Are you ‘with me’ or ‘against me’?
It could be argued, perhaps now more than ever given current economic and social circumstances which have unfolded this year, we need greater unity between us. However, it seems to me we are now more divided than ever, both physically and spiritually.
2020 has seen millions of people uniting over important issues which have been previously brushed aside for years; Black Lives Matter, the removal of Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes statues, the vilification of Meghan Markle, the most prolific amongst them.
However, for each of these causes uniting us, there have been many more issues dividing us in our communities.
Divided we fall
For me personally, living in the UK, I felt the first major division in our society was with the Brexit referendum vote in 2016, almost literally splitting the country in half: ‘were you in or out?’ Overnight, friends were turned into ‘the enemy’ and social media became either battlegrounds or echo chambers. Leavers were painted as racists whilst remainers were called lefties.
Since then, the rift has never really healed. Everyone is now labelled either a fascist or a liberal snowflake; a jurassic boomer or a lazy Gen-Zedder. SItting on the fence on any subject is not accepted anymore; you must be either for or against, yes or no, acceptable or unacceptable, innocent or complicit. The centre ground has completely disappeared.
I, for one am tired of it all. I have my own personal views, some of which I am very passionate about and have strong views on, other issues I have an interest but no real substantial opinion on. I’m sure there are other topics I’m not even aware of and yet I feel as though I must have an opinion on it. It seems today that we need to have a view on all topics today, whether they are relevant or personal to you or not. I am aware that ignorance is never an excuse, but is it OK if I go away and read more about a subject before I form an opinion and talk to you please? Yes, certain issues such as #BlackLivesMatter do indeed require more immediate action rather than just sympathetic words to realise real social change, but there needs to be a new attitude towards those that hold different views to our own. I also understand that some topics are more important to certain people than others.
For example, narrowing the gender pay gap is an issue I completely support, but as I am not a woman, it’s not an issue that will ever directly affect me in the same way as my female colleagues. That doesn’t diminish my support for the cause though – I fully appreciate the reasons behind the movement and why it is important to women in the world of work, I imagine most men similarly support the movement even if they have themselves inadvertently benefitted from the pay gap. I do recognise the importance of speaking up and taking action as a male ally to create real change though. However, if we observe the #BlackLivesMatter movement, many of the detractors have dismissed the issues faced by Black people in society and that white privilege doesn’t exist. Many of these detractors have rallied behind public figures who have similarly dismissive (and often uneducated) attitudes towards other evolving movements such as improving diversity and inclusion. The problem then becomes that these figures then become the face of all right-wing opinions on issues. Anyone who agrees with them on one issue is automatically seen as holding the same views as them on all controversial issues. They then become both praised and vilified depending on which side of the fence you stand. This then further polarises our community.
Indeed, we only need to look at the campaign strategy taken by the 45th president of the United States to see how he capitalised on dividing US communities to become the Commander in Chief. He appealed to far-right Americans and feeding on the fears of the disenfranchised working class, by blaming wider societal issues on immigrants, left-wing socialists, China and Muslims.
In addition to outspoken public figures emerging into the public consciousness, traditional media outlets have continued to spin news stories with their traditional right/left slants. In recent years they have solidified their political positions by hiring more vocal or radical broadcasters or journalists in attempts to be more identifiable or visible in a world where they are becoming less and less relevant.
Piled on top of these divisive figures and traditional media outlets, social media has also thrown fuel onto the fire. I spoke earlier about social media platforms becoming echo chambers, reinforcing our own beliefs and convincing ourselves that we are enlightened and the others are wrong. But is it really so simple?
Finding Unity in our Community
Instead of closing our minds to people who have a different opinion to ours, why don’t we broaden our minds and listen to their views before we pass judgement? I have always believed we can achieve more through creating friends than enemies. It’s possible to respect people who have different views to you.
When I think back to when Barack Obama became US president, the first Black person to occupy the highest seat of political power in 2008, America and indeed the world seemed to be a much more optimistic place. A new world in which real change was unfolding before our eyes. This was also happening at a time when the world was in economic turmoil, reeling from the global financial crisis. Obama’s republican opponent at the time, John McCain even defended his counterpart at one of his rallies, an act that seems even more incredible in today’s divided society than even back then. It was a real moment of bi-partisanship and a moment of compassion and mutual respect rather than the hate-filled rhetoric and slandering of today’s politics. Watching the clip again today, it really highlights how much we have regressed as a collective society.
Where did that shared respect go? How do we restore it? What is the future of our society? How do we respect free-speech without offending others? I don’t have the answers but I think we should always be more compassionate to each other and respect the views of others before we pass judgment. Attending a session discussing race relations at work arranged by my colleagues at Brook Graham recently discussing terms such as allyship, white fragility and anti-racism , it was a revelation to me that I should consider the experiences of the people I speak to; their upbringing, education, work experience and social circles as these have all contributed in some way in the formation of their current viewpoints on certain topical issues, as well as how this impacts on the challenges and opportunities they’ve faced.
That doesn’t make them wrong, it makes them different, and that is something I should listen to in order to broaden my own mind. It’s all too easy to label someone who holds different views to me as being ‘wrong’, ‘ignorant’ or ‘stubborn’ but in many situations, the other person probably wants to learn more and it’s more productive to create a new ally for a shared cause than push them further away into an opposing camp. Yes, this takes more work but I feel it’s a worthwhile endeavour we should all try to do. I’m not saying it’s our job to educate others but we should at least try to understand how another party feels the way they do. And that’s a good place to start.
A quote I found online attributed to Roy T. Bennett is a great reminder for us all to learn from each other and begin rebuilding the broken bridges between our family members, friends, colleagues and other members or our community:
“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”
By Kwan Cheung
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