Category Archives: Questions

Tribalism and the tone of current political debate

It’s commonly accepted that US politics has been polarised for quite a while. People openly identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats; most people tend to associate with those who share their political opinions; media outlets appear to be divided along partisan lines so that people can catch up with what is going on in the world from a perspective that already aligns with their own.

And so it seems that the temptation to disagree with someone simply because they belong to the other side, or to support someone simply because they belong to your side, is becoming harder and harder to avoid.

Using words like ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’, as the sole basis for dismissing another person’s point of view is essentially saying that you disagree with them because they are on the other side to you. That you don’t even need to listen or take into account their perspective because you have already decided that it is opposed to where you stand. That the world can be neatly divided into two opposite and opposing perspectives, one of which is completely right and one of which is completely wrong.

It’s tribalism.

And it’s often marked not by the language of debate, but by the language of war.

The end result of this, I fear, is what we’ve been seeing more and more in the lead up to this year’s presidential election. It is particularly exemplified in the farcical (but not funny) situation where we see people attempting to defend the behaviour and views of their political party’s candidate no matter how far he strays from what they have previously stated to be their core values. It doesn’t seem to matter how terrible he acts or sounds, the fact that he is on their ‘side’ overrides everything else. From the outside looking in, it’s almost impossible to understand.

Obviously there is much more I could say about the trainwreck that is Trump v Clinton, but for now I want to confine myself to this one idea and the question I have about its impact going forward from here. What will the fact that this tribalism and deep division between two sides, with little room for nuance between them, is being played out in such a public and global way mean for our future public interactions?

What is the pattern being set for how civic debate is to be conducted?

While here in Australia it is still quite rare for the average person to identify themselves day to day by which political party they vote for, the same kind of tribalistic language does seem to be creeping in. I’m certainly seeing words like ‘leftist’ and ‘right-wing’ increasingly used to dismiss an opinion in place of reasoned responses to coherent and valid points of discussion. And these kinds of words are almost always used in an attempt to shut the debate down. To dismiss the other point of view for the sole reason that it is perceived to be the ‘other’ point of view.

It bothers me greatly and to be honest it generally makes me want to disengage. We are talking about the exchange of ideas in a free society, people putting forward their views on what they genuinely believe it best for all of us. But as soon as we start using the language of warfare and tribalism, when we put one another into two simple boxes and stop listening to those who are not in the same box as us, then it seems to me that we have all lost.

How can we find ways to move beyond the simplistic categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘us’ and ‘them’?

How can we recognise that good ideas can come from both sides of the political aisle, and that when we listen to one another we might even find middle ground? How can we change the tone from one of war to one of genuine engagement, accepting that we can all learn something from one another, even from those with whom we disagree, if we will really take time to listen?

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What does hospitality look like in speech and in action?

A few years ago I had a disagreement with a politician about words. He was using a phrase that had been understood in the popular media at the time as a kind of ‘slogan’ with a particular emphasis. I assumed that was what he meant by using this phrase; he assured me that he had a more nuanced perspective to communicate. The key to our disagreement was that he then said it was my responsibility to listen and understand what he intended to communicate, and my problem if I didn’t get what he meant. Conversely, I suggested that it was his responsibility to understand how I would hear what he was saying and to use words to ensure that I would receive his intention. In the end we had to agree to disagree, but it is a conversation I have often thought about since.

Does the onus lie on the speaker or the hearer to make sure communication is clearly understood?

And what does that have to do with hospitality?

Missiology 101 tells me that as someone who has a good message to proclaim, the onus is on me to make sure that my words are being heard and understood by those I am seeking to communicate with, rather than expecting or assuming that they will know what I intend. We call it “contextualisation,” that is, making sure our message is communicated in a way that makes sense to those who are receiving it. To me, this is a form of hospitality. I invite someone into the conversation in a way that is welcoming when I focus not so much on what I want to say, but on what they will hear and receive.

I think hospitality is often misunderstood. The mental picture many people have is of inviting someone into their home. Which is a lovely, welcoming thing to do. However, there is an important caveat. In many ways, our home is our “turf.” It is the place where we feel most comfortable, and where we do things our way. If we invite someone in to that, but expect and assume that they will “fit in” with us, are we truly being welcoming? Or is hospitality about making the other person feel comfortable, choosing to accommodate ourselves to their way of doing things, making sure they feel at home?

True hospitality is the attitude of making someone else feel at home rather than simply being in our home.

What would it look like to live that kind of hospitality in speech and in action?

My church has recently started partnering with a Christian community who speak a different language to us, many of whom are refugees and have left everything they have known behind. I see their joy in their eyes as they come into a place where they can speak their own language, and eat food that is familiar to them, and feel comfortable knowing that they understand what is expected of them. I imagine that in nearly every other aspect of their lives this is not the case. Everywhere they go they are expected to fit in with us, speak like us, do things our way. And yes, that is part of the process of learning to live in a new culture. But what if instead of the church being just one more place where they are the outsiders who are expected to find ways to fit in, what if we as followers of Jesus chose to be the ones who learned their language, ate their food, did things their way? What if we went out of our way to be the ones who were uncomfortable so that they might feel at home?

That’s a challenge. That will be more difficult. That’s the kind of hospitality that is costly as we sacrifice our own comfort and ease for the sake of the other. That’s the kind of hospitality of a church whose early leaders chose to become like outsiders in order to share their hope with those on the outside. That’s the kind of hospitality of a church whose head is a God who condescended to become a human being in order to demonstrate his great love for humanity.

There’s no such thing as history (or Today would be a good day to be in Hanoi)

It’s time for a Monday morning travel post … where would I like to be spending the day today? One of the most recent places I have visited was Vietnam. The friendly people, delicious food, warm weather, and stunning scenery made this a great tourist destination. But the complicated history, ongoing after effects of war, and the challenges of relationship given the baggage of the past raised lots of questions for me as well. Reflecting on visiting the capital city today gives me the chance to ponder a thought I had often while there, something I have been known to say to my Old Testament students: “There’s no such thing as history.” I mean that in two different ways, but you’ll have to read on to find out which.

Masouleum back

What did I love about Hanoi?

I had a wonderful few days in Hanoi. Day or night, there were always people around, smiling, laughing, enjoying life.

Street market

And the food … I’m not sure there is such a thing as bad Vietnamese food.

Lunch

What I did learn was that it’s all about the sauces – something that looks simple is taken to a whole other level by an amazing complex Vietnamese sauce!

Dinner

And I do love history, so I loved seeing glimpses of the past and the present side by side in the centre of the city …

Lake with new and old buildings

.. in a modern performance of the centuries old art of Water Puppetry …

Water puppets

.. and in the beautiful artefacts in the history museum.

Wardrobe detail

What did I learn from Hanoi?

As well as loving the history,  the thought I kept coming back to was “there’s no such thing as history.” First, in the sense that there is really only historiography (written history) or people’s perspectives on history, rather than any objective reality of the past that we can access. And secondly, in the sense that the past is never just the past; its effects echo and resound in the present and will continue to do so no doubt long into the future.

Outside history museum

One of the great things about travel is the opportunity to see another perspective on the history of the world, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Certainly that is the case with Vietnam, particularly when it comes to the War. Even what the War of the 1960s-70s is called is a complicated question, and really depends on whose perspective you are looking at it from. I grew up calling it “The Vietnam War” but it’s kind of obvious to realise that a person from Vietnam would not use that term.

Sign

Seeing artefacts, photos, and in particular the written commentary on them in the history museums was a key reminder to me that ‘history’ is always written from a particular perspective. I saw some tourists who seemed frustrated, even angry, because it felt to them that history was being told ‘wrongly’. But who is to say that we haven’t also learned it wrongly? Of course we are all going to see it from the perspective of the country in which we grew up. Of course there are multiple sides to such complex stories.

Prison entrance

Visiting Hỏa Lò Prison (sometimes called the Hanoi Hilton) brought this to the fore. Half of the prison remembers the Vietnamese revolutionaries who were kept here as prisoners of the French and so, of course, tells the story from the perspective of being the oppressed.

Prison memorial

The other half of the prison remembers the American pilots who were kept here as prisoners of the Vietnam and so, it could be argued, tells the story of the perspective of being the oppressors, or at least those in power rather than those without power. I found it a fascinating place, because in the very same place, history is being told from these two very different perspectives. It’s a stark illustration of the fact that we all tell our stories from the perspective we find ourselves in, that history is not objective fact but interpreted experience.

Prison explanation 2

I hope I’m not sounding judgmental of the Vietnamese – that is not at all my point. I think we all do the same thing. That’s why it is so valuable to try to stand in another person’s shoes and think of how history looks from their perspective. Hopefully it gives all of us more compassion, more understanding, more forgiveness, and more humility, to do so.

The second sense of the phrase “There’s no such thing as history” is the idea that the past isn’t gone and forgotten – its after effects linger on. Seeing the ongoing issues of disability and disease in people suffering the effects of Agent Orange some forty years on is both sobering and heartbreaking.

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And finally, due to my history, what you could call the accident of birth, I come to visit a place like Vietnam as a rich, white, Westerner. This shapes and colours how I am perceived and responded to, and is something that I cannot really escape, no matter how much I might like to.

Difficult as I might find it, it is good for me to see myself from someone else’s perspective. It challenges me as I consider how much of who I am is shaped by the perspective on the world I have inherited, and how I can continue to allow the culture, experiences, and perspectives of others to be used to transform me and open me up to others.