Volume 17 Number 6
Discover the Other
01 December 2004

Tolerance is not enough to bridge the world’s differences, writes Mike Lowe. We need to engage.

Shortly after arriving in the Solomon Islands in the Fifties a tall pale American was asked by a startled local what village he came from. (In Melanesian culture, one’s village is closely linked to cultural and tribal identity—it’s a bit like asking ‘what do you do?’ in the Western world.)

The American thought for a moment, then said that he came from New York.

‘Ah yes,’ the questioner nodded sagely, ‘I’ve heard of that village.’

Like the Solomon Islander, I grew up in a village—in my case in the south west of England. Of my parents’ contemporaries, most had never travelled out of the country and some no further than Bristol, 80km away.

In the space of one or two generations the world is going through a huge transformation as people travel more, migrate to the cities and discover the world via electronic and print media. Often, like the Solomon Islander, we find it hard to make sense of the different cultures we encounter. When misunderstanding is combined with the all-too-human traits of selfishness, fear and mistrust, the result can be a ‘clash of civilizations’ at the local, national or international level.

Like many others after 11 September 2001, I began to reflect on whether a clash of civilizations is inevitable or whether we can truly learn to live with, and appreciate, difference. I had read a speech by Dr Marc Gopin, a leading Jewish scholar in the US, who said in 2000 that ‘the spiritual discovery of others in the 21st century will be the greatest challenge and the greatest gift for the human race’. These words resonated with me and I wanted to learn more what it might mean to ‘discover the other’.

Growing up in the Seventies in Britain, ‘tolerance’ was a watchword for progressive youth. As we saw it, the enemies of tolerance included the National Front (a racist political party), religious extremists, and Mary Whitehouse, who campaigned against sex and violence on TV. It came as a shock to realize later that for some of Britain’s immigrants ‘tolerance’ is not a word they relate to, because it implies tolerance of behaviour which they consider immoral.

The Western tradition of tolerance was a reaction to the European wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries when Protestants and Catholics, each with different visions of the state, fought for political dominance. Out of this experience were developed the principles of the secular state which gave rise to many of the freedoms we take for granted in the West. At their heart is the principle that there is a private domain of conscience into which the state should not intrude or impose its will. In our rights-obsessed culture, tolerance has often been understood as the right to be different and not be interfered with.

This explains the paradox that Europe’s secular left finds itself in: on the one hand supporting the rights of immigrants and ethnic minorities and on the other hand feeling threatened by the religious perspectives that these groups bring. When the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn broke the mould by combining secular libertarianism with an anti-immigration platform he attracted massive support before being assassinated days before a national election.

I have been fortunate to get to know people of different cultures and religions at a deeper level than just tolerance. And I have learned something valuable from all of these friends. From Muslims I have learned a greater appreciation of the daily disciplines of prayer. Hindus have broadened my Christian notions of sin by helping me to recognize the consequences which ripple out from all of my actions and thoughts. From Buddhists I have learned that true purity is less about abstinence, than about freedom from being controlled by my desires and impulses so that I can discover my true essence. Encounters with different faiths have forced me to think about what it means to be a Christian, and my faith is stronger for it. Similarly, after living in Poland for a year I began to have a better sense of what it means to be English.

But the deepest experience of ‘discovering the other’ is with my wife, Karen. Over the years we have done various psychological personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram, and have consistently found that we are opposites in almost every way. This is frequently a cause of misunderstanding, frustration and anger. (I’m often tempted to quote Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady: ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’). But these differences are also a source of growth and our love is the deeper for them.

Sadly, the current political climate is one that encourages fear, defensiveness and anger rather than building relationships. It is a marketing axiom that ‘fear sells’, and at present, fear is being used to sell newspapers and votes. If the world is to avoid a clash of civilizations, we have to move beyond tolerance to engagement in real relationships with those who differ from us. The tradition of Initiatives of Change offers some pointers on how to do this. They are:

It is always easy to surround ourselves with people who think, act and behave in ways we understand. Moving out of our comfort zone is scary. ‘What if they don’t understand me? What if I commit a faux pas?’ These fears have to be overcome. Misunderstanding and faux pas are inevitable, and so a sense of humour and humility are essential.

Focussing on WHAT IS RIGHT rather than WHO IS RIGHT.
We all tend to assume that our own cultural values are superior to others. Approaching others with this attitude easily draws us into a divisive ‘compare and contrast’ mentality. There are some basic values which are common to all faiths and which are grounded in the human condition. Initiatives of Change has traditionally expressed these as: absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Before these standards, all of us fall short and none can claim superiority.

It is always easy to see where others could do better. However, accusations and blame don’t lead to change, but to counteraccusations, defensiveness and increased hostility. When there are problems in a relationship the place to start mending things is in one’s own house.

We tend to be so full of ourselves, our own opinions and values that it is hard to take in any different perspectives. We don’t listen properly because we are either filtering what we hear through a series of judgements (‘I agree with this, I don’t agree with that’) or we are thinking about what we want to say next. Listening is hard and takes practice. We need to learn to empty ourselves to take in another’s world.

If we can encourage each other to build relationships based on these principles then we may also rediscover our souls. The word ‘religion’ may have roots in the Latin religare which means ‘to bind together’. Europe’s wars of religion were a failure of religion in that deeper sense, and the result now is a rights-based ‘me-first’ culture where relationships are the greatest casualty. There is a hunger in the Western world for relationship, spirituality and belonging. All three are connected and the journey of ‘discovering the other’ will take us there.

Mike Lowe is part of the team developing www.discovertheother.org, an initiative based in Melbourne, Australia, to ‘build better relationships for a better world’.