This month I was pleased to attend St Columba’s RC Church at the invitation of the Justice and Peace group. It was a well attended meeting with the ambitious title ‘Healing Our Divisions’. Here is a summary of my speech:
Is society divided? More than half the British public say they are not religious at all, yet we still have strong religious communities and, most importantly, the majority of the public still live by religious values of tolerance, compassion, peace, kindness and family. However, the Brexit referendum was presented as a binary leave/remain question and the ramifications have been far from simple, thus creating a huge rift in our society. We are not alone. An American study in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election found that family members who had voted for different candidates spent significantly less time with each other than families with homogeneous party alignment. Modern society is becoming so divided along political lines that values and institutions as crucial as that of the family have been obscured. Some people are no longer interested in discussion and debate, but have retreated into increasingly polarised camps like Leavers and Remainers, feeling alienated from ‘politicians who don’t represent their views’.
What caused these divisions? To some extent this is a result of poor public policy which has led to inequality and has failed to support those in most need. The 2008 economic crash depressed living standards, technology began to replace labour at a faster rate than ever before leading to mass redundancies, and immigration became a scapegoat for policy failure. This dissatisfaction is not unique to Britain, but part of a wider debate about the process of globalisation. The widespread use of social media has facilitated the abusive language which has become commonplace in politics and it creates an echo chamber by exposing users only to the opinions of those with whom they already agree. Brexit has become an issue of personal and emotional identity allowing the debate to become more divisive. The challenge now is to heal these divisions; if left to fester our country will become a fractious, unhappy nation. That could result in a prolonged period of unstable government and/or the rise of populist extremism. It is important that politicians and religious communities work together to help in healing the divisions in our post-Brexit society. In the end we will all have to live together, no matter how we voted. We must work to salvage the values of openness and tolerance to become a more empathetic and more egalitarian nation.
What can be done? A starting point is for all of us to think seriously about the language we use when engaging with others. We need to be honest and considerate in discussion. Debate should be about the truth or validity of an issue, not about the individual’s or group’s characteristics as defined by labels like Brexiteer, conservative, socialist, or more emotively ‘London liberal elite’, ‘middle English racist’, or ‘sentimental nationalist’.
There is no short-term quick-fix solution to inequality but it cannot be right to be one of the largest economies in the world and yet have areas of the country in which more than half the children live in poverty. Locally we can support the charitable work being done by, for example, Fresh Start, food banks, and dementia awareness sessions. Religion and politics both deal with important matters that are deeply personal and can be polarising, but they do not have to become divisive; working together through local organisations the relationship between politics and religion can help to make people feel that they do matter. Society is constantly changing and it is important for all of us to be involved in shaping its values. We must focus less on our differences and more on the positive actions we wish to achieve. We must step out of our front doors, out of our echo chambers, keep our ears open and contribute – even if we don’t like what we hear.