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The Paris attacks took place the week before I travelled to St. John’s Newfoundland for some training to upgrade my conflict coaching skills. France had retaliated; some Southern US Governors decided to shut their doors to Syrian refugees; Facebook was full of stories of other massacres that had not received the same level of media attention, with powerful allegations of bias and racism; and some Canadians were calling for Prime Minister Trudeau to renege on his commitment to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year’s end. There have been acts of aggression and violence against Arabs and Muslims.
I admit to sharing some of the African anger at the absence of attention being paid to the massacre in Kenya; the genocide that is building in Burundi; the Boca Haram kidnappings in Nigeria; and the farm killings in South Africa; no doubt because I am an African. But, I remind myself that there is no such thing as truly objective reporting. Everybody has a philosophy and a position. If you think Africa is a lost place full of bloodthirsty and corrupt people who are irrelevant in your life, much as the boat people from Syria may be irrelevant to your life in your comfort zone, then you’re likely to shut CNN down if they dwell on it too much. CNN et al will therefore rather tell you about people and places that you can relate to and maybe even care about because you represent their revenue stream.
The anti-Muslim rhetoric that has escalated on social media is valiantly being countervailed by other postings calling for peace, rationality, appreciation of diversity and tolerance. Quotes by John F. Kennedy and Maya Anjou and ancient sages and current religious leaders are being shared and commented on. I swear my laptop gets hotter the more time I spend reading and then biting my tongue as I see the inflammatory stuff that’s out there (not always successfully biting my tongue as my Facebook and Twitter friends well know).
In my work as a conflict coach and mediator I play a small role in highly localised and personal conflicts and I don’t see myself on the global stage as a peacemaker or as a voice of influence. Yet I have palpable proof through the interaction with my clients that they come away from a facilitated reconsideration of the conflicts they’ve been in as more reflective, gentler people. Gentler in their self-criticism and gentler on the people they have disagreements with. I can hardly argue for one-on-one coaching for every angry politician or military leader any more than I could suggest coaching for the suicide bombers and fundamentalist terrorists who are working so hard at creating a world of fear. But I can look more closely at fear and how it is expressed through anger and how it is rocking our world.
Fear is a fundamental human emotion. It is rooted in our origins as a species. We fear personal extinction. It is in our DNA. Some of us believe in a variety of optional outcomes following death and some of us don’t believe, but we still harbour some hope that we will continue in some way on the other side. And of course some of us believe that death is the final note in the song of life, but it doesn’t mean we’re in a hurry to get there.
This is not the first time fear has been used as a powerful tool in fighting a war. But it looks to me like it is the first time where the methods of delivery are so easily accessible to anyone with a smart phone, the Internet, a tablet, a TV that it is hard to get away from it. After all, we use these media to maintain our connection with friends, family, colleagues: fear is an easy traveller through these tools. If we want to avoid the bombardment of fear-inducing news we have to cut ourselves off from our own communities. Is that healthy? The sophistication of the strategy is awesome in the original meaning of the word.
I’m just wondering, as I see how fear is expressed as anger, directed at ‘the enemy’, whether our leaders aren’t missing the point. Sure we want to stop the assassinations and bomb threats – for the second time in a week an international flight from the USA to Europe has been rerouted to my own local international airport as a result of bomb threats – but we need to find a way of dealing with our fears, and overt or hidden anger, so that we don’t self-destruct. That’s the biggest weapon of today’s terrorists: That we’ll destroy our own societies through destroying the values and institutions that are valuable to us – that make us who we are, because we fear.
Do we really want to travel the rocky road of sacrificing civil liberties and fundamental constitutional rights in the interest of ‘safety’?
My choice, as I write this blog, is to respond, even if just in my own mind, with empathy when I read a hate-mongering email or Facebook posting. The message is by a person experiencing such deep fear of personal extinction that they have no choice but to express it in stereotyping anger against broad groupings of people from other cultures and other religions. They want the fear to stop, not realising that they’re playing into the hands of the enemy.
At times like these it is important to me to hang on to my personal values of respect and integrity. Sometimes I get it wrong in how I might express myself, perhaps in not understanding someone else’s culture well enough to respect the nuances of expression, but I work at getting better.
At the heart of it, I’m not prepared to give up on my quest to live a principled life that includes appreciation and enjoyment of diversity in all its guises. Yes, this may be viewed as a position statement: I’m not game to go along with anyone who wants to imprison me for my own safety.
Don’t try to frighten me. I won’t have it.