Saturday, June 13, 2020

"Love Thy Neighbour"

(• Photo above is from Ullans Magazine, 1999, published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society. It shows a group of men from the Ards Peninsula and Scotland "tattie hoakin" together at the "Scotch Harvest" in 1938. The men's names and home places are given, showing that they are a "cross community" group of workers. Friends and neighbours working together).

The enforced slowdown caused by the present coronavirus lockdown has created opportunities to clear out, to reflect, to remember. I'd been doing that in January and February anyway - I am just two years away from turning 50 and found myself reconsidering various things I've done with my time and energy in adulthood.

I like to meet people who are in some way different to me. It is important to try to see through other eyes. Having said that, exaggerating those differences is a disaster.

In my Northern Ireland context, I don't think there are "two perspectives" - there are hundreds or thousands of perspectives. But the old "two tribes" prism is deeply, deeply embedded –institutionalised even. Reinforced daily, unhealthily and maybe even poisonously.

Those men in the photo above were my grandfathers' generation. Labouring and sweating together till they died. And getting on with their neighbours of "the other side" because above all they were lifelong neighbours and friends first.

Let's go further back. My great-great-grandfather Robert Thompson of Ballyfrench was born about 200 years ago, in the 1820s. His best friend, and best man, was Thomas Curran (born 1820) who was originally from Ballygalget. You can work out that from the names and the geography, they were from what would be divisively called today our "two communities". Robert married Nancy McClement on 6 November 1847 at Ards Registry Office and Thomas was Robert's witness on the certificate. Robert and Thomas were later buried beside each other - still today there's a tall Curran gravestone in the Thompson corner of Ballyhalbert's ancient graveyard. We think later Currans became Presbyterian.

Actual community and actual relationship served both of those previous generations well, in life and in death. But social changes in our lifetimes have made our modern lives become more atomised, individualised, and digitalised. And consequently tribalised, maybe 'digitribalised' in an abstract way, with no actual relational context. The term 'friend' has been redefined. I find social media is very good for maintaining contact and crack with people I actually know in the real world. But I have also been ambushed a few times by passing acquaintances who are Facebook 'friends' in the digital realm only.

We form opinions of others based not on how we have actually experienced them, but on how we perceive them through their truncated, edited, digital lives. And that's what those 'friends' had done with me.

We need to meet
Current coronavirus social distancing restrictions have made it impossible, illegal in fact, to meet with other people from outside our own households. The disembodied world of Zoom meetings and Skype conferences and online church “services” is presently necessary but in our beings we know that these are deeply humanly unsatisfactory. We need to be with others, even if 2m or 1m apart.

But we have slid into a kind of socially impoverished state through our reliance on screen world that we have inhabited for at least 10 years - smartphones in our pockets, consuming curated information. Forming opinions and being emotionally recruited through outrage against people we have never met and probably never will meet. Ressentiment.

Sam Harris wrote this a few years ago –

"Social media is clearly driving us all insane. This is a psychological experiment that nobody signed up for and we are all in it, and we each have to curate the contents of our own consciousness a little more carefully than we have been, and rethink our relationship to these platforms"

I used to think it was only the more aggressive end of the evangelical fringe that loved to lambast people from afar. But it seems that keyboards and our digital world now let everybody and anybody do just the same.

On the other hand, the digital world has also enabled me to have long-distance and very positive interactions with a wide spectrum of people - some I would have lost touch with, and others I might never have met. This scrapbooky blog has been a great platform to throw ideas out there and to get responses from people in various parts of the world. For that I am very grateful.

But I will look forward to meeting some of you in person, hopefully soon. Coffee smells far better when there's more than one cup.