We live in deeply polarised political times, where the left and right have so little respect for each other that their discourse can easily descend into insults. But sometimes people are able to rise above the noise and find common cause, even from opposite ends of the political divide.
Freedom of speech is a uniting principle that doesn’t require a political affiliation to support it. Nonetheless it still raised eyebrows when a giant of the American Left, philosopher, author and activist Cornel West, joined forces with leading US conservative intellectual Robert P. George to defend the notion of debate, over the shutting down of the opinions of others.
They issued a joint statement after protests against a social scientist, Charles Murray, speaking at Middlebury College in Vermont, lead to a professor being injured.
“All of us should be willing - even eager - to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments,” they argued.
One of the most remarkable examples of politicians reaching out across a chasm has to be from the Northern Ireland Peace Process. The differences between the Unionist and Republican sides were historic, cultural and religious, and deeply ingrained. And yet John Hume of the SDLP and David Trimble of the UUP were not only able to form a government together, they were joint recipients of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize.
Hume declared, with great optimism: “Over the years, the barriers of the past - the distrust and prejudices of the past - will be eroded, and a new society will evolve, a new Ireland based on agreement and respect for difference.”
It is a respect for difference that is key to solving the seemingly unsolvable problems of combining disparate opinions peacefully. Because even in those differences, there are things in common: passionate belief and a desire to protect community.
The choppy waters of peace in Northern Ireland are still turbulent but great progress had been made. It was unthinkable that the firebrand Rev. Ian Paisley would ever share oxygen with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, let alone form a government.
However, despite being sworn enemies, they worked very well together after agreeing to share power in 2007. So well, in fact, that a deep friendship between them developed. Journalists even dubbed them “the Chuckle Brothers”.
McGuinness told The Independent in Ireland: “Our relationship confounded many. Of course, our political differences continued; his allegiance was to Britain and mine to Ireland. But we were able to work effectively together in the interests of all our people.”
Theirs was a consociationalist government, whereby opposing sides recognise the dangers of division. More common are coalition governments, temporary alliances of convenience.
In Denmark, they haven’t had a single-party government for decades. It’s just the way they do politics there. The more divided a people, the more compromise becomes necessary and desirable for the common good. And despite the country being unable to agree on a majority government, the various voices in power preside over what surveys indicate is the happiest country in the world.
Sometimes even agreeing to disagree can bring benefits.
Belgium, with the man who finally broke the deadlock Elio Di Rupo pictured above, was unable to put together a government in 2011 and in fact took the world record for the longest elapsed time without one. However, during its hiatus from having someone in charge, the country carried on without the budget cuts that were being inflicted all over Europe.
And strangely, without a consensus to drive policy, Belgium maintained modest growth levels that surpassed France, Germany, the UK, Spain, Netherlands and the US.
Ultimately, we are social animals whose very success has been the fruit of cooperation. A future that involves conflict will never be as rosy as one that seeks to build bridges for the progress of all. We are stronger when we work towards the same goal, no matter which path we favour.