Note! I found the text from this post below while cleaning up some folders. It was a text I wrote to post as a blog post almost exactly 3 years ago but somehow I never posted it… I think I wasn’t pleased with it or didn’t think it was of value…. or just too pretentious.
Either way, while reading it back I figured I would post it. Perhaps more for myself than for anyone else as it is a strong reminder of what I hold dearly and something that was also clearly challenged in the last year and a half of pandemic enforced reclusiveness. Replace some of the topics mentioned with ‘vaccination’, ‘covid-19’ or ‘lockdown restrictions’ and it is still just as, if not more, relevant…
I think I’m pretty open minded. I believe everyone has a right to an opinion of their own, is free to adhere to their own religion (and profess it!) and have their own preferences.
But is that enough?
A month or two ago I came across a notice in a local supermarket about an iftar meal being organized for Ramadan open to all who wanted to experience meeting other people over a dinner after sundown. It was organized by the local Muslim community in a community center in my neighborhood. I went and had a great night. Talking to people, having a great meal and while there I got to talk to table neighbor Sukran who happily answered all the questions I had while explaining the traditions surrounding Ramadan, the Muslim faith and most importantly: her interpretation of it.
The thing is, I am not unknowing. I have always had a strong interest in history, culture and religion. Spending several months on a kibbutz in Israel after graduating high school and even studying Religious Science at the University of Groningen for a few years before ending up going into IT (yeah, I know, not the most logical step and a whole different story in itself). This interest though in other people and belief systems has never left me and I continue to read many books about these topics.
My interest with religion, politics and believe systems has always been twofold:
1). What makes that people believe or come to their convictions and what drives them internally;
2). How does what people believe and the culture they live in influence what they do, their surroundings and their choices.
History is speckled with examples of this and there are lots of books, ideas and theories about this. Somehow though my interest has always been not so much with the overall bigger picture, the various cultural groups as a whole…. but with how individuals are affected by and operate in this. You could say I’m interested in the little story.
For instance it is easy to say things like “Those southerners all like trump because…“ or “Those Brits are for Brexit because…” or “Those Muslims think like this because…” but in general these groups do not exist as such but are divided into many subgroups with subgroups with….. individuals. And those individuals are influenced by many internal and external factors and almost never homogenous.
A right to your own opinion doesn’t exclude you from having a duty to try to understand someone else’s opinions
So back to the iftar meal. I had a great night and I wanted to ask many more questions of Sukran because I loved how she talked about her faith. Not because she told me things that were new to me about Islam as such but because her interpretation and way of talking about it (in philosophical metaphors that I had never heard before) intrigued me. I didn’t know though if it would be appropriate to ask her if I could meet her again.
After all, here I am all ‘Dutch’, atheist, in a short-sleeved t-shirt with 3/4 length trousers and open toe sandals (forgive me it was one of those brutally warm summer evenings) and there she was with a head scarf and full-length garment to cover her arms and legs and a very deep religious conviction. So I was hesitant…
Low and behold though, at the end of the evening, while I was still deliberating how I could extend our acquaintance, she asked me if we could exchange phone numbers as she had enjoyed the conversation just as much and would love to meet again for coffee. And that was when it hit me. Why had I even felt inhibited to ask her? What held me back while she had been friendly and open to all my questions all night. In fact, we had a great exchange about all kinds of topics, not just religion (like diets which we both perpetually struggle with). Why did she see no problem in asking me while I was unsure if I could, simply because I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate? It also opened my eyes to how little contact I have with people in other ‘believe systems’. Whether it is religious or politics or otherwise…
So I realized that although I think of myself as open and tolerant, there is still a lot to be improved. And that made me wonder what was causing my self-image to be so off.
Being tolerant should be an active deed, not an excuse to turn away from difficult discussions
As said, I don’t think I’m a bigamist or discriminatory. I think of myself as open, tolerant and more than willing to listen but all of these are passive attributes. It’s easy to say you are tolerating of other people’s religions if you live in a country where religion is mostly a private affair and where less than 50% of people even classify themselves as being religious. It is also easy to not respond to others’ political statements when it’s not ‘your president’ or your ‘governments decision’ or your kid using the word for gays as a swear word in a conversation…. But is that really enough? Is just accepting that ‘that’s their opinion’ or ‘their choice’ enough? Or should we all have a duty to at least seek out to understand why people do or think differently, actively ask questions and try to have a conversation?
I think that real open mindedness is not passive it is active. It is being not just willing to listen but actively seeking to understand and be understood. Not necessarily to agree but to better learn the reasons for the other persons position or statement while also explaining in an open way to them your point of view. It is amazing to see, when you talk to people and really ask for- and open yourself up to their position, how limited your own perspective often is. Like when I talked to an English friend just after Brexit who I thought was against Brexit but who turned out to have voted to leave. I had not expected it and was aghast as I couldn’t comprehend why he would vote to leave while being wholly dependent for his work on open borders. Talking to him though, I could see his point for choosing the way he did. It didn’t mean that I agreed with it, but it certainly taught me there were many more nuances to the story then I had thought until then. Plus, it showed me quite clearly how limited my own understanding of the whole situation was.
Only through conversation can we avoid polarization
But doing that: asking, talking, learning isn’t easy. Because asking for – or discussing someone’s reasoning and thoughts behind their political opinion, their religion or their preferences is starting to become more and more a taboo. And social media and the internet seems to play a big role in that. The medium just doesn’t really lend itself for balanced and open conversation. Instead, it is like standing in a crowded hall full of strangers and vague acquaintances and yelling your opinion to a friend or acquaintance on the other side of the room. Instead of having an open conversation, people feel put on the spot in front of a large audience of friends and strangers. Having to yell their response across the room with no visual cues from the other party and a large audience of people who butt in and start reacting as well. The result often is that what comes across are short sound bites, memes and statements which are often seen as nothing more than a declaration or defiant ‘take it or leave it’. Even if that was never intended. Resulting in bitter fights, stale mates and troll responses. Or worse…. In people shutting off and unfriending each other. Polarizing opinions on both ends with little or no room for understanding or time for reflection.
I get the feeling that people feel they need to have an opinion on everything so that when someone calls them out on something they are ready with an answer right there and then because not responding is automatically making you look like you agree or don’t have a clue. Leaving less space for people to simply state: “I don’t know” or “I’m still figuring it out”.
Because it is easier to not know then to accept to disagree
Worse yet is hearing how certain topics like politics or religion are no longer discussed anymore when meeting friends or family. Out of fear of starting a family feud or finding out that you really don’t agree… It seems it is easier to not know than to discuss and then accept to disagree. As if we can only function if we agree on all fronts or avoid having the conversation at all. Since when is that the case?!?
All that worries and bothers me. It bothers me to see it in others, but even more to recognize it in myself. I’m doing it too and it’s having a bad effect on me. Social Media is great but not to discuss politics, religion or sexual preferences. That doesn’t make them taboo though, it just means that if I talk to someone and one of those topics comes up, I prefer to have that conversation in a different way. A way that doesn’t include ‘shouting at the top of your lungs from one end of the room to the other’ but allows you to see, feel and experience all the subtle elements of verbal, non-verbal and direct communication.
And it’s not easy to fix. But perhaps by writing all this out I will make others understand why I sometimes ask things you would normally not expect me to ask and that it is not to judge but to learn because I strongly believe that:
if we don’t talk about the hard stuff how can we make it better?
So did Sukran and I have coffee together in town? Yes we did, several times already. We even brought our mothers together! Live is all about meeting each other, and nothing beats that real live experience.
Oh and as side note… why am I posting this on my work blog?
Well apart from this being very important to me from a conscientious point of view this doesn’t only pertain to things like religion, politics and preferences. It applies just as much to the way we work. As someone who’s work it is to get people in different organizations to work together across organizational, cultural and language borders this avoidance to tackle the difficult conversations is something I’m starting to see seeping in more and more in enterprise collaboration too.
image source: https://undraw.co/illustrations