The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: tolerance

Common Ground Remains Democracy’s Most Expensive Piece of Real Estate

Readers and viewers seem transfixed with the more extreme political movements across the world. Far from bringing the world closer together, these new developments threaten to disassociate us in ways we haven’t experienced in decades. All eyes are on politics these days.

Yet something else is bubbling beneath the surface that receives little attention but which is effectively cutting off our collective ability to meet the powerful challenges facing our modern world. For over two decades we have watched as hyper-partisanship has ripped the governing capabilities out of our politics, aligning each party into rigid positions that often make compromise and common ground almost impossible to achieve. That inflexibility has now spilled over into the citizenry and the results are eerily similar.

It was almost a year ago that Bill Clinton and journalist David Brooks labeled hyper-partisanship as the “governing cancer of our time” and little that has occurred in the past twelve months alters that reality. Brooks talked about those who “don’t recognize other people … don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions … don’t recognize restraints … want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.” We’ve all been around long enough to see the results of that kind of politics, but can we spot its emergence among citizens?

Repeated studies over the past decade have highlighted just how the different liberal and conservative temperaments in people have caused them to pull further apart from one another, talking past each other in the process.

Intrinsic in all of this has been our penchant to meet only with those of similar feelings to our own, to only befriend or follow those on social media who agree with us. A natural tendency, the results of such social isolation into similar outlooks has come to look more and more like those political parties who sincerely dislike one another and refuse to find that essential common ground that is necessary for progress. The negative effects of this in the political class prompted Irish playwright Sean O’Casey to note: “Politics – I don’t know why, but they seem to have a tendency to separate us, to keep us from one another, while nature is always and ever making efforts to bring us together.” More than a few are now worried that this practice has carried over into how we treat one another as citizens.

While the operating principle in our modern politics has been partisanship, its equivalent in our communities has been polarization. There are good people in our communities who run solid businesses, create loving family environments, volunteer at charities, and pitch in to help their neighbours. The thing is that they might not agree with us on some issues of policy, but do retain many shared values which we hold. While many of these individuals remain silent, they are nevertheless fellow citizens who ride the same buses, have kids who play on the same sports teams as our own, and are just as patriotic as those who hold to different political persuasions.

The reality is, of course, that there are millions of such people around us. But what if our present course continues as citizens retreat from their shared culture of consensus? What happens when we need to come together for the sake of our children over some great universal challenge and discover we can’t?

Perhaps our greatest task as citizens is to show that we are actually capable of establishing a civic culture that eventually accomplishes what our heavily partisan politics lost. But that will require talking with respect, not trashing. It will need understanding, not umbrage, intelligence and not incitement. There’s nothing wrong with protesting; indeed, it’s our right and obligation as citizens. But so is the task of finding news ways of coming together. As Mike Sasso would put it in his Being Human: “Originality is the best form of rebellion.”

Protest we must because that is part and parcel of any healthy society, but added to our desire for change, or principled opposition, must come the willingness to sit down and deliberate together. The reaching out must start happening now before it becomes impossible. It was our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, who said that, “A public man should have no resentments.” Neither should private citizens if we are to attain the country we all seek.

Refugees: Are Solutions Possible?

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THE FACES OF GOVERNMENTAL LEADERS flashing across our screens from the United Nations in New York in these last few days caused many to think it was just another gathering where prime ministers and presidents, ministers and bureaucratic head honchos were merely networking at the opening of the new UN season. For those listening to the delegations on television, however, it became pretty clear that the world’s nations were coming together to confront perhaps the greatest challenge of the last decade: refugees.

We learned some fascinating new statistics. In 2015 alone, some 20 million documented cases of refugees moving across the planet were posing challenges everywhere. Add up the totals of refugees for the last few years and it comes to 65 million people. We knew the number was many and the solutions few. Escaping persecution and seeking asylum presents so many challenges to the receiving countries, the international response mechanisms, and ultimately to the refugee families themselves. And so the world opted to come together in New York this month for the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The media spent a lot of time focusing on the former, but often overlooked was the sheer rise in mobility going on around the world for those migrating in search of opportunity.

The summit learned that by the end of 2015, some 244 million people were living in a country other than where they were born – a total up from 173 million in 2000, according to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

All of this is saying something, but I’m not sure we fully know what it is. Is the world increasingly on the move because of economic decline or greater economic growth – or both? Is it a sign that the world is coming together, or breaking apart? Could it be that we are becoming more of a world community as a result of all this movement, or is it more likely that there are now tears in the fabric of humanity that reveal millions of individuals and families lurching for security and prosperity in only a few prosperous nations?

All of this likely means that we aren’t prepared and that the UN conference was the first real attempt at assessing and shaping a tidal wave of humanity that might soon redefine how we function as a planet, as individual nations, and as citizens.

And it’s not all challenge and gloom. The conference was informed that in just one year – 2015 – migrants sent home $432 billion to developing countries to help their families with challenges like food security, education, new business ventures, and healthcare. That is a huge amount of money, triple the totals of foreign aid sent through Official Development Assistance.

I watched many of the speeches from the lectern this week and found myself thankful to see the world come together to face the challenge. But many present in the sessions got the impression that this is clearly a work in progress and that we’re only at the beginning of it. And complicating it all is the growing insecurity in places like the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, and the vast border regions around Russia. Should these get more out of hand, it will be inevitable that millions more will be cut loose from their cultural homelands and begin making plans to find peace and prosperity elsewhere.

While acknowledging the increasing scope of the refugee challenge, this week’s meetings decided to take some concrete action in at least attempting to build a coordinated response around the migration problem. Another summit is to be held at the United Nations in 2018 specifically on that issue.

Can there be breakthroughs? Are solutions possible? If we’re talking about assisting countries to accept more refugees and migrants, then perhaps more can be accomplished, but only to a point. If the real problem is the decline of nation states through economic turbulence and regional conflicts, how might the tap of human migration be stopped, or at least lessened? If many of these problems can’t be solved at the source, then just developing broader responses to the outflow of humanity from these regions can only go so far. Some of the problems, like an imploding Syria or an exploding Russia, remain unsolvable at present and keep real solutions from being easily discovered.

We aren’t talking about the fate of millions of people in search of hope, but, ultimately, about the condition and welfare of the planet itself. So many refugees is primarily a clue to all of humanity that something is seriously wrong in our world and unless we apply ourselves to the sources of such conflicts, the sea of desperate human souls will only become more desperate.

A Virtuous Circle

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IN A WORLD WHERE A KNIFE, a gun, or a raised fist rapidly become defining symbols of the modern age, an emblem as old as humanity has emerged to stand up against intolerance – the circle.

Norwegians have felt the deep sting of hatred in recent weeks and as a people they could be forgiven for secluding themselves in their homes, with curtains drawn. They chose the opposite, preferring to testify to their respect of tolerance in the light of day.

It all started on Saturday, February 21, when more than 1,000 Muslims gathered together to form a human shield around Oslo’s synagogue. It was a direct response to an earlier attack on a synagogue in neighbouring Denmark a week previous, where a Danish-born son of Palestinian immigrants killed two people in an event promoting free speech at the city’s synagogue. It was Copenhagen’s only synagogue and the effects were immediately felt.

So it was that Oslo’s Muslim community showed their solidarity with their Jewish neighbours by forming a circle, 1,000 people strong, around the synagogue as the service progressed. Norway’s Jewish community only numbers 1,000 people itself and was understandably insecure following the attack of the previous week. The demonstration sent a clear signal to not only Oslo, but all of Europe, that the time had come to stand up against hatred, prejudice, and killing.

The Jewish community and all of Oslo could have left things at that, but they had a further statement to make, again in the form of a circle. Hundreds of Norwegians from all walks of life gathered to form a “human peace ring” around a Muslim mosque as a kind of symbolic “thank you” for what the Muslim supporters had done the week previous. The call for citizens to join the rally put it simply but firmly:

“We want to stand shoulder to shoulder with our Muslim fellow citizens to show disgust towards increasing Muslim hate and xenophobia in society. In this time of fear and polarization we feel it is more important than ever to stand together and show solidarity. We believe in and will highlight the human will to live together in peace and in respect for each other regardless of religion and ethnicity.”

This is what it will take, not just in those areas where attacks occurred, but in every peace-loving community around the world, to remind us that we still have to gather if we are to prevail. Or, as Albert Schweitzer put it: “Until we extend our circle of compassion to include all living things, we will never find peace.”

Haters have to find objects against which they unleash their own inner turmoil. They lack a sense of proportion, believing that their own violent and hate-filled acts are greater than they really are. They live out their own alienation. In their actions they seek out respect as confirmation of their cause. But they can’t get it because the larger community of citizens and institutions are built on a greater understanding of tolerance. The powerlessness of those who hate to such a degree is revealed by those communities that refuse to yield. If forming a circle is the way move forward in peace, then so be it.

“From Interests to Interest” – Community Engagement Podcast (35)

To create meaningful dialogue, good citizens display empathy more than emphasis.  To understand and respect where the other person is coming from is one of the hallmarks of civil society – a trait made all to rare these days by a partisanship that’s gone mad.  We all have our points of view – interests – and we all need to present them.  But above all there is the need to get to the overriding interest of why were attend such gatherings in the first place.  Sometimes the best people in such situations are those with respectful characters, instead of those with smart minds that are nevertheless petty.

Just click on the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

The Human Code (2) – Let’s All Be Sinners

As humans, it can be a dangerous thing to permit ourselves to be divided into divisive camps. One of the great legacies left to us is that the individual matters and that, provided the right educational and financial opportunities, she or he can progress and build strong societies through generosity, knowledge of human law, and entrepreneurship and talents.

On the other hand, to be part of a group that offers support, systems of values and beliefs, and identification, is fundamental to our existence. The danger comes when that sense of inclusion comes at the price of demeaning or limiting the opportunity of others. Twitter, and other forms of social media, provide us with the capacity to go either way, based on our own personal conduct. To be excluded from Twitter because of gender, race, economic level, or personal opinion would be an outrage. But to be banned because the basic code of human ethics has been violated is a sign that an inclusive community also wants to be a respectful one.

As politics becomes overly partisan, the “us” versus “them” scenario can divide communities along artificial lines that can actually destroy the human code. We know it; we’ve seen it. But such partisanship took decades, even centuries, to develop. In such a context, Twitter is just a baby. We have the capacity to shape it while it is still malleable..

What makes Twitter unique is that it is essentially ours; it becomes what we make of it, what we make of ourselves. It wasn’t passed on to us by the elites, nor do they run it. It is a gift of remarkable potential, but if we continue to maintain that anything goes when it comes to tweets, then we shall all soon tire of the fallout that occurs whenever someone attempts to blow democratic progress to smithereens. Should the vigilantes who merely desire chaos for their own benefit overtake the app, then progressivism will have to look somewhere else for a place to spread its wings.

Human movements, especially those of the revolutionary kind, have always utilized novel tools to achieve success. Martin Luther took the scandalous approach of nailing his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg. Thomas Paine, following the example of his French revolutionary counterparts, published his Common Sense in the innovative form of a pamphlet. For Martin Luther King Jr. it as the expansive view of the scriptures that paved the way for the civil rights revolution. For Mandela it was the smuggling out from jail of his inspired writings that led the movement against Apartheid. All of these tools existed prior to such use; it was the innovation and passion for democracy of those that crafted them that made the difference. We can permit Twitter to descend into chaos, or we can “block” or “unfollow” others who merely seek to destroy. Twitter’s strength isn’t in its tolerance for everything, but in its capacity for citizens to pull together innovations and communications in their desire to build better communities.

We are still human, emerging from centuries of elite control. Our consent over the last decades has been manufactured as opposed to deliberated by citizens themselves. As political consent continues to erode, we are growing impatient and alarmed. But we are new at it and we make mistakes. Nevertheless, there is a clear sense of maturity among those who stick with it and desire that citizens and communities take on their respective roles with their political representatives as the legitimate heirs of democracy. Progressives have no desire to overthrow government, but to complement with vital citizen input and oversight.

Our progress becomes impossible as community if we continue to say we seek the truth when in fact we believe we already possess it. No one is that smart when it comes to community engagement – we are in process and in such a state we should be searchers instead of dogmatists.

There is a moment in Shakespeare’s Henry V where the young king is attempting to rally his people to do the right. He speaks of believing in the honour of serving his people and ensuring the survival of the nation. At last he declares, “If it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive.” If it is a sin to fight against the prevailing political system in order that we have a say in our own democratic birthright, then so be it. There is honour in that. If we seek to utilize Twitter as a great tool for our peers, then we become honourable in that pursuit. What authoritarians label a sin, we call rightful participation. Let’s not demean this present opportunity to stretch our collective wings by moving into divisive camps. Those seeking to plant IEDs in our path (Internet Explosive Devices) we can easily ignore. We are struggling to find our way and its best to do it with the two most important ingredients of the human code – respect and cooperation. We acknowledge our divisions best by seeking to find common ground, not by merely defending our turf or degrading others.

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