Recent events suggest that we are good at loving our neighbour in times of need but less so when we find out what they might think.
In typical British fashion the country reacted to the terrorist attacks London and Manchester by sticking two fingers up at terrorists, supported those affected and carried on as normal. When tragedy struck those living in Grenfell Tower the community came together just as they had after the terrorist attacks; churches, mosques and others opened up their doors, hearts and wallets to rally around to support those in need.
But when it comes to expressing views or engaging in debates we seemingly find it easier to hate our neighbour than love them. Those who agree with us and live within our neighbourhood of opinions are wise people of distinction, those who don’t are our enemy to be cast out or defeated.
The satirical comedy chat show The Last Leg celebrated our collective response to tragedy by marking the anniversary of the murder of the MP Jo Cox by a terrorist 1 year ago, just as many others were coming together across the country inspired by Jo Cox’s husband. Brendan Cox had spearheaded a call for a Great Get Together to celebrate Jo’s assertion that we “have far more in common than that which divides us”.
Brendan Cox said:
“An act designed to drive communities apart has instead brought them together, an act designed to silence a voice has instead allowed millions of others to hear it. Although she is dead, the opinions and values she held so dear will live on.”
Of Jo Cox’s gifts, observed and reported by many, was the ability to respect and listen to people who disagreed with her whilst maintaining her passion for her own particular point of view. Her murder came amidst a period of debate which reached vitriolic levels. The hate contained within those debates has scarcely diminished, as the recent UK General Election campaign and subsequent has shown. Alastair Campbell and Nick Clegg both spoke that whilst we talk the talk about coming together we are not so good about actually doing it.
The exchange of views in debates, whether political or social, whether in social media or the print and television media, seem more designed to drive us apart rather than bring us together. When points of view are shared they after often done forcefully as though arguing a case in court where alternative views are to be shown as foolish or criminal. Rather than showing the tolerant society most aspire to they show a society more inclined towards judgementalism.
The world is full of ambiguities, differing points or views and understanding but you would never know it if you got your information from the media or social media. An alien lifeform observing our discourse would come to the conclusion that our opinions are binary: agree or disagree. We are seemingly not interested in the gap between points of view, and the idea that we would grant people time and space to explore and possibly make a transition between different thoughts and ideas is an anathema to us. And yet it is in this space that we often find ourselves.
Even if we are sure of our position and understanding it is particularly arrogant and closed-minded if we consider that other people or other ideas have nothing of worth. If we want people to change we have to be willing to change ourselves. But if we are wanting to convince people that our point of view is correct being less than respectful is hardly going to win them over, instead they will raise their own barriers and remain firmly in their own understanding. Instead of mutual respect we have mutual suspicion and hostility.
We see this most clearly and extremely with the issue of human sexuality and marriage, where any hint of deviance from the prevalently promoted view in society is frequently jumped on by an antagonistic, judgemental and often hateful mob.
The questioning of and comments on Tim Farron’s views on sexuality and faith, and his subsequent resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats, showed that we are more interested in attacking views we disagree with or don’t understand rather than seeking to understand or influence change. Whilst there was undoubtedly fair questioning, comment and criticism of his resignation speech and the implications of it, there was also a lot of vitriol. Inconvenient facts, such as his voting record being in favour of LGBT rights and individual’s conscience, were disposed with at the slightest hint that his adherence to a faith might mean that he believed something not 100% in-line with the prevalent view. (Please note: the links to related content in this paragraph are a brief example and not comprehensive).
The response to Tim Farron’s real or perceived views, as with the responses to other people’s views on Brexit and indeed almost any strongly held view, suggest that instead of wanting to influence a person to change their view we are more interested in defeating the enemy we consider them and their view to be. Instead of giving people the space to calmly consider all the knowledge and points of view at hand we want to pummel them into submission to a place where they are too fearful, weak or tired to fight back and hold a view different from ours.
When we ‘debate’ like this instead of bringing people together we drive people apart. Sides are created that people know implicitly they must choose. Each side digs in for the battle and with each discourse becomes increasingly entrenched. Those caught within the ideological trenches become more and more reluctant to raise their head above the parapet and exchange or consider different ideas from their own.
During the fierce, brutal and bloody fighting of the First World War opposing British and German troops occupied the space between their trenches with a game of football. For a moment they put aside their hostility and spent a respectful and encouraging time together. We need to do likewise with our views. We need to allow people to safely occupy that No-Man’s Land where they can explore ideas, debate and seek to understand different points of view. They might not be persuaded to join ‘our side’ and may return to their trenches, but unless we give them the chance they will never have the chance to and the battle will never finish.
If we are to truly honour Jo Cox we need not just to come together in person but to come together in our discourse. We need to reach out and love our neighbour with loving respect and true tolerance. We don’t have agree but we do need to disagree well.