With division and loneliness now rife and on the rise in the UK, it seems like the obvious place to start to make a change is close to home.
There are plenty of reasons why our society has become so fractured – one is the ideology of individualism that I referred to in my first post, one is the internet reducing our will or our ability to reach out to other people in person, and one major and growing problem is the way in which we work – it’s estimated that up to 50% of us will be in non-traditional working arrangements (e.g. freelance, part-time, working remotely, etc) by 2020, meaning that we don’t even have proper human contact with our colleagues any more, and many of us go whole days without directly interacting with anyone but our nearest and dearest.
All of this adds up to an urgent need to rebuild a sense of community. So here’s a quick list of suggestions of ways that we can start to reach out to those around us. Hopefully, by doing this, we’ll not only be starting to break down those dangerous divisions, but also learning about each other, gaining more respect for other people’s points of view, and maybe even finding ways of making our own case more persuasively.
Over the coming months, I’ll be taking the following up as a challenge to myself and blogging about it. I hope you’ll join me. Please feel free to make your own suggestions, but be aware that I have made a point of choosing things that don’t require any financial commitment, so that everyone can do them.
1) Find out who your neighbours are.
I’m putting this at the top of the list because it ought to be one of the easiest, provided you get on it sooner rather than later. It’s nearly Christmas, so the obvious thing to do is to add them to your card list (or start one if you don’t normally send any). Drop cards in, and make sure you include your own name and address. If you already know your neighbours and are accustomed to exchanging the season’s greetings, try to go the extra mile and have a conversation with somebody you haven’t really talked to much before, or do something extra nice for someone. I’ve become really aware recently of how bad it is that I don’t even know the names of the people who live in the same building as me, and I suspect I’m not alone.
2) Go to a political talk or meeting.
I’m not going to be specific about this because you’ll all know what’s unusual or not for you. You might want to go to a hustings, a rally, a Q&A session or a drop-in surgery, or you might want to start getting properly involved with a local party branch. If you’re already hot on this, my challenge to you is to go and listen to someone you disagree with, or who is not from your own party.
3) Visit a community centre, social club or place of worship that isn’t linked to your own cultural identity.
One of the loveliest things I saw post-Brexit was photos of kind messages and cards left at a Polish centre in an attempt to counteract the abuse and insults that were being flung around before and after the referendum. I also remember around the same time listening to Hardeep Singh Kohli on the radio talking to a Muslim guy who’d helped to fund repairs to a Synagogue, become best friends with a Jewish leader, and helped to bring the communities together. Recently we’ve seen a similar thing happen in America with Muslim and Jewish groups uniting to put pressure on the government. You don’t have to just sort of rock up on your own and be weird about this. It’s totally okay – and probably better – if you ask someone you know to show you around. Hopefully we all know *at least* one person of a different faith, race or nationality who could help with this. If you don’t, it’s on you to rectify that.
4) Ask somebody a full generation older or younger than you (about 20 years) for their thoughts on a contemporary political issue.
The crucial thing here is that you listen without reservation to what they have to say and only respond with your opinion if and when you’re asked for it. If you’re able to, do both – speak to someone a generation older and younger than you. If you’re not, try to find someone at least a little bit older and a little bit younger than you are.
5) Meet up with someone you haven’t seen for over a year.
Paradoxically, while the internet has superficially enabled us to keep in touch with people, we’re actually probably worse than ever at actually seeing each other. Meet up with an old friend and schedule a regular date to meet with them again – even if it’s only once a year. Stick to your arrangement.
6) Read a book by someone who is not from Britain, America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.
Basically somewhere either culturally or linguistically alien to you. Discuss what you learn with other people.
It doesn’t matter what you do or how long you do it for – as long as it’s for a cause that’s important to you.
8) Read a non-fiction book by someone whose politics, philosophy or worldview you know or believe you disagree with.
Resist the urge to comment online about it until you’ve finished the entire book! This is probably the best possible way of challenging your assumptions, since you can’t argue with someone who isn’t there. Once you have finished, discuss with other people.
9) Learn a bit of another language.
Try to use what you’ve learned with someone who is fluent. Ideally, pick something other than the popular French, German, or Spanish options – the more unusual (and potentially useful locally, e.g in Coventry you might consider Polish, or one of the plethora of South Asian languages spoken here), the better. You don’t have to take regular classes or get fluent – it can just be a few words or phrases. We’re one of the worst nations, not just at learning other languages, but at having the courage to speak them, and our ignorance contributes to the isolationism of our politics and our rudeness abroad. We should all be more alert to the ways in which our language shapes our perception of the world.
10) Write a positive letter to a councillor or MP.
We only ever tend to contact our representatives if we have something to complain about. My dad was talking recently about all the lovely wildflowers that have been planted locally this year (very good for our poor bees), and thinking about writing something in support of the scheme. I think it’s a really good idea, not just because it’s nice for them to be appreciated, but also because it helps us to be more aware and more appreciative of the good stuff we have, instead of focusing on the negatives. Feeling generally valued also tends to make people more receptive when they are asked to change something. We’re all just human.
11) Go to a public place or event you wouldn’t normally choose to go to or where you feel you don’t belong.
Again I’m not going to tell you what this should be because it will vary according to your personality, tastes and experiences. As an example, for me the obvious thing would probably be a sports match, but for some it might be a library, a theatre, a certain pub or club or even a shop. You know where you draw your own tribal lines. Cross them.
12) Participate in a community event, class or activity.
This might well be the hardest because it’s going to involve a greater level of commitment. The reason I think that it’s important is that I read a study recently suggesting that one of the most effective ways of tackling prejudice is by getting diverse groups of people participating in projects together. Active collaboration and working towards a shared goal are more effective than living in proximity or even conversation. So join a choir, am-dram society, dance class, sports team, folk group, writing group – whatever. Or help out with a festival or fundraiser or match or something like that. And meet new people. There are tons of options – even if you’re super busy, you can do this in the evenings, on weekends or during your holiday.
13) Schedule in at least one internet-free day per month.
It’s easy to forget how important it is to give your brain a rest.