A few nights ago, just as I had closed the books and decided to go to sleep, I stumbled upon a clip of Charlie Chaplin’s impressionable speech at the end of his 1940 film The Great Dictator. In his speech, he made an emotional appeal against the direction the world was headed. He acknowledged that the technological advancements had been made but questioned whether these advancements made the world a better place. He proclaimed that greedy men had corrupted his generation and filled the world with hate. That people had become so cynical that they had lost touch with humanity.
But Chaplin did not end his speech on this bleak note. Rather, he provided his viewers with a sense of hope and purpose. He told them that this era of human history, in which people are still wrongly tortured, killed, underserved, and held captive to dictatorships are coming to an end. He empowered and advised his viewers, stating:
You the people have the power to make life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy let’s use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security.
Though at times a bit vague, Chaplin’s speech was incredibly applicable and poignant. Many of his critiques of the world in the 1930’s ring true 80 years later. The world has continued to shrink and new innovations haven’t necessarily led to better health and quality of life outcomes to as many people as one might expect. His speech reminded me of ideas I’ve encountered throughout my experience as an intern here. The world is plagued with a diverse set of challenges. From problems in healthcare to poverty to infectious disease to education access to environmental issues to human rights injustices, problems at times seem overwhelming and endless. After all, with so many different types of problems, how can one person dream of making a significant dent in them?
Perhaps this logic explains the greed, cynicism, and apathy evident in so many of us today. We rationalize that our selfish actions are just a small contribution to the flaws in the world or that there are far too many problems for us to tackle alone. We fall for the temptation of tragedy of the commons and fail to overcome collective action failure.
Chaplin encourages us to eliminate this logic from our thinking. He tells us that fighting the impulse to help others is akin to fighting a basic and innate human desire. His assertion that all people want to make the world a better place, and that they can accomplish this goal by working together, He expresses that we individuals are part of something much greater than ourselves. We do not have to tackle problems that we are passionate about solving on our own, for we have each other to work with. Thus, we do have power to be agents of social change.
A few weeks ago, some friends of mine were discussing Limitless – a movie I wrote about several weeks ago. I asked my friends what they thought would happen if everyone had a drug such as NZT that improved everyone’s brain capacity. After a few moments of theorizing, my friends concluded that the world would reach its end sooner. The drug would open up the doors to even more people exploiting others, stripping the world of its resources, and developing technologies that do more harm than good. Essentially, their argument boiled down to their belief that the world is on a path to inevitable destruction, and increasing everyone’s ability to think, learn, and develop would only hasten this process.
While their argument may have been logical, I think they were wrong. I agree with Chaplin. People inherently want to do good. However, they unfortunately fall short of the standard they set for themselves.
As I said before, there are tons of problems everywhere. But there are plenty of people here to solve them. We are some of those people. We must not let greed and cynicism get in our way. We need to be the instruments of change that we wish to create. We all have different talents and interests, so perhaps we won’t be working on the same problem. However, we should use these talents and interests to work towards a common goal of helping the world.
I ask you to find problems that you are passionate in wanting to solve, finding others who share your passion, and develop a sustainable solution for it. The more people do this, the more others will follow, and we will see the better world that Chaplin hoped for in 1940.
See the a clip of the speech from Youtube