A few weeks ago one of my sisters posted on facebook a link to an article which suggested we might be headed towards the next World War. It was well reasoned and thoughtful, and its publication in the left-wing working-class British newspaper, The Daily Mirror, made it doubly interesting. The obvious argument of the article is the volatile and unpredictable nature of the world today, but its deeper message was the extent to which important conversation which we need to have is being impaired. In this particular instance the impairment comes from two sides: appropriate sensitivity to Islam and the peaceful majority of Muslims and fear of causing offense obscures the need for us to look honestly at the terrorism emanating from the Middle East; and desire to identify and fight a defined “enemy” tend to quickly become binary, polarizing debate and opinion, entangling political and cultural prejudice, and moving us away from the place where we can articulate sensible concern of the kind voiced by the Mirror.
Refugees, Compassion and Self-Interest
Did you know that the Syrian civil war has displaced over six million people, and that a similar number have been rendered homeless by conflicts and persecution in other parts of the Middle East and Northeast Africa?
It is easy to look the other way and ignore this problem. When the initial excitement in 2010 of the Arab Spring gave way to the confusion and conflict among the internal constituents in the Arab nations, the US and European press lost interest and for years has largely ignored the extent of cultural and human tragedy. A recent TV vignette captured the public eye and dramatically turned our attention that way. The personal story of a small boy washed up on the beach made us pay attention and feel compelled to help. Maybe it even stirred up feelings of guilt
But this is not simple. Accepting large numbers of refugees into the European Union and North America presents enormous organizational and administrative challenges. It puts considerable pressure on resources and creates competition for jobs and other opportunities. Above all, perhaps, it runs in the face of the fear of domestic populations that culture will change, jobs will be taken, and the quality of life will diminish. So while, on the one hand, we call on our governments to help, on the other hand we demand that they not help too much, that they preserve the status quo. How long will it be before our interest wanes once more? How long will it be before we turn our focus once more back to our everyday life and to more frivolous and less challenging distractions?
But is there another story that we are not exploring?
If the refugee population continues to grow and safe havens are not offered, where will these people go? Will they not look to the dream and promise of Europe and the US, of democracy and freedom and civil rights? How will they, and the nations from which they come, react when compassion is denied the disenfranchised and instability and civil war runs amok? What are the long term consequences of this volatile and massive problem to security and peace in Europe and America?
And perhaps a little more obviously, what are the consequences of a more strident Russian voice in Syria and Ukraine? What are the implications of an increasingly belligerent and militarized Russia on our domestic security and way of life?
If you are a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, it is likely that you are a member of a professional association which works to maintain professional standards. In part this is achieved by imposing rigorous criteria on would-be members, and by maintaining and monitoring professional skills and qualifications on an ongoing basis. The nature of a “closed shop” is to create a limited pool of qualified individuals who can benefit from the spoils of pricing limited resources. Yes, we require our professionals to be appropriately credentialed so that we as a people can have some guarantee about the quality of service, but above all the providers of service themselves benefit economically from this situation.
In this sense it is in your self-interest to make it ever more difficult to become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or even a hair stylist or master carpenter. It is in your self-interest to limit the influx of refugees to your nation to preserve your status quo and your share of resources. It is in your self-interest to raise the drawbridge once we have entered the castle.
But is this really a full understanding of your self-interest?
The Shifting Lens of Perception
The Daily Mirror article I mentioned earlier, perhaps more narrowly but in a similar vein to other commentators, draws a comparison with between Neville Chamberlain’s response to the emergence of Hitler’s Third Reich in the Nineteen Thirties and our Western response to the rising of militant forces in the Middle East. The analogy is not a perfect fit, but it does bring to mind broader comparisons of our current situation to the emergence of the Second World War out of the peace that followed The Great War, The War to End All Wars, the war that had to be renamed the First World War after the 1945 Armistice.
If you identify as American, when you think of the 1939-1945 war you likely think of Pearl Harbor; if Chinese you might think of Nanjing; but if you were living in London at the time you will think of the Blitz, the fleets of bombers that flew over the capital of Europe bombing civilian populations. And you will remember how you cheered on those nights when fleets of Lancaster bombers flew overhead on their way to Dresden or Berlin or Koln to “fight back” and carpet bomb German populations.
Can you imagine today cheering as the sky darkens with the weapons of destruction, death, maiming, loss of life and limb and livelihood? Can you imagine a Western government today embarking on this course of action? Can you imagine how civilian populations, sensitized by TV coverage and detailed reporting of individual military engagements and bombings, would respond to government bombing of civilian populations.
And yet just a couple of generations ago this was the way of life. What today would be seen as horrific and unacceptable was the basis of a war. Actions that today we would see as terrorism were a legitimate and popular military strategy.
How Will Your Children Judge You?
The extent to which your worldview is shaped by your experience is hard to see from the inside. If you were living in Europe during the Second World War, your view of terrorism and war and humanity would have been completely different than it in today’s comfortable, safe world, where war is not even a distant threat but rather something that happens to “people not like you” in a land far away. TV images cannot give any idea of reality, and while the personalizing vignette of a dead child on the sand might awaken compassion, it does little to expose you to the reality and extent of human suffering and its perpetuation.
It is easy to ask how you would like your children and grandchildren to judge you as it relates to refugee policy in the Middle East; it is a little more difficult to assess how you are faring, for that question starts to bring in questions of balance and compromise. And it becomes far more difficult when you ask how your children will judge your overall response to what is happening in the middle East. I am certainly not an advocate of war or of fighting, but I do find the Daily Mirror article profoundly challenging, and suggest that it is worth everyone taking the time to read. And I think that we need the light of this kind of perspective to inform our response to the efflux of refugees. What is really in our self-interest might not be the preservation of the status quo. To judge what is in our self-interest – which is why it is helpful to look at this from the standpoint of how your children will judge you – you must step outside the confines of a narrow consumerist worldview.
To properly assess and react to extraordinary circumstances, we need to be able to have open an honest conversations, and to do this we must create safe spaces where we can talk without fear of judgment or personal consequences. The public arena, however, is polarized, and seems to require voices to speak from one side or the other of a growing gulf. And it quickly becomes narrowly focused on individual issues, unable to come up and look at the bigger picture. For us to deal with the major troubles in the world today, we must be willing to step up to the challenge of talking honestly about them. To do so requires enormous courage:
- it requires being able both to voice your thoughts and feelings. Above all it is important to be able to do so honestly. It is important to talk sensitively and with respect for the feelings and views of others, but this will come with practice. As a culture we are so unused to having the difficult conversations that we find them uncomfortable and will necessarily step on each other’s toes while we are finding our way;
- it requires a kind and forgiving heart. We need to recognize and give credit when someone is trying to talk from the heart, rather than get offended and punish them for clumsiness or lack of political correctness. Without forgiveness there can be nor honest conversation;
- and it requires really listening. We each come to this conversation with our own experience and baggage, and it is necessarily limited and blinkered. And whether you think you are right or not, if others do not, your solution cannot work. It is only by listening to and respecting the opinions of others that they will listen to you.
The Syrian situation is perhaps the greatest example in the world today of the need to serious conversation of a kind to which we are not accustomed, but other examples abound, including the domestic lack of dialog about the environmental damage caused by wind farms, the societal consequences of guns and school shootings, the issues of race and racism, and the extent and consequences of poverty and hunger among children.
Ultimately our children will judge us by how our handling of these difficult times affects their future, and thus in turn by how well we have delivered on our ability to have difficult conversations. It is critical and urgent that each of us cultivate, practice, and demonstrate these skills in every walk of our lives.