Factual, parable, metaphor or bullshit, depending on your beliefs, this simplistic story from biblical times talks to the ease with which humans can become divided.
Sit in a cinema or theatre anywhere in the world, and watch a show or movie. A most curious thing happens. Whether you are in China, Brazil, America, Russia, Peru or South Africa, everyone, irrespective of which country you are in, will laugh at same moments – and will cry at the same moments. It’s called the human condition. A common empathy.
You’ll feel the same outrage and determination for freedom as the French felt during the 1789 revolution, as beautifully captured in Les Misrables, you’ll be drained by the agony and despair of the Vietnam War as captured in Miss Saigon. You’ll all be willing Rocky to get off the ropes and fight on.
But leave the theatre and this world of suspended reality, of common humanity, where one momentarily sheds one’s life-learned prejudice, and it’s as if the human fracture of the Tower of Babel re-emerges. We become instantly divided again.
The original story of this tower is captured in the book of Genesis. Where a common people, with a singular purpose and language, decide to build a tower so high that it can reach the heavens. This enrages a loving God to such an extent that “He” thwarts their efforts by giving the builders multiple new languages. They can no longer communicate effectively and are now, essentially, a divided people. They abandon their quest for the heavens and go on their way to start different civilizations to one another.
Factual, parable, metaphor or bullshit, depending on your beliefs, this simplistic story from biblical times talks to the ease with which humans can become divided. In this instance, language. A “dislike of the unlike” as my late grandfather would say.
Now, were the President of the United States to appear on CNN tonight, Morgan Freeman style, and deliver a “My fellow Americans” speech (you know the script), informing us that there is a planet-ending meteorite on a direct collision course with Earth, we’d all immediately be transferred back into the mode of a common humanity, with a singular purpose, to solve this life-threatening crisis – and once averted (be that a good thing) we’d revert to our life-learned, divisive and competitive behaviour. An absence, if you will, of a universal love and generosity of spirit, which I actually believe is inherent in our birth DNA but lost during our childhood passage.
From day one, we are taught to judge, divide and separate – benign or not. Boy. Girl. Blue. Pink. Cars. Dolls. Race. Language. Religion. Culture. Sexual Orientation. Ethnicity. The list goes on. On the life journey, we learn to remove reality from our mindset and to be separated by dogma, which we then blindly and then even subconsciously buy into.
Here’s a simple example of our ability to reframe obvious reality, manipulate context and create a perverse truth:
Queen Victoria, sovereign of the United Kingdom and Empress of India, did not believe women should have the vote and actively opposed the suffragette movement. To anyone looking in, this would rightfully be considered bizarre.
She also happened to marry her first cousin, which at the time was quite normal, but today would be the incestuous equivalent of Prince Harry marrying Princess Beatrice.
So, what’s the point? Well, beyond parental; societal conditioning now plays such an enormous role in getting us to ignore the obvious facts, and to construct our own realities, impervious to reason. And while before this may have been a result of basic, ignorance-based prejudice, today it’s often deliberately seeded via more sinister strategies, like creating fake news.
Before everyone was handed a mini soapbox, in the form of a mobile phone, to spew forth across the universe, prejudice had a relatively limited audience. You’d have the ears of your family, friends and some members of your immediate community. You’d be able to write a letter to the press, and possibly get it published.
Today, however, with the world’s largest populations living in borderless cyber-countries like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, the ability to reframe the truth, sow dissention and create divide has grown exponentially. Similarly, the opportunity for truth, reason, tolerance and “healthy” education has never been greater. Massive forces for good and evil fighting it out daily for airtime, followers, likes and shares.
They say “friends are the family you choose”. This plays itself out in many ways online too, as we see a growing Right, a growing Left and a relatively silent Middle.
To that point, I’m no longer even sure what it means to be liberal versus a Liberal. These descriptors are being hijacked and reframed to support causes or sentiments that are far from liberal but actually societal groups who are highly judgmental and exclusionary. My innocent understanding of the term liberal was around the positive notion and aspects of “live and let live”, yet today it’s seemingly anything but.
In order to bring positive change to the world, we need to unlearn prejudice, reject dogma, and in many ways have a far simpler outlook on reality. We are being exposed to phrases and notions like moral ambiguity and alternate facts to justify agendas. We are seeing government whistle-blowers being positioned as the bad guys. But are they therefore the good guys? It’s not as binary as that.
“My enemy’s enemy is my friend” dictates many of the short-term friendships that develop and grow on social media. If you are united in your dislike for a particular leader, then a friendship of convenience may arise as you seek to destroy a shared enemy. Frenemies.
But what happens after that has been achieved? The fallout of two friends is usually greater than that between strangers, so these convenient alliances could actually be paving the way for future hostilities. Look at America and Russia united in defeating Hitler. And once they’d succeeded, the Cold War.
We live in a time of such marriages of convenience. In South Africa, we have political parties which ideologically couldn’t be more different, but in their efforts to defeat a common enemy, they have found one another in relationships of convenience.
So, let’s return to that cinema example I mentioned upfront in this piece, where you have the political parties sitting together watching, let’s say, Avatar. But they aren’t there in their branded T-shirts or berets, but with their spouses, friends or kids. As ordinary people.
They’ll gasp at the same time, cheer together and even shed a tear together – then walk out of the movie house, full of wonder, and think wouldn’t it be cool to live in Pandora. They won’t say, but the people are blue, so I don’t like them because I am not blue. And they pray to a tree.
Frenemies and marriages of convenience provide two otherwise opposing forces, with a unique opportunity. Through an unlikely association, they can actually choose to get to know one another better.
Each political party in South Africa, or elsewhere, presumably believes they have the magic formula for creating a better life for the citizens of the land. Some parties have evil leadership, sure, as demonstrated by using power as an opportunity to both subjugate and steal. But by and large, each party presumably wants the opportunity to lead their country to what they believe will be a more prosperous future.
Now, imagine if these frenemies determinedly sought to find common ground in their pursuit of a better future. If they used these marriages of convenience to get to know one another better. That instead of looking at the association through jaundiced eyes, it became opportunity-led. This requires unlearning prejudice, it requires dropping the race card, it requires not being protectionist but seeking to do the right thing by all members of society. They say “a rising tide raises all ships”, which it does.
I believe our country is ready for this moment, to find our communal humanity, to share, to create and to build a united future, while other parts of the world are pulling apart. DM
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Mike Abel is regarded as one of South Africa's leading marketing and advertising practitioners. He is the Founder & Chief Executive of M&Saatchi Abel and the M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in Africa. He is the former CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, Australia and before that, co-led the Ogilvy South Africa Group as COO and Group Managing Director, Cape Town. Mike has been awarded Advertising Leader in South Africa by both the Financial Mail and Finweek : and his company was named Best Agency in SA in 2015. Married to Sara and with 3 young sons, Mike is a regular speaker, writer and is passionate about politics and contemporary African art. His company is proudly also the home of the phenomenon called The Street Store, the open-source, pop-up clothing store for the homeless. It has gone on to become a global movement providing a free shopping experience for hundreds of thousands of homeless people around the world.
"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson