“I might disagree with your opinion but I am willing to give my life for your right to express it.” Voltaire
Much has been written in recent weeks about how communities have come together in the face of terrorist attacks and tragedy. Young and old, black and white, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor, have shared practical support, financial contributions and empathy. Where all too often politics, religion and media headlines can divide us, our humanity can bind us.
At the same time there have been the voices of division, inciting one group against another and this is dangerous as it so often leads to violence and alienation.
Throughout history certain sections have endeavoured to tell other groups that theirs is the ‘right’ way, the right ideology, the right belief system. It is a form of one-upmanship that seems to be Darwinian. You see it in every culture or tribe and you see it in the animal kingdom. It leads to a sense of self-righteousness and places the other group in an apparent lower-status, apparently not ‘enlightened’ enough to realize the value of the ideology or belief.
The UK lacks leadership that unites us. Both the media and politicians are tending to catch on to emotional headlines and, instead of calming the situation with reason and authority, they ramp up the drama.
But division helps none of us and can even lead to civil or religious war. There is talk of a clash of civilisations, a clash between rich and poor, a clash between young and old, between one class and another, between one religion and another. Personally I am more for evolution than for revolution. The former creates reform over time, the latter generally involves violence, suffering, poverty, incarceration and murder. We want to avoid that at all costs. It would, in my opinion, be more helpful to highlight what unites us rather than what divides us.
So what can we do about this? Surely we can focus our minds on our commonalities rather than our differences. Our daily experience is partly up to government but mainly up to us as individuals. Whether we behave respectfully to ourselves, others , the community, the institutions of government, and the environment is within our own control. It is where we can, each one of us, make a difference. If we lead our own lives well then society flourishes. If we drop litter or abuse others we disrupt society. If we harbour prejudice and judgement we divide one another on ideological grounds. As Voltaire said “Prejudices are what fools use for reason” .
Having run a business called Positiveworks I guess it is not surprising that I feel it works better to focus on what we can do with the situation we have been given rather than disempowering ourselves by feeling hard-done-by and divided. Encouraging a victim mentality seldom helps to motivate someone to action that will improve their lot. And interestingly by suggesting another person is a victim makes their rescuer feel better about themselves – they are one-up and can be therefore be bountiful. When we place another in the role of victim we have to challenge ourselves about the payoff we are receiving from our charity or patronage. We need to ensure that we are truly motivating the other person to feel that they can improve their lot and not, consciously or unconsciously, keeping them stuck in it.
Politicians and the media are speaking of generational division. Yes, the young have challenges today, certainly, but equally these challenges need to be seen in perspective. My grandparents and parents experienced two world wars, economic depression and bombs. In other parts of the world the young are being threatened by Boko Haram, sold as slaves by ISIS. We watched the movie Woman in Gold the other night, telling the story of how the Nazis stole Gustav Klimt’s painting from a Jewish family during World War II. The film depicted the familiar terrifying scenes of families being rounded up and treated inhumanely. I thought how lucky (so far) my generation and the generations younger than I have been not to know war, communism, or occupation or dictatorship. I lived in London during the IRA bombings. Today’s young are threatened by Islamic terrorism. We have to get on with life, pull together and have a vision and strategy for a better future.
Things don’t always get better. It is, I believe, unhelpful to set expectations that they do. It didn’t get better for my parents who married in 1939 and were thrown into 6 years of war. It didn’t get better for those in Europe. It didn’t get better for those who experienced the Wall Street Crash. You get my drift. We need to encourage resilience in the young and not allow them to imagine that the situation they face is any worse.
My generation of Baby Boomers have been fortunate in some ways but it would be erroneous to say that it has all been plain sailing. There is a suggestion that we have deliberately kicked others off the ladder but I haven’t been aware of this in the groups I have grown up with. In fact, as the V&A exhibition Revolution described, our generation have been active in equality movements, CND, Anti-Apartheid, organic foods and environmental projects.
Inevitably, as with any generation, there have been those who have acted for good and those who haven’t. But I don’t believe we have sought to incapacitate the young as seems to be suggested by some. After all, we have our own children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews so why would we wish to sabotage their lives? Indeed the bank of Mum and Dad are now major donors helping young people. I don’t believe most of us want to saddle the young with huge debts or force them to pay for our old age in any way that is unreasonable. I personally am perfectly willing not to receive a winter fuel allowance and to pay for some of my care if it allows for those more needy than myself to be given more generous allowances.
So it surely doesn’t help to make young people feel victims of some conspiracy or to insinuate that the situation they face today is without hope. Expectations shape emotions. Emotions shape behaviours. Let’s give young people the respect, belief and trust that they are capable, that they are not necessarily facing anything that is any more insurmountable than their grandparents or ancestors faced, and let them get on with it. Let’s trust that they have the resilience to manage the challenges they face and do not need to be constantly reminded of how hard-done-by they feel. Let’s put their situation in perspective and not incite division between them and the older generations of their parents and grandparents. I don’t believe it is helpful to anyone. Every generation have had their own challenges and the majority of people within that generation manage to overcome them. Let’s assume that the majority of today’s young are just as capable.
As people have short memories and history is not always taught then it may help to remember that we Boomers have lived through the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, high inflation, interest rates of 17%, the winter of discontent, the AIDs crisis and the IRA, the hole in the ozone layer and doctors and many others who, before the 35 hour week, regularly worked over 90 hours a week. Most of those I know of my generation have worked incredibly hard.
There is also divisive rhetoric around the ‘rich’ insinuating that the wealthy are all greedy tax evading monsters that were somehow born with a spoon in their mouths. I spent a short time yesterday afternoon reading the Sunday Times Rich List and was impressed by how many of these people had made their money since the year 2000. They were not all bankers or hedge fund managers, as seems to be the assumption. There were businessmen and women who had started a cash-and-carry or an internet company. There were those brought up in hardship – in Barnardo’s homes, as refugees and immigrants. Those who had a good idea and worked incredibly hard and with determination to make a success of that idea such as J K Rowling. Many of these are giving back through philanthropy. We need to be very careful not to make generalised assumptions about the rich. We need to encourage wealth-creation and aspiration. The UK is full of enterprising and entrepreneurial individuals who can create products and services that can be benefit to us all. Give them hope.
So it must be about each of us, as individuals, playing our part to maintain and create a cohesive society in the midst of uncertainty and change. I was shocked recently when I went into our small GP surgery in Hampshire last week and saw a notice recording that 51 people had not attended appointments during the month of May. When I commented on this I was told that this was a fairly average statistic. When you consider how this is multiplied around the UK both in GP surgeries and hospitals it becomes clear that while people talk emotionally about ‘our NHS’ they are, at the same time, abusing it. A terrible waste of money, time and resources .
We need to respect and value the institutions we are fortunate enough to have in this country – that means being responsible for one’s part in the relationship, not taking these services for granted, not assuming that government have to pick up all the pieces. If we have rights we have responsibilities and we need to encourage all members of our communities to contribute. As JF Kennedy said “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
We can transform the rhetoric of hate, division and hopelessness. We can talk of optimism, of opportunities, of what we can do rather than what we can’t. Our politicians are unlikely to be able to resolve all our problems, so surely it is time to consider what we can personally do to protect and support the privileges that our parents’ and grandparents’ generations have fought for. Let’s remember that how we think and what we talk about changes lives and the lives of future generations. Positive works!