Listening to each other with respect is our best hope


BREAKING TIME into manageable chunks was a very sensible human invention. The notion of a new year celebrates the possibility of freshness, of starting anew, even if the date could just as easily have been the day after the winter solstice, or indeed, any other day. Wishing each other “Happy new year!” allows us to celebrate hope and the possibility of renewal, writes BREDA O’BRIEN

Václav Havel, who died recently, defined the virtue of hope as “not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out”.

For most of us, our notion of hope might be closer to wishful thinking. Hope, even of the wishful thinking kind, was in short supply this year. Perhaps that is why we clung to the moments that symbolised positive change, such as the Queen in the Garden of Remembrance side by side with Mary McAleese, or reports of an Arab Spring.

In general, the year was grim and bleak rather than hopeful. The pleasure of giving Fianna Fáil a good kicking faded rapidly when we realised that little or nothing had changed. The parameters had been set by the troika, and the question was only where the cuts would be targeted. An allegedly left-wing partner in Government made little difference.

Perhaps Havel’s definition of hope makes more sense when you read what preceded it. Hope, he states, “is a dimension of the soul . . . an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons . . .”

Perhaps that was what we lacked most this year – a vision anchored beyond the immediate. Havel also says: “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance of success.”

The idea of working for something because it is good, and not necessarily because it is going to immediately succeed, is really important. Whether you define “transcends”, the verb used by Havel, as something religious, or simply something greater than your own immediate needs and wants, it remains an important part of being human.

Hope is a powerful antidote to TINA (there is no alternative.) It says that there is always an alternative. It says that, often, on looking back, small, seemingly insignificant events were actually tipping points, hugely meaningful moments when things changed.

The incoherent energy of the Occupy movement of recent months is testimony to a longing for change among different types of people. There is an awareness that things must change, even if there is no clear programme as to how to bring it about.

One of the side-effects of this so-called information age is the degree of scatteredness and distraction we experience through always being connected to some electronic device or other. The ability to concentrate and focus on important issues becomes diluted.

We live in a complex world, where simple solutions do not always work. But that does not mean that there are no solutions. We need to create spaces where we can hear each other, and really listen to divergent opinions.

Perhaps we do not need a clearly plotted programme, but an agreed set of principles. We used to call them virtues, and they were part of being civilised.

An attitude of confrontation and intolerance has entered public debate, where people’s bona fides are routinely questioned and attacked. It has been amplified by the nastiness of many internet “debates”. Yet there are civilised spaces on the internet, where real discussions take place. By and large, is such a place. There are many others.

Moreover, the best broadcast interviewers, people like Rachel English, Richard Crowley and George Hook, do not try to turn everything into a row to start tweets flying that have the intellectual gravitas of chants of “Fight! Fight! Fight!” in a playground. They allow people to tease out ideas, without the constant repetition of “We’re running out of time here, so, quickly, please.”

There are also places where civilised discussions can take place, face to face. I hadn’t attended the Cleraun Media Seminars for a while, but the last one I attended, Can Digital Deliver for Democracy?, was notable not just for the presentations and chairing, but the diversity of audience contributions and the quality of the interactions.

We are facing enormous challenges. Unless we can learn to really listen to each other, to stop presuming bad faith on the part of people who happen to disagree with us, we will not find solutions to our economic crisis, or the looming global challenges of oceans befouled with plastic, depletion of vital resources, and extinction of species.

The ability to tolerate uncertainty, to cultivate spaces where people can be respected and heard, and where ideas can be thrashed out, is not some kind of luxury, but a necessity. As German activist Rudolf Bahro said, “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.”

It is my hope for 2012 that we can develop spaces where new things can come to be.

Happy new year.

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