This is the era for real conversations. We simply cannot afford to continue acting out that old adage about the three things that must never be mentioned in polite conversation. Out with polite conversations, in with genuine, heartfelt, passionate and humorous ones! Even the traditional bolthole of the perennially embarrassed English – the weather – is now just a preamble to debating the greatest challenge of our times: Climate Change. Right up there on the agenda is terrorism (guess what, that’s got something to do with politics and religion!), Islamophobia & anti-semitism (I rest my case). Finally, sex in all forms (loving, defiant, banal or abusive, biological or interactional) can simply not be avoided with the long overdue rise of gay and trans equality and rights, on the one hand, and the historical and current abuse and grooming scandals which have been – and are – continuing on an industrial scale in some of the most respected institutions, nationally and internationally, on the other hand. War crimes, rape, torture, genocide, corruption at the highest levels of key institutions and a loss of faith in much of the political class to guide us through the dangers, hardships and complexities of today’s world – these are our daily new digest.
Is this the world we want to reproduce? If so, we’re going about it the right way. Wall to wall news coverage of atrocities, scandals and wars is a sure way of wiring our unconscious brains to see and project a world full of fear, anger, suffering, hatred and guilt. Poor use of social media only amplifies this. The unconscious brain, like a basking shark, quietly swallows everything that comes to it, creates implicit associations (stereotypes) out of the things that seem to occur over and over again together, and then projects this outward as our working version of reality. It is indiscriminate – it can’t really tell the difference between fact and fiction, between informed opinion and hearsay or gossip – or outright lies.
Is it any wonder that some individuals who are socially, mentally & emotionally vulnerable are unable to process the incessant stream of disturbing news they are subjected to, or to handle the sense of powerlessness that all of us feel when we witness the most distressing scenes from the comparative ‘safety’ of our bedroom or living room? Is it really surprising that vulnerability can be preyed upon by others, and/or simply burst out in an act of violence, or terror? Whatever else these acts are, they have in common an admittedly twisted attempt to experience power, control and influence.
But I’m now doing the same thing that I seem to be criticising – painting a dark and disturbing picture of the world, which may leave you feeling powerless. What I’ve written is one-sided, and a little caricatured. Many of us are not engaged in this sort of unconscious consumption of information, or collusion with our sense of powerlessness. We are living, working, loving, activating, demonstrating, writing, singing, dancing, speaking – knitting in small and big ways thousands of alternative versions of reality. These versions do not have to deny the existence of the monumental challenges facing our society, world and planet. But they are crafted through conversations of all kinds which tap into our dreams, our resilience, our small stories of thriving amidst adversity, our local initiatives to build strong and loving relationships with those around us, and our indomitable desire to connect with and help each other. We are engaged in turning that very useful shark around – by limiting the amount of repeated negative associations we expose ourselves to.
Three events last weekend symbolised this for me more than anything. Firstly, I invited to my house 4 other Asian women, who were very diverse in terms of religion, colour, language, class, sexual orientation, to talk about our relationship to Partition. This year is the 70th anniversary of the creation of India and Pakistan (later to be split in the creation of Bangladesh). Partition resulted in around 2 million deaths and the greatest movement of humans in history (around 12 million). We did not give each other history lessons, but we talked about the find grain of our experiences of growing up in families that had been affected – some severely – by that greatest of British-led political divisions. We talked hope and healing, stories of courage and stories of prejudice. Real conversations. Seeds of real friendship. Erasing obvious and hidden divides, gently, personally, powerfully.
Second, on Sunday, our little street created an unofficial road closure (to car traffic) and had a Great Get Together party in honour of Jo Cox. We talked to and fed and watered friend and stranger alike – in fact, one young woman who was just passing through ended up in my kitchen, and we talked about young working women in urban environments getting connected and helping each other out.
Finally, on the same evening, just as the attack at Finsbury Mosque was happening, my partner, son and I were joining in a beautiful and gentle evening of speeches, music and food, sharing the Iftar (fast opening) with local Muslims and people of all faiths and none. At our table were a Unitarian and a Jewish woman, and us Muslim and Hindu heritage, straight, lesbian, still to decide. Older, younger, in between. Real conversations. Seeds of real friendship. Erasing obvious and hidden divides, gently, personally, powerfully.
These things may seem trivial next to the selfless actions of people who have helped the wounded and homeless in Manchester and London, or even the wonderful gesture of the One Love concert. And in a sense they are. But they are also acts of community building. And they are all of a piece – knitting, weaving, with hearts, hands, minds, bodies and faith in any way we can.
That is what should be making the headlines in the broadcast and literary media. Let the tectonic politics of division be the side show – yes, we need to pay attention to them, but let’s not keep giving the headlines to those have shown how lost and impotent they are and how clouded by power or money their judgment can be. Let the fine grain politics of knitting communities together – talking sex, politics and religion in compassionate and genuine ways, reaching in to reach out, treating the stranger as a new friend they really want to know – take centre stage. All day, every day.
20th June 2017