Exploring our differences creates opportunities for change

Exploring our differences creates opportunities for change

We’re going to need a lot of new ideas and innovation to get us out of the mess we’re in. When we debase people we disagree with or who see the world differently, we shut ourselves off to new thinking, potential solutions and a more compassionate way of being

It’s Australia Day, January 26th. Having lived outside Australia for much of the last 27 years, the day usually comes and goes for me. There’s no public holiday to celebrate the event here in Switzerland, dommage. I’ve thus missed the debate around whether Australians should celebrate what many describe as “Invasion Day”, the day in 1788 when the First Fleet landed in what was to become Sydney Harbour and proceeded to treat indigenous Australians in a rather poor manner.

I do like to check the news in the morning so I logged onto BBC website and after the latest headlines about Trump’s wall and various other executive orders portending doom, I noticed an interesting post about Australia Day:

Minister rebukes Australia Day critics: The Deputy PM says people wanting to change the event’s date should “crawl under a rock”.

“Colourful language” I thought to myself. Perhaps he’s been listening to Trump too long?  I clicked on the article and enjoyed more invective.

A caption on a photo of said Deputy PM looking pretty grumpy reads, “Minister has called critics “miserable gutted people”. I felt uncomfortable. It sounded like bullying.

Mr Joyce told Sydney radio station 2GB that he was "just sick of these people who... want to make us feel guilty about it".

"They don't like Christmas, they don't like Australia Day, they're just miserable gutted people, and I wish they'd crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit." [at least he didn’t say “crawl under a rock and die” though I suspect it may have been on the tip of his tongue]

He added that the debate was "political correctness gone mad" and said: "This is Australia Day, and if you don't like it, I don't know mate, go to work. Do something else."

I didn’t get a sense he’d paused very much to reflect on the reason behind “Les misérables’” objections.

In far away Western Australia, the City of Freemantle, near Perth had cancelled Australia Day events and instead will hold a more “culturally inclusive” alternative celebration on January 28th. Brad Pettit, the Mayor, says they feel they’re actually doing something more Australian. Western Australia’s Premier however called on the city to “pull your head in”.

“Pull your head in”?

I was reminded of an email I received from an NGO colleague last November. In October, I’d written a blog supporting Golden Agri Resources in their efforts to engage suppliers. GAR’s blog had been published in response to NGO criticism that the company should be more rapidly dropping suppliers that don’t conform with GAR’s No Deforestation policy. GAR explained that in its experience, dropping suppliers meant the opportunity to change their behaviour was immediately lost. In every case where they’d done it, the supplier had merrily carried on cutting trees, thumbing their noses at GAR’s objections. Now, GAR preferred to hang in there and see if change could come through more sensitive dialogue where they support the company to view development through a different lens. NGOs are concerned that such open-ended engagement could go on and on, that GAR and others with No De commitments, would effectively do and change nothing. They fear greenwashing.

My support to GAR was predicated on the belief that we only get transformation through engagement. Dropping suppliers can be a tool but one used as a last resort when you’re clearly not getting anywhere. It does though mean excluding the company from a mature dialogue about alternative futures and almost guarantees continued bad behaviour, carried out with more spite and vigilance because of the perceived sleight.

In his email, my NGO colleague told me that he, “thought GAR's and your recent posting on supplier engagement were out of line. We are in agreement on supplier engagement!  The point is when do you say enough is enough.”

When do you say ‘enough is enough’ is a fair question but my first thought when I received his email was “who sets the line?”, the line that GAR and I had apparently crossed? It sounded to me like a demand for conformity to what my colleague felt was acceptable behaviour, the way, his norm.

He went on to inform me that, “Word on the street (from industry folks), is that you/TFT have drunk the GAR kool aid!”

I was disappointed with that additional barb. He was suggesting that I was only supporting GAR because of self-interest, that GAR was a TFT member so I was somehow fawning to keep their favour. That I might actually have an idea worth exploring, beyond “the line” didn’t seem apparent. It was all the more sharp because when I published Beyond Certification in 2015 challenging the whole idea of certification, the same colleague in a response representing his international NGO, had written off my critique because he suggested it was motivated by self-interest - my criticism of certification was designed to bring more business to TFT.

I’ve since been very uncomfortable about that because it seemed a dismissive way to can alternative thinking. Cast aspersions on people’s character and you don’t have to deal with their ideas. I’m even more uncomfortable with what I’m seeing all over the world as those who disagree spend so much time throwing stones at each other rather than grappling in a mature way with their differences. “My way or the highway” has taken over as a negotiation strategy and it’s preventing us from testing new ideas, new solutions.

In a world where climate change is already upon us, I’m troubled by what’s unfolding in the US with President Trump. But I’m likewise troubled when NGOs tell me I’ve crossed a line, presumably the same line that after 60 years of campaigning has still not adequately addressed so many environmental and social issues, climate change chief among them. Their intent is more noble and their language is more subtle than Trump's rantings but it has the exact same effect - to belittle and undermine views that see a different way forward than they do. We need a different way, no? One that breaks free from the lines and controls we’ve built around what is perceived as ‘acceptable’ behaviour. One that takes risks, that engages all views, grasps all possible solutions and tests them.

Australian Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce is perhaps emboldened by Trump’s language to describe fellow Australians who disagree with his views as “miserable gutted people”. His denigration isn’t grappling with the issue, it isn’t exploring why these miserable souls feel the way they do. It’s assuming a dichotomy of right and wrong, and sadly in this case, black and white. Could it be that there are useful ideas and thoughts in the minds and hearts of those we disagree with? Could it be that there are a multitude of lines that we really do need to cross, if only we dared? Humans didn’t get to the Moon by being cowered. If we’re truly going to grapple with the social, environmental and economic ills that plague us, we really need to come together and discuss our differences. If we do, we might see the world through others’ eyes, with compassion, and we might find a way out of the perpetual conflict that has cost so many lives and caused so much trouble.

Detractors, like Deputy PM Joyce, would prefer to label such talk as “political correctness gone mad”. I see it as a constructive exploration of differences and an exciting opportunity to learn, heal, grow and develop new ways forward.

Whatever it is - Australia Day, deforestation, human rights abuses, social exclusion, climate change - we need to listen and appreciate that we may not always be 100% right. It’s a tough challenge for those with large egos but I believe the only way that can lead us forward.

I don’t imagine that our conflictual way will end anytime soon. Indeed, it’s going to get hugely worse before there can be any rapprochement. But if those of us who like a good challenging discussion, who like to dream of new ways of doing things and who are ready to listen to others can encourage more dialogue and compassionate listening, perhaps we can emerge from the abyss we’re heading into sooner rather than later and with less collateral damage. Let’s hope so.

Happy Paul Newman’s Birthday!


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