The history of Valentine’s Day is a mystery. One legend is that Valentine, a priest in Ancient Rome performed marriages for young lovers in secret when Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men because he thought that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families. Claudius ordered that Valentine be put to death on discovering his secret marriage ceremonies.
Whatever the truth about St Valentine the tradition points to a man who stood against the culture of his day for the sake of ensuring justice. In a similar vein, Arthur Brooks (President of the American Enterprise Institute), inspired many at the Legatum Institute when speaking on his forthcoming book Love Your Enemy about the importance of standing against the intolerant culture of our day in all our relationships and public interactions.
He called for a new generation of leaders to be bigger hearted and end the bitterness and division being fomented in the public square. He spoke from a US perspective, arguing that they have been progressively sliding into a “culture of contempt” — a habit of seeing people who disagree with them not as merely incorrect or misguided, but as worthless – less than human.
Ideological polarisation in the US is as bad as it’s been in modern times with one in six Americans saying they have stopped talking to close friends and family members about politics, with millions of people now organising their social lives and curating their news and information to avoid hearing viewpoints differing from their own.
Not only is this unhealthy for an open-minded democracy but a lot of people, on both sides of the Atlantic, do not like this divisiveness: 93 per cent of Americans say they are tired of how divided they have become as a country, according to research from More in Common.
In Britain, we have our own acrimonious divisions over Brexit. Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan writing in the Financial Times recently said, “Brexit is tugging Britain apart and it is in danger of breaking us…Leave and Remain are now a core part of most people’s identities and the centre ground is disappearing.”
What I find deeply concerning in Britain is that this contempt is not limited to the Leave/Remain divide. It is creeping into every aspect of public square dialogue with growing contempt between rich and poor. Poverty is despised by those who have created their own wealth, and wealth despised by those who depend on the very system of wealth creation for their own livelihoods.
There is rising resentment about the crisis of affordability in our housing among young people and growing intolerance towards those voices by those who have benefitted from the growth in assets, driven by unrestrained quantitative easing. The UK now has the lowest proportion of young homeowners since 1926 due to the unaffordable cost of housing and rising rent which accounts for 30 per cent of their income, and 40 per cent in London. For a young person to buy a house these days needs generous parents to help them with a deposit or an inheritance and this will only exacerbate the resentment about inherited versus self-made wealth among both young and old.
Furthermore, the inexorable rise of individualism is resulting in a decline of community. The gated estate is the manifestation of a homogeneous community of like-minded people of similar wealth, insulated from everyone who is different from them, with poverty and other issues in our communities out of sight and mind. And yet the desire for genuine community has rarely been greater but the skills to build it remain elusive.
How should we deal with these divisions? Brooks suggests we should seek out people with different views from ourselves and don’t just talk with the people who are like us and ignore everyone else. This is a key point for political leaders who need to engage with people who think differently from themselves, rather than going round and round in ever reinforcing echo-chambers.
If 93 per cent of Americans are tired of living in a divided country, we should challenge the 7 per cent who are dividing people for their own ends and respond to their efforts to divide through contempt with warm-heartedness towards those who express opposing views whether on twitter or in the pub. We need different views in our society, we need disagreement – it is the competition of ideas that improves ideas — but we should disagree better, without contempt, by keeping respect and the value of each person in mind.
Imagine if the 93 per cent formed a movement to come together and consciously bridge across our differences. Difference is not something to be feared nor should homogeneity be a goal and yet bland tolerance rather than loving one another appears to have become our chief objective as a society.
As Arthur Brooks argues, that is a very low bar. Loving one another and respecting our differences is a much higher bar. We need to be able to express our opinions and argue on the point of difference so we “play the ball and not the man”. This starts with our leaders because dialogue in the public square has become so intolerant that it has spread out across the country. Unity starts with leadership.
When Donald Tusk, warns of a “special place in hell” for those who pushed for Brexit without a plan, he creates unnecessary division and legitimises contempt — he is breeding enmity between people with different views rather than forging working partnerships.
We all share his frustration with the Brexit impasse but please Mr Tusk, you are the President of the European Council and need to work with Britain more constructively. Millions of lives depend on good outcomes from a challenging negotiation so be conscious of strengthening relationships and not breeding contempt. Brexit is a negotiation, where we need to find where we have “more in common”. It is not a war.
Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela understood the power of language in the public square and stand as truly great leaders because they valued everyone in their nations, recognising the limitless potential of every individual. They brought people together when divisions were much deeper and more acrimonious than ours.
Nelson Mandela used the culture of his former oppressors to unite a divided South Africa after apartheid. Memorably, during the 1994 Rugby world cup that South Africa won, he donned the Springbok shirt. Rugby in South Africa had been the preserve of the whites and had until that time excluded black players from the Springboks. Mandela bridged across old divisions and turned it into a new symbol of unity and celebration of the Rainbow nation.
Martin Luther King didn’t believe in making enemies, he said: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Valentine’s Day is when we celebrate love, so love your enemies too, because they are only enemies if we do not reach across the divide.
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