08 Mar 2022
During Auckland’s interminably long lockdown last year, I made a new friend – my neighbour of five years, who I had said hello to across the driveway, but nothing more.
I saw her taking a daily walk, and one day I yelled out and asked if she wanted company. I put on my shoes, and thus began a daily ritual that not only broke the mundane drudge of lockdown, but allowed me to forge a relationship with someone outside my usual spheres.
My friend is nearly 10 years older than me, Pākehā, working class, with no formal qualifications. She is more socially and politically conservative than I am. She is also an excellent cook, gardener, has travelled extensively and worked lots of interesting jobs. She has lots of opinions that differ from mine.
The occupation of Parliament grounds has highlighted divisions and differences of opinion in our society, although whether that divide is any greater than usual is debatable, writes Khylee Quince
Making a new friend at any time in life is an interesting process, but as my big half-century approaches in June, this relationship has forced me to reflect upon my own beliefs, experiences and values – for which I am really grateful. As we walk around the local parks on our daily walk, we discuss all manner of things – openly and without fear of judgment.
The recent protests and occupation of Parliament highlighted some divisions and differences of opinion in our society, although whether that divide is any greater than usual is debatable. Irrespective of whether there is more division, or whether it is just more visible, the resulting cries for better “social cohesion” call into question how we understand and bridge any perceived divide between citizens.
Understanding the position, experiences and attitudes of others requires some means of exchanging views, and analysing differences and whether they matter. That needs to be done at systemic and institutional levels in education and justice, for example, but also at the individual level – as my new friendship demonstrates.
It was once more common for university students to mix with freezing workers during their summer breaks, but our society has now become more siloed.
It has become obvious in recent years that we are more siloed in our personal and professional lives – meaning we are less exposed to people who don’t look like ourselves, have similar levels of education and income, and maybe share the same values, language, faith, culture or experiences.
Aspects of our possibly exaggerated egalitarian past in Aotearoa saw university students work the killing chains of the freezing works in the summer, and men of all backgrounds share the cricket and rugby fields with each other in towns around the country – socialising over a beer in the clubrooms on Saturday nights. Social scientists identify these as hyperlocal spheres of empathy, where our exposure to the lives of people in our circles means we are better positioned to understand them.
The day after the Christchurch mosque murders, a student approached me after a lecture in which we shared karakia, prayers and Islamic blessings for the tragedy. This bright, well-rounded young man said the attacks made him realise he didn’t have a single Muslim friend, but that he would actively seek to engage with his local community to change that. He meant that as a genuine desire to expand his knowledge and understanding of the world he lived in.
Donald Trump consciously appealed to the resentment and anger of the American underclass, many of whom felt they had lost their standing in society.
Much research in the past decade or so has analysed the negative consequences of living and moving in homogenous communities. In his 2009 book The Big Sort, commentator Bill Bishop focused on housing underpinning clusters of people living the same lifestyles with the same beliefs – and the consequent ignorance of people living mere miles away from them.Many books since then have looked at “ideological inbreeding” and the polarisation and partisanship resulting from smaller and smaller spheres of empathy.
The rise of Tea Party politics in the United States and the leadup to the election of Donald Trump saw a proliferation of similar analyses of polarisation of views and incivility among citizens. In her book Strangers in their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, a liberal Jewish Democrat, moved to the American South for five years in an attempt to understand the increasing divide in her country, and the resentment and anger of the underclass who were to become Trump’s main fanbase.
Hochschild doesn’t really answer her research question, which was to understand the paradox that these people with such disdain for government were also heavily reliant upon it for survival. What she observes, though, is that these people perceive they have lost their standing in their country, projecting their loss of status onto the government and public structures, migrants, minorities and other scapegoats. They often fail to see the patterns of experience through the workings of rampant capitalism and a declining economy and environment, instead ascribing their position to bad luck or poor choices.
There are analogies with our local situation, and factions of protesters who have survived the indignities of neo-liberalism, colonisation and global forces. So where to from here? Hochschild uses the metaphor of the “empathy wall” – representing the divide between groups – and suggests a deliberate scaling of the wall to increase opportunities for dialogue and understanding.
Humans invariably desire honour, respect and mana as individuals. However, the prioritisation of individual mana can lead to the “tragedy of the commons”, where individually rational behaviour leads to collective ruin.
Real collective flourishing balances individual and collective interests. Advancing collective wellbeing requires listening to, and understanding of, the different moral ideals and values of different tribes or groups. Self-awareness of your own values and priorities is a good start – and good friends can help you examine those things about yourself.
This article was first published in stuff.co.nz. Read the original article on Stuff