Turn on the TV, listen to the radio, open your social media apps and one thing is clear, we don’t seem to be able to get on which each other very well. For a supposedly tolerant society, tolerance is in short supply.
When we don’t like what we hear we can turn off the TV, close the apps or simply switch to something or someone we do like the sound of. If someone annoys or offends us we can choose to walk away.
I saw this first hand within the environmental movement of the 1990s. Working with various campaigning groups I had lots of debates whilst about how to influence a change in behaviour towards the use of cars.
I argued that we needed to establish relationships with those who had not bought into the need to live more sustainably. I suggested that we should acknowledge where people were, their needs and desires and work from there to show why they should change. Others argued that direct action was needed. Whilst that can be true, it isn’t always.
In order to persuade people to use their cars less one person suggested standing in the road to block the path of drivers. They would use this opportunity to engage with the person by and ‘advising’ them of the errors of their ways.
The direct action approach certainly grabbed people’s attention but it didn’t achieve the objective. Instead of influencing a positive change in their behaviour it influenced a negative view of environmentalists and environmentalism. The opportunity to influence a person had been lost because the relationship between the 2 groups had been lost as soon as it had been established.
With more consensus on an issue the disagreements tend to become less inflammatory, though they still occur. When an issue, such as environmentalism, reaches such a point disagreements still occur but being less inflammatory are less likely to make people walk away and be lost to the debate.
Keeping people in a discourse is essential if progress towards any form of consensus, harmony or agreeable disagreement is going to be made. That requires people to be in relationship with each other. How we view other people and our relationships with them affects how tolerant we are and how likely we are to persevere when things get difficult.
Should we view others as strangers, as friends or as relatives?
Viewing people as strangers is a significant cause of the rise of ethnic and racial tensions. The less we know about people the less likely we can learn from them or influence them. Prejudices are created by a lack of information, by snippets of truth amidst inaccuracies and lies.
The current fear over migration that politicians are seeking to capitalise upon is in part due to a lack of knowledge of migrants. Seeing a person or group of people as strangers keeps some distance between us and them. It contributes to a lack of willingness find out the truth between the alarmist headlines. Soundbites and rhetoric heard but not questioned are more likely to be absorbed as truth, even if there is no truth in what has been said.
Viewing people as friends is a step towards engaging with and understanding issues with which we might know little or might struggle with. For a friendship to exist respect is required, as well as some common understanding or enjoyment.
Friendships can be a fragile form of relationship though. They are a transient relationships and can come and go. They may survive changes in circumstances and locality, but rarely do they last from the beginning of life to the end.
Friendships form by an act of choice and will, but we are all part of a family that we did not choose to belong to. Bonds are friendship can be tremendously strong, but the bonds that link family members are stronger because of their creation outside of our will.
We may go through hell and high water for friends but history tells us we do more, value more, go through more for families, even for those families we wouldn’t have joined by choice.
Differences of opinions, outlook, sexuality and so many things are more likely to accepted between family members than between friendships. If we don’t like what a friend thinks or does we can break the bonds, the friendship can cease. If we don’t like what a family member thinks or does we can’t remove them from the family, even if we can choose not to see or talk with them.
Families are not easy but when they do break down it is the permanent bonds which provide the hope of reconciliation. Like the prodigal son that had burnt his bridges and apparently destroyed his relationship with his father, all is never lost.
What if we viewed each other, even complete strangers or enemies, as part of our family?
It can be argued that we are all related, that we come from a single source. You may view that source as a ‘big bang’ event that came about naturally or as the act of will of a god, but everything starts somewhere.
Agreeing that we are all related after all may be a stretch too far but viewing someone as a family member changes things. Embracing a sense of permanence encourages, almost forces, us to try to understand each other and to establish a harmonious understanding, if not agreement.
I cannot change or be changed by someone whether they be my brother, sister, friend or family but I can hope to influence them and permit people to influence me. Once a relationship is broken we have lost that chance to change or be changed. Our positions and opinions, whether correctly formed or not, become entrenched.
We might never agree and forever be frustrated by our differing opinions, but through thick or thin as family members we have a place, a relationship, in which we can keep coming back to listen to each other.
Whatever gets you angry and incensed do your best to play the long game, to view people as a permanent part of your family. The strength and comfort of familial bonds can create the type of place we need to live in, one in which we continually seek to understand and respect each other, even when we don’t like what we see or hear.
If we do that, and if we put aside our desire for an instant solution or agreement, we will provide a safer place to express and exchange our opinions, even ones that some might find unpalatable or offensive. We might walk away from each other at times but at least we can we come back into the family fold and start the conversation once again.
We will find more agreement, more consensus and more harmony as family than as strangers.