Here we are again, another stream of tragedies with lives, families, and communities torn apart. The loss of life last week at the hands of Daesh numbers in the hundreds, an unthinkable loss and another part to this cycle of tragedy which has spiralled at the hands of various violent extremists in 2015, from Paris to Beirut to Chapel Hill to Nigeria to Oregon to Kenya to Iraq to Syria, and beyond.
It is at these times that we will see the best, and dare I say, the worst, in our friends, neighbours, and leaders. The best will call for unity and compassion, the worst will fan the flames of fear and suspicion, thus playing directly into Daesh's intentions of sowing further mistrust among us.
While we must be united during these times, we must work on staying united. We need a citizenry and a leadership that is
informed, that has vision in shaping a more resilient, connected and cohesive world, and that works vigorously towards these goals at all times, not only reactively.
Unfortunately what we often see and hear from so many of our leaders is repeatedly in opposition to these said goals.
I did not want to write a 'listicle' amidst this feeling of grief, but I feel there are certain ideas that need addressing directly, before we fall into what seems like an inevitable cycle following such tragedy. Many have said this, but it appears as if our voices continuously go unheard. We will repeat these until they do not need to be said, until they are built upon as foundations for our societies.
10 points to be a champion in cohesion:
1. PR will only take us so far. While it is imperative that we demonstrate solidarity, we need more than that. We will not create the shifts necessary until we follow our words with action. We need consistent, authentic engagement, especially in addressing our own and our communities' fears, anxieties and ignorance's (no easy task). If our engagement with others is purely through media, or mostly for show, it will not produce much, especially when the media and public see through or tire of the PR. The words following these tragedies must be lived and embodied continuously.
2. This is about work, hard work. We must focus on consistent work on the ground that challenges and shifts perceptions and attitudes. While they may not grab too many headlines; it is face-to-face programmes with proven track records that need supporting (like my amazing former organisation 3ff!).
3. We need to treat this work in a professional manner. Cohesion work is primarily about contact, but we have to be constantly asking "what kind of contact?" This is an area of work that expects no real qualifications, has no kite-mark for good activity, or hardly any in-depth evaluation. For this work to have any merit, our engagement must not be based on one-offs but sustained over time, during which trusted relationships are built through multiple contact points through dialogue AND experience; it must also be a positive and genuine experience.
4. This is not about myth busting with added facts. The information is out there, the myths that people hold about the "other" are usually inconsistent with the facts. No matter how many polls and surveys you throw at people, biases remain. We need to experience others directly, to allow radical empathy to take the place of suspicion.
5. Demonstrating complexity and nuance must be an active goal. For leaders - be conscious of reaffirming separation through the manner in which you frame your engagement. In your engagement, you must continuously show the complexity of the groups/communities/countries you have influence on. We are a diverse bunch with diverse opinions, your representation must be as such in order to humanise us as a said "group". For individuals - as you show your complexity by speaking for yourself, be clear about the affiliations you may have so that you are not seen as an exception.
6. This work is about building a sense of belonging, of comfort and well-being. Primarily, while we need to ensure that all our citizens are safe from violent extremists, we cannot undermine our citizens' rights in the pursuit. The more rights we undermine, the more fodder Daesh and others have to work with, plugging into the powerlessness that many young people feel. Equally important, we need our citizens to FEEL safe, comfortable, and connected. In this our leadership needs to ensure that it is not merely the 'increased security' option but the soft power approach, human security and the freedom from fear that need focus.
7. This work is about trust more than anything. Easier said than done, of course, but trust can only be built by humanising and moving beyond the "us and them" narrative which seems so commonplace. Problematising individual communities or specific issues between communities, is too easy and puts the blame on others rather than looking for solutions collectively.
8. Often, this is about power, and one must be aware of power dynamics in groups and between groups. This is usually the biggest elephant in the room, and while it is hard to call out who is dominant and who is not (real or perceived), one needs to ensure that the dominant empathises with the injustice felt by the non-dominant
9. In the words of Howard Zinn "And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future". Start wherever you can, especially with your neighbours. Cohesion work can be done by anyone and there are many out there who have worked hard to develop great models. If you wish to get involved, there are organisations to suit every taste. Below this article are a few lists to start you off.
10. Lastly - Be bold and vocal. As influencers you can lower the prejudice of those you influence by talking about your experience (extended contact theory). Risk being unpopular to the naysayers, the racists, and to the misinformed, who provide no real alternative to engagement. Violence may at times be inevitable, but as we have seen repeatedly, aggression begets aggression. We are in desperate need to find a pathway to cohesion in our complex diversity. We must decide collectively how best to live collectively.
We cannot let them win, there is too much at stake.