I have just come back from a national festival focused on the theme of unity. As we reflected on the divides that currently scar our world, I realised that I have never in my lifetime experienced the intense and complex social divisions that characterise our era.
Whilst there has always been division – West vs East, communism vs capitalism, north vs south and left vs right – there is something different about the current divides in our society. I think maybe it has something to do with the spatial proximity and complexity of the communities that comprise them.
We live side-by-side with communities that, despite the proximity, have diverse and conflicting experiences and therefore worldviews.
As a result, over time, there seems to be a complete incomprehension regarding the other community’s point of view, even though we may live next door or within the same town. How many people do you know who, in the Brexit debate, mixed only with those who agreed with them and who parodied the other side as racists, stupid, ignorant, narrow-minded or out-of-touch?
Because the different worldviews appear to be embodied in different tribes, we ‘other’ the opposing tribe and all who adhere to those views. We construct our identity around a view; construct a notion of what the ‘other’ is like and then construct them as the enemy. Once we have an enemy, we do not mix with anyone from that tribe (or if we do, we do not admit to it) and we stereotype them using simplistic, derogative categories. It then becomes easier to hate them. Indeed, part of the process of strengthening group identity will probably involve hating the opposing other side.
There are many reasons for this and I am sure plenty of views.
However, one of the sources of division in our society today is a growing sense of unfairness. Partly, this flows from the growing recognition of the increasing inequality in society. The richest 1% now has as much wealth as the rest of the world combined; just 62 people have as much as the poorest 50% in the world.
In the UK, the bottom 10% have a net income of £9,277 whilst the top 10% earn an average of £83,897, the top 1% £253,927 and the top 0.1% earn on average £919,882. Many families are struggling to survive and fear that all they and their children can look forward to is increasing levels of poverty and insecurity.
People see no hope for themselves or their families; they experience the growing neglect of schools and the health service, the rocketing house prices and stagnant wages and feel powerless to change things. This inevitably turns to anger. Anger seeks a scapegoat, tribes are formed and ‘othering’ takes place – rich metropolitan elites vs ‘racists’, outward-looking vs inward-looking, north vs south, country vs city, rich vs poor, public sector vs private sector.
Democracy relies on many components – institutional, cultural, social and political.
One of these components is the ability to talk to each other and to respect those whose views differ from our own. When we bifurcate as a society, no longer mixing with those who differ from us, and when we ridicule, insult, threaten and parody those who disagree with us, we are undermining our democracy. We end up silencing those who, regardless of what we say, will hold their views anyway. We end up simplifying the complex and as a result never understand how to address the complex dilemmas of a volatile age. When we crush the voices of those with whom we disagree we build underground wells of anger, bitterness and resentment which will spill out into our politics and social division.
Former diplomat and Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell, wrote an interesting book entitled Talking to Terrorists. His argument was that the only way to annihilate terrorism is to negotiate with the perpetrators and to talk to them. This is a challenging stance and not many people would be capable of engaging in this process. However, we can all do our part in spreading respect, tolerance, freedom and ‘love’ of our neighbours by learning how to listen to those who disagree with us. If you would like to learn more there is a comprehensive and very practical course which is hosted by the Public Conversations Project. Just register on the site and you can access 12 three-minute videos that provide an introduction to how to talk across the divides – it is called Dialogue: A Virtual Workshop by Robert R. Stains.
Do sign up and experiment with the techniques – you may be surprised at what happens!
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About the author
Dr Karen Blakeley, Senior Lecturer in Leadership, is the Programme Leader for the DBA. Dr Blakeley specialises in responsible leadership, leadership development and business ethicsm and runs the Centre for Responsible Management.
Read additional blogs by Dr Blakeley: What qualities do we need in our leaders right now?
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