The Pandemic will Fundamentally Change our Character and our Generation
Extended BBC Newsnight Interview
On Tuesday 17th March 2020, Rabbi Sacks was interviewed by Emily Maitlis on BBC Newsnight about how the themes of his new book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times relate to the current Coronavirus situation.
Emily Maitlis: Lord Sacks, you’ve talked a lot about the “I” versus the “we”, the individual versus the community spirit. That’s suddenly got an awful lot harder with the restrictions put upon us.
Rabbi Sacks: No, I think exactly the opposite. Bad events like the coronavirus, the worst certainly in my lifetime, do sometimes bring out the worst in us, but they also bring out the best. Right now, in communities across the country there are groups of people circulating elderly and vulnerable people saying, “Can I help?” Supermarkets are gearing up to provide basic supplies. Young people are preparing to deliver medicines to people in need. It’s a little like the wartime spirit. And we’ll see more and more of this as time goes on. We are going to see a renewal of the “we” of the country.
Emily Maitlis: Except that coming together is partly metaphorical now because we can’t come together, we can’t be a community, we can’t reach out and touch and hug in that same way. We’re told to self-isolate if we feel the need, that is also pulling us apart.
Rabbi Sacks: It is physically pulling us apart. Of course, right now, the social media, about which I have sometimes critical things to say, is going to connect us together. People are going to stay in touch. I think it’s very important for us to reach out to people who are on their own. Phone them, or FaceTime them, or what have you. And I do think that this split attention with everyone looking at something different that has so dis-aggregated us as a culture is going to change because we’re all pretty much watching the same news, reacting in pretty much the same way. So, although we’re physically not together mentally and emotionally, I think we will be.
Emily Maitlis: We’re talking a lot, at the moment, about “the greater good.” It’s a phrase that we think we understand, but it’s harder in practise. We are tribes, we are families, we are units first and foremost. I wonder if you have to recognise that inevitably people will think about their loved ones before they think about the wider arena.
Rabbi Sacks: We’re all part of circles. There’s a narrow circle of family, then community, then society, then nation, then the larger family of nations. There are ranges of circles but, right now, I don’t know when we’ve been more embraced, every one of us in a vital and personal way with this huge circle of humanity. I don’t know when all the countries of the world have simultaneously faced the same danger. Just three or four weeks ago we could say this is happening to someone else somewhere else, a half a world away. All of a sudden, it’s now affecting every one of us. So, I think that that physical isolation is nonetheless going to go hand-in-hand with emotional and even moral sense of solidarity.
Emily Maitlis: But on a very practical level, a lot of us are now wrestling with what we say to elderly parents. Do we forbid them from socialising, from having their friends round, from coming over to our houses because it’s imperative to follow these government guidelines? Or do we listen to their needs and their wishes first?
Rabbi Sacks: The art here is to try and do both at the same time as far as you can. Sometimes I’m going to have to see my grandchildren via WhatsApp, or FaceTime, or Facebook. And I’m going to miss seeing them directly, but I still love their smile when my daughter sends me the photographs. I think I’m going to phone my family every day, if they’ll put up with it, because I never used to do that, we used to rely on seeing each other once a week. I think it’s very important not to expose our family to unnecessary risks. We’re going to come through this, whether it takes three months, or six months, or even more, we’ll come through it safe and alive. And I think that is the most important thing.
Emily Maitlis: There will be some very elderly people, or very frail people thinking, “There’s a chance I won’t make it through this. I wouldn’t see the year out anyway, and I’d prefer to spend time with my children, with my grandchildren than being left on my own, and being told what’s good for me.” What would your response be to that, to them?
Rabbi Sacks: Keep them six feet away. If that is a dying wish, God forbid, then it’s very, very hard to deny that without being inhuman, and I think one would regret it for all one’s days. But there are ways of doing that at a distance that minimise the risk. And that’s what we’re going to have to do. We cannot allow the old, the frail, the vulnerable to feel completely abandoned, completely alone. We cannot do that. So, to the extent that the phone call will do, or the distance-visit will do, we have to do that. At the end of the day though, you can’t finally say no, but you can do it with a minimum of risk.
Emily Maitlis: You will be called upon in the weeks and months to conduct funerals that you would probably never have thought that you would be doing. How do you make that safe and also humane? How do you make sure that people aren’t seeing their relatives dying alone, or buried alone?
Rabbi Sacks: I did it just two days ago, and I have to say it’s heartbreaking. We had a very, very small attendance at the funeral. Everyone very careful to keep their distance. And this was somebody who died who would have had many, many hundreds and, obviously, the family was heartbroken, not just at the grief, but this inability for others to join in that grief. But they know perfectly well that they had to restrict it, and to say, “When all this is over we will remember, and we will come together, and this is not something that’s going to last forever.”
Emily Maitlis: Our generation, my generation has not lived through war, or famine, or privation in this country. Our young have been called snowflakes. Do you think that we are unprepared for this challenge?
Rabbi Sacks: I think there is something within us, it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, that makes us social animals, that makes us feel better when we are altruistic, when we help others, when we make someone else’s life better. So, I think, we’re going to be tried as the nation was tried during World War II, but thank heavens not through war, not through terror. I mean this is awful, but it could have been so much more awful. And we are going to come through this with young people, and every single individual who lives through it feeling a much stronger sense of identification with others, a much stronger commitment to helping others who need help. This, in a tragic way, is probably the lesson we needed as a nation, and as a world.
Emily Maitlis: Do you think it will fundamentally change our character and our generation?
Rabbi Sacks: I think so. I don’t think anyone who thinks hard about how one tiny microscopic virus has brought the whole of humanity to its knees can be indifferent to nature anymore. So, this is going to make us more sensitive to issues like climate change. I don’t think that we will be able to maintain the degree of globalisation of the economy that we’ve had before. How can we rely entirely on outsourcing our manufacturing to China, outsourcing our pharmaceuticals to India? We’re going to have to become more self-reliant as nations, and that’s going to benefit an awful lot of people who’ve been left behind by globalisation. So, I think there are good consequences that are going to come out of this, it’s just a matter of maintaining our courage, our confidence, and our hope until we are through it.
Emily Maitlis: Have you been surprised by how people have responded to this so far? Be it the stockpiling of groceries, or the altruism towards neighbours, does human nature still have the power to surprise you?
Rabbi Sacks: I think the stockpiling was really surprising and pretty distressing, to be honest with you. And we just say, “I am only concerned with me and my family. Let the rest of the world perish.” That’s just morally unacceptable, and I’m pretty sure the supermarkets will put an end to it quite soon. If not, then the government will have to introduce rationing of certain goods, I have no doubt. But the goodness of people has not surprised me at all because, out of crisis, human nature always tends to goodness, to help. I gave the example in my book of that little town of Gander in Newfoundland where all the aeroplanes were diverted after 9/11. And this tiny little town of 10,000 people became a town of 10,000 heroes and saints. And, now, that’s all of us. So, the good never surprises me, the bad sometimes does.
Emily Maitlis: When you talk of towns of heroes and saints, I grew up on the doorstep of Eyam in Derbyshire, it’s known as the plague village. The vicar called together his parishioners and said, “We’ve got the plague. No one’s going to leave. We’re all going to die here together.” Do you think that kind of selflessness, I mean not the NHS staff, clearly, who are on the front line who are doing this every day of their lives, but do you think in a community way that kind of selfishness still exists?
Rabbi Sacks: Well, I don’t think we need that kind of selflessness, for heaven’s sake. We are so much more medically advanced than we were. The last time there was a pandemic of this kind was 100 years ago. We don’t know how many people died in the Spanish flu epidemic, between 20 million and 50 million. I think we are just much more medically advanced there now, and I don’t think that kind of self-sacrifice in the literal sense of dying for others is going to be demanded of us.
Emily Maitlis: But I guess what I’m saying is in those days, 400 years ago or maybe 100 years ago, there was a sense of being God-fearing. Now, we’re majority atheist, I wonder where that sense of duty comes from if it’s not a fear of God.
Rabbi Sacks: Well, I think that, first of all, after all in Judaism, God tells us choose life. He doesn’t say die for the sake of others. He says choose life, which is why so many Jews become doctors, among other things. But I think the second thing is that this is the nearest we have to a revelation even to atheists. Here, we suddenly see our vulnerability. We’ve been coasting along for more than half a century in unprecedented affluence, unprecedented freedom, unprecedented optimism. And all of a sudden we are facing the fragility and vulnerability of the human situation. And, at the end of the day, even without a faith in God, we have to say either we work together and survive, or we work separately and perish.
Emily Maitlis: So, with that revelation is what then?
Rabbi Sacks: A revelation of the inescapably interlinked nature of our humanity, the covenant of human solidarity, the thing that makes each of us not only an I, but part of the greater human we.
Emily Maitlis: Do you think that society has been ahead of the government on this one? People have been more prepared to make more sacrifices than, perhaps, our leaders thought we would.
Rabbi Sacks: It’s absolutely true, and I think incredibly reassuring. Isn’t it remarkable that people are saying to the government, “Be more tough with us. Ban X, Y, and Z that you haven’t already banned, or at least you haven’t formally done so.” I think the public has responded exceptionally well. I mean, the real heroes here are the doctors, nurses, the medical experts, the scientists, but the general public has also emerged as a hero, putting the common good ahead of individual interests.
Emily Maitlis: So where do you think, who do you think globally is providing the leadership right now? I mean, David Miliband suggested it was China, now that they had learned the lessons and they were trying to share that with us. Do you think of China, now, being the world leader here?
Rabbi Sacks: No, I don’t. I think the West still has something very special in terms of … Don’t forget I’m arguing for a balance between “I” and “we.” China emphasises the “we” a great deal more than we would ever do. We’re a liberal democracy, China is not a liberal democracy. I think the leader here is humanity. This is the remarkable, unexpected, unpredictable thing that regardless of governments, because governments have not particularly been helping one another, all the European states have been turning inward and asking what’s right for us, not what’s right for Europe as a whole. There has not necessarily been the highest quality of political leadership, but there has been an overall sense that I pick up everywhere. Nobody’s protested the restrictions even in countries that have been much stricter than Britain, no one has protested.
Emily Maitlis: Does that make you think twice? Does it make you re-evaluate bigger questions then, about political leadership and democracy? When you look to totalitarian societies, like China, or to some extent Singapore to, what you call, the we countries rather than the I countries does it make you think, actually, we need more of that?
Rabbi Sacks: We need more of that, but we need not go the whole way otherwise, we would lose what is unique about the West. Only the West gave rise to this concept of the sanctity of the individual, and with it liberal democracy. The matter is a matter of balance.
Emily Maitlis: Have we had too much liberal democracy?
Rabbi Sacks: We’ve had too much individualism, too much liberal democracy, and too little concern for the collective of the nation, and of humanity as a whole.
Emily Maitlis: Have we talked too much about rights?
Rabbi Sacks: We have talked far too much about rights, and far too little about responsibilities. And what we are seeing is people being willing to handle their responsibilities. And I don’t know why we let it slip out of the discourse because it’s an essential part. Without responsibilities, in the end, you’ll find you have no rights.
Emily Maitlis: I used to live in the Far East and they talked about Asian values, that leaders like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew talked about Asian values, responsibilities over rights. And I remember that being quite dismissed then as if it was the workings of a totalitarian government. Do you think they were right? Do you think Asian values are right about humanity when it comes to a crisis?
Rabbi Sacks: Well, in certain respects, they are now ahead of us. Let’s be clear, China led everyone else until the 16th century. Then, the West got liberal democracy, the beginnings of it, at any rate, liberalism in the form of John Milton and John Locke, and then with Adam Smith, the market economy. And so, the West eventually pulled way, way ahead of China. Today, you have a situation in which the West, until now, has been losing its way. Too much individualism, too little collective responsibility. So, right now, China is pulling ahead, Singapore is pulling ahead. Look at the examination results of children in Singapore schools because there they emphasise responsibility and discipline, and not just self-esteem. Whereas Britain and America have been falling down on those educational lead tables.
Emily Maitlis: But that’s not about morality, that’s about how hard you work the kids.
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah, it’s about responsibility, it’s about discipline, it’s about punishment, it’s about all sorts of stuff that is pretty moral. And we threw all of that out of the educational system in the name of self esteem. So, I think there are respects in which we’re going to have to say, “Let’s look at the way other cultures do things.” But I don’t think now is the time to turn our back on our own culture because I do think we will emerge from this, in the fullness of time, as a stronger culture, a stronger country with a stronger sense of collective identity and responsibility.
Emily Maitlis: And you’ve talked about silver linings throughout the course of this interview. Do you think you will look back and be able to spot the pre-corona and the post-corona Britain, British identity?
Rabbi Sacks: We will never forget this period. The way people never forgot the Second World War. I didn’t know how my parents kept remembering that war as if that was such a vivid moment in their lives, but they did because when you do face a danger, and you face it together with lots of other people it becomes incredibly vivid and personality shaping in terms of your memory. So, I think this is going to change every one of us. And hard, though, it is to say so and see it today, we will look back and say, “We emerges better people as a result of this.”
Emily Maitlis: Lord Sacks, thank you very much.
Rabbi Sacks: Thank you.