It was a cold clear but cloudy night in which vision of the stars came and went as the chill wind blew the clouds across the sky. I sat on the cold concrete step, shivering a little but with what seemed a heightened awareness of the night air, the sound of the leaves rustling in the trees and their silhouettes, like figures in the night.
I sipped some cheap red wine and resisted the tears attempting to well in the corner of my eyes.
It had been a peaceful evening. A friend visiting from America someone to whom I’d always felt a strong, almost surreal bond and who, in the colloquial, one would probably describe as a soul mate. The evening had been relaxed with casual, social conversation, a simple but tasty meal, coffee and a little wine. Fran, my dog peacefully stretched asleep in a corner. We two were lounged on the floor, backs to the couch enjoying the warmth from the fire and listening to soft music from the stereo – Eliza Gilkyson, Patti Griffin, Allison Crowe, Tim Buckley and others. Acoustic music, sensitive lyrics, warmth – a rippled silence shared.
“I hate that fucking music!” whipped through the cosiness. “Fucking Mexican shit.” The track had changed and from the speakers there was sweet, sensuous singing, in Spanish.
“It’s beautiful”, I said.
“No”, she said, “Those fucking Mexicans are all over and I hear that shit sound everywhere I go. O.k., it’s fair enough that they want to come across the border and leave their shit country but they can’t even be bothered to speak English and they want to set up Mexican ghettos and bring their bloody food and festivals. They don’t even have the respect to learn the language.”
“Perhaps we ought to learn their language”, I said. “It seems to me that native English speakers: the British, Australians and those from the US just make an arrogant assumption that others will all learn English. Yet, of native English speakers, very few bother to learn other languages even though a wealth of other countries in the World are bi-lingual.”
“That’s because it’s the language of business,” she said, “and anyway, if they come to our country they should show some respect and learn English.”
“Yes, English may well be used extensively for business; just as French used to be the language of diplomacy and German the language of science,” I said, “but we are not just about business – we are all human beings and our culture, traditions and heritage are important to us and language important to the maintenance of that heritage. I can’t agree with you about this. In any case, most others are multi-lingual; it is us that are generally not. I think your view is a conditioned one and you really know better. It’s not really fair to generalise in that way.”
“You don’t know”, she said. “I’m not racist. I’ve got Mexican friends. I have a right to say it because I see them and their dirty habits and laziness and I’m always hearing that rubbish music and fucking Spanish. That’s how they are. You’re not there so you don’t know.”
I got up and asked, “Would you like me to change the music?”
“What music? You call that music?” She answered.
I stood for a moment or two in an uncomfortable silence and then changed the music and left the room to refresh my glass and in a hope to break the mood. I was distressed. This was someone I regarded as one of my closest friends. Someone for whom I held much respect and whose friendship and affection I greatly valued. Others would probably describe my feelings for her as love, in the platonic sense. I rarely use that word for it seems to me to have become so readily uttered that any depth of meaning to it has been eroded. However this was someone – is someone for whom I care deeply, as might a father for a daughter – someone intelligent, perceptive, sensitive and aware. So, uncertain of my feelings and not knowing how to deal with this unexpected conflict, I went to sit outside.
As I sat, in the night, aware of the stars and the cat who quietly padded by me just a few feet away, stopping only briefly to target me with its bright eyes, then moving nonchalantly on, I felt deeply saddened.
Why do otherwise caring, compassionate, intelligent people fail to resist the conditioning that creates such enmity? My friend was not some uninformed and uneducated “red-neck” but someone with an incisive intellect, widely read and certainly awake to much wrong in her own country, even to the extent that she is determined to leave it. Indeed, she was able to visit me because she was in Australia as a conservation volunteer and actively engaged in re-forestation.
I wondered why I kept meeting such damning denigration of particular nations, societies or groups. Why, each day, on the Internet, I faced such attitudes. Some comments, clearly the noxious ranting of the seriously disturbed, might be readily dismissed. Much harder to reconcile were the many apparently written by otherwise well educated, rational and caring people.
I questioned myself and wondered if it was fair criticism that I hadn’t experienced living in a community infused with an influx of those from a different culture. Was I ignorant of the problems of hygiene, dress, employment and language that often accompany the most disadvantaged? Yet, on reflection, I remembered meeting such feelings back in England in the 50’s and 60’s, expressed first towards the displaced European victims of WWII and later the influx of those from newly independent ex-colonies, as Britain gradually let go of its empire.
I had, in fact, lived in such a situation. I didn’t like it then. I don’t like it now.
We are one humanity. We occupy one planet. Difference is not deficit. We are strengthened by difference. Difference, seen positively is, to me, diversity. Exposure to new cultures and their acceptance as an inclusive part of our society brings us new perspectives, new art, new literature, new processes, new ways of thinking, new languages, new celebrations, new rituals, new festivals, new science … Diversity adds to the wonder of our lives; broadens and enhances our experience.
Realising and relishing diversity is, in my view, possibly the most powerful tool we have for avoiding conflict and war and for building a sustainable and peaceful world.
Diversity is to be welcomed and must be totally inclusive. Reacting with anger or hostility to hate-speech, unpalatable language, bad behaviour or even elements of culture that are abhorrent to our own is not useful. As science shows us: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction – if we react to negativity in kind, we only increase tension and, most often, will harden the resistance to us, not reduce it.
It is natural, I think, to want to retaliate, to punish, to take revenge but I think it is rarely, if ever, useful. My belief is that modelling, example, and gentle suggestion are more effective tools for bringing people together than any form of force or coercion, whether direct or indirect. I understand that abused and hurt people; people who are themselves struggling to live or are themselves under some sort of threat; may be extremely suspicious of others who are different. This is particularly true when large numbers of them arrive and affect the balance of order, tradition and culture in a community. I understand but don’t accept that intolerance provides any sort of useful way to respond to those problems. Instead of condemnation, we need commiseration. We don’t have to condone the negative and it is right to voice our distaste for it but attempting to understand where those feelings originate and why, is as important. We need to seek inclusive solutions that show how all can benefit and why no-one need be left behind.
I am not one for platitudes, clichés and flowery language but I firmly believe that acceptance, inclusivity and celebration of difference as diversity, provides our best way forward to a humane, peaceful world in which suffering of any sort can be kept to a minimum.
“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort where we overlap.” – Ani DiFranco