What makes for a thankful city, a grateful community? Thanksgiving weekend is a good time to ask that question.
Our divisions can overtake what are some of the great qualities of this city. Divisive opinions abound, while common purpose becomes rare. It’s tough to adopt a collective thankful culture while all this is going on. We’re not alone though; the entire world seems in an increasingly grumpy state.
A recent lecture by U.S. journalist and political commentator Bret Stephens in Sydney, Australia, created quite a buzz online and sheds some light on why a sense of collective gratitude seems harder to come by.
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Stephens bemoaned what he termed “the dying art of disagreement.” While finding agreement is necessary for communities to move ahead, Stephens nevertheless affirmed that disagreement is just as fundamental, reminding his audience that Galileo, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Rosa Parks and many other esteemed figures were once in the ranks of those who disagree.
It’s how we disagree that has gone through such a fundamental change, he believes, and the effects are eroding our communities. We’re not talking about the trolls or haters here, but average citizens who care about where they live.
“We seem to disagree about everything,” he said. “We judge one another morally depending on where we stand politically.”
He could be talking about London. He trots out research to show citizens everywhere are having trouble getting things together and their politics have become dysfunctional as a result.
“The distance between making an argument and causing offence terrifyingly short.”
Stephens observed that our online behaviour is hurting our lot as citizens, saying we “increasingly inhabit the filter bubbles of news and social media that correspond to their ideological affinities. We no longer have just our own opinions. We also have our own separate facts.”
Such a condition leaves a community inflexible, as the rigidity of our opinions make compromise and respect rare commodities. Everything becomes personal. People get offended and the desire to come together for the sake of community recedes into our past.
As Stephens noted, the consequence of all this has made “the distance between making an argument and causing offence terrifyingly short.”
London’s recent experiences regarding how we will transport people in the future and the state of downtown development have left chasms so deep and voices so entrenched that one wonders whether compromise is even possible. We frequently blame our politicians for the quagmire when all too frequently they are distracted by efforts to keep us from destroying one another.
If our disagreements, and the manner in which we express them, leave us in a kind of permanent enmity, then it remains hard to imagine how such a divided city can effectively lobby for greater investments, whether from the private sector or from senior levels of government.
There must be some sort of process for healing within our community — an ability to restore London’s wholeness and sense of potential. By remaining divided, we become lesser versions of ourselves and our ability to build a highly functional, inclusive and prosperous city is compromised.
And the longer we take to forgive one another or re-engage in a spirit of conciliation, the harder it will be to pull ourselves up off the mat.
We must begin again the exercise of self-government and not just leave everything to the political class. The essence of democracy is that the people themselves create those conditions in which they wish to live. We need a renewed collective commitment to achieve what we can only accomplish as a community that is rich in opinions and ideas but not destroyed by them.
Thinking of how we might live together, Aristotle said “the city comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”
This is what most Londoners seek: a good life.
The potential lying at the heart of our community will never be realized by our politics alone — that should be clear enough to us by now — but also by our innate sense of fair play, of respect for opinions, and for the common desire to build the kind of city in which our families wish to remain.
There is no better time than Thanksgiving weekend to acknowledge our need of one another and our wish to build a better city through all the various ideas brought together in respect and action.
Let’s be thankful that we are still capable of it.