Occasionally I will come across a common word that I have used all my life and suddenly understand it for the first time.
The other day, while I was skimming through an excerpt from a treatise written in the early 1950s I stumbled upon the word “co-operate.” I’m sure I have run across the hyphenated form of this word before, but the mechanical entailments and the industrial factory nuance had entirely passed me by.
The word itself emerged in the late 1600s as a combination of the Latin for “together” and “work.” But it didn’t find its way into common vernacular until the end of the 19th century, riding on the back of the industrial revolution, as society began its mechanical transformation and human relationships began to align themselves in conformity with the factory production metaphor.
People working together are co-operating. Synchronized cogs in the production-consumption machine.
Children are taught from an early age that cooperation is an important requirement for civil society. What the Sesame Street Muppets don’t sing about is how all of the most horrendous events in the history of civilization were possible only because of vast networks of complacent individuals engaged in uncountable acts of willing cooperation: every war, every atrocity, every genocide.
There is power in co-action. And the increased power associated with mutual action is seductive. Together you and I can move a much larger stone than either of us could budge separately. But before either of us lowers our back to the rock, we need to look to see who we will be crushing on the other side.