Newton’s third law of human nature

Newton's third law of motion is a pretty handy way to explain politics or human thinking in general.

Wolfgang Rattray/Reuters
Qudratullah Hotak (in gray jacket), a refugee from Afghanistan, learns alongside German trainees at Ford Germany’s Cologne plant.

In all likelihood, you have not spent much time today considering Newton’s laws of physics. Fair enough. The nature of entropy in isolated systems does not make for enthralling watercooler conversation with Ted from accounting, perhaps. But here’s a bit of wisdom: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

That’s Newton’s third law of motion. But when you think about it, it’s a pretty handy way to explain politics or human thinking in general. What, after all, is the human tendency toward revenge? Why did a burst of feminism in Spain lead to the growth of Vox, seen by many as an anti-feminist party? How does one country consecutively elect Barack Obama and Donald Trump? 

Any major shift often spawns a backlash, which in turn spawns counterbacklashes. I bring this up because this week’s cover story offers a glimpse of how this cycle can play out and how to look beyond it.

Several years ago, Germany did something momentous: It took in more than 1 million asylum-seekers. True, the move didn’t remotely imperil the ethnic German majority, but it asked a profound question: Is Germany a country just for Germans? In accepting so many migrants, Chancellor Angela Merkel was at least hinting that the essence of Germany was in something more than its ethnic Germanness.

Now, she is on the way out and her once-mighty coalition is in tatters. On the rise? Nativist parties that are doubling down on the Germanness of Germany – a reaction to Ms. Merkel’s action.

Yet what is our cover story about? The rise of a sanctuary movement in Germany to protect and support asylum-seekers – a counterbacklash to the backlash. And on it goes.

But here’s the thing: Something much bigger is driving this cycle in Germany and beyond. Today, the world is struggling to come to terms with the fact that it is healthier, wealthier, and freer than it has ever been. I know the news doesn’t make it feel that way, but data shows it’s irrefutably true. The question is, What does that mean for where we’re headed?

A few centuries ago, nationalism and tribalism made sense on many levels. Life was hard, and you succeeded in part by making sure your group won. But today, we win by expanding freedom and interconnection. The old instincts not only don’t apply – they’re harmful.

This leads to a host of difficult questions. If we are healthy, wealthy, and free enough to help others, what are the new rules? Where does our sense of responsibility and identity begin and end? Where does others’ responsibility begin and end? We’re not sure of the answers because we’re only now shaping them.

When Martin Luther King Jr. said the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, he was right. But it’s not a smooth arc. It’s full of lurches – backlashes and counterbacklashes – as we learn to overcome our old ways of viewing one another and discover the new rules of an interconnected world.

So the next time you turn on the news, think of Newton.

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