by any number of other traits too? Is it geographical merely by nation, or also by province, county, city, town, village, street, building, and room?

Is it people who are born in Ireland, or does the person have to be - nod, wink - you know, IRISH? And what about the Irish predators among us, the politicians, bankers, judges, corporate executives, marketers, and other charming individuals who rip us off and step on our heads daily. Are they 'our kind'? Won't somebody think of Enda Kenny and Sean Fitzpatrick.

As the accompanying picture demonstrates, the final logical destination for this 'solidarity of the same' attitude is 'I look after myself' because no one is more like you than you. Everyone should just look out for Number One. Forget altruism, forget mutual aid, forget unconditional love, forget the fact that we are in a very important way all equal and all the same. This is precisely the mindset which has turned our world into a hell.

The only way to a peaceful society is broadening our 'circle of compassion' - as Einstein put it - beyond ourselves, beyond what is the same as us, beyond our cosy little ego bubble of MY family, MY friends, MY country, MY race.

At this point, someone may reply 'surely you aren't saying we shouldn't look after our family and friends first?' Alas, the things we take the most for granted are the most worthy of our scrutiny. We commonly make a virtue of special treatment. But limiting our kindness is no virtue, it is merely a sometimes necessary evil. Certainly the more universal our altruism the better our world, where we make less reasons why we shouldn't be good to someone. And really, our close friends and family are really nothing like the nation, which is an abstract idea that doesn't have any practical basis.

So to summarise, 'we need to look after our own' is based in fantasy, arbitrarily defined, and selfish. But lucky for us there is an even simpler replacement phrase: 'Help others'.