Hold up a sign saying "Free Intelligent Conversation". Or "hug me, I'm Muslim". And see what happens.
What are the radical acts of kindness, openness, gentleness that can break down our everyday indifference and isolation? We're interested in public stunts, actions and behaviours that open up personal and civic possibilities for people in everyday life - on the streets, in the malls and parks.
While on the look-out, we found two initiatives this week - one new to us, and one in the recent past whose progress we're checking up on.
Free Intelligent Conversation (or FreeIC) are a US organisation who aim to break down social isolation and dividedness by a simple act: holding up a sign in a public space with FREE INTELLIGENT CONVERSATION on the front, and dealing with whoever comes up to them. From their blurb:
"We want to meet people and learn from them through meaningful face-to-face conversations. We believe that by continually seeking to learn from others we can improve ourselves, break down social barriers, and make the world a better place."
They started as psychology students in Chicago in 2013: "Each time we went out, we set one goal and one rule: the first, to encourage conversation, the former, that no person or conversation was off limits. We went into these conversations expecting nothing in return, but always left feeling enriched from what we had talked about and learned from strangers."
They've written a much longer manifesto on Medium, but their site shows activity all over the US, and even to places like Sydney and Paris. You can download the sign for free here - but interestingly, they have an option for you to apply to be "trained" in the practice - we guess in an attempt to make sure their method is consistently practiced.
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Baktash Noori gained instant fame after a suicide bomber in the Manchester Arena killed 22 people in May 2017. He took himself to the streets of the city, blindfolded himself, and put up a hand-drawn sign: "I'm Muslim and I trust you. Do you trust me enough for a hug?" His original video, which went globally viral, is below:
But it's been fascinating to see who "Baku" is. From his website, he describes himself as:
A 23 year old YouTuber, Blogger & Software Engineer from Manchester. This just means that i'm a confident computer geek that knows how to write (well, at least i think i do). He was born in Kabul (Afghanistan) and moved to Rotterdam (Netherlands) at an early age. Bako lived in Rotterdam/Amsterdam for the majority of his early life. He moved to Manchester (England) with his family in 2006.
Baku does innocent, funny vlogs about his travels, his fashion preferences, skits with his pals. His "hug me" stunt is of a piece with his general warmth and cheekiness. We're always alive to the possibility that political action can come from mindsets and emotions existing beyond the party-political culture. So why not this radical, simple, brave act of empathy from a happy young vlogger?