As the New Year begins, a simple but powerful question: When will there be harmony?
From the excellent Transformation strand in Open Democracy, a plaintive but useful column from its American editor Michael Edwards, bemoaning the discourse of sheer abuse and harshness that appears in online (and increasingly offline) worlds in the US. For example, from his own Facebook feed:
Q: “Why are you such a dumbass?
A: Why are morons like you allowed to breathe and steal air from human beings?”
This kind of hate language is on all sides says Edwards - his own supposedly progressive left-liberal friends included. To him, he writes, "these responses seem like a form of madness in which differences of view are magnified into the mental and emotional equivalent of the Berlin Wall; symbols of tribal identity to be displayed with pride in the ‘scorn wars’ that are rapidly unfolding in America and beyond... This isn’t just disagreement, but disagreement that’s whipped up and manipulated with potentially grievous consequences for democracy in a body politic whose arteries are hardening."
Edwards' solutions are many and varied, beginning with a plea for "emotional maturity"
Wherever you stand on the political spectrum your responsibility is the same: break the cycle, even if ‘the other side’ initially rejects you. That’s what emotional maturity looks like in practice. We’re supposed to be building the “beloved community” as Martin Luther King once put it, not the beloved political party or social movement (important as they are). And in a community there should be a place for everyone, barring the violent extremists who have to be monitored and dealt with through the law.
At the political level we need new institutions that bring people together in common projects, re-orienting incentives away from division and exaggerated conflicts towards joint accountability and decision-making, in which everyone has a role, and which promote the widest possible level of economic, social and political security. People are much more likely to reach out and make connections with others when they don’t have to fight for survival, respect or recognition. Like rocks in a stream, the sharp edges of our differences can be softened over time as we knock against each other in collective action.
Obvious priorities include removing winner-take-all election systems and other practices like gerrymandering which accentuate the polarity of politics and make consensus building much more difficult. For example, under the “Fair Representation Act” recently introduced by Representative Don Beyer, congressional districts would have multiple representatives, each elected through “ranked choice voting.” The result would be more rural Democrats, more urban Republicans, more third-party politicians, and more pressure to collaborate on legislation that affects the shared needs of all constituents.
The same goes for civil society, which is supposed to be the place where “strangers can meet and not draw the knife” as the writer John Keane once put it. That means mixing people of different views and backgrounds together in voluntary associations—a reversal of most current trends. “Standing shoulder to shoulder with people across our differences and creating new understandings and visions together is where the real transformative potential lies,” say activists Peroline Ainsworth and Kiran Nihalani on the basis of their experience of women’s co-operatives in south London.
Even social media can be used in this way, though it’s never a substitute for doing stuff together, face to face and hand in hand. Check out the Echo Chamber Club for example, or Jeff Rasley’s experiment on Facebook that invented some basic ground-rules for debate between his pro- and anti-Trump friends—most importantly, you can attack an idea or a politician but you can’t attack each-other. It’s not just that we need to ‘hear each-other’s stories;’ we also have to share each-other’s struggles and experiences—difficult as that may be.