In the center of Helsinki there is a curious sight. On opposing sides of the Helsinki Railway Square two collections of bedraggled tents face off. In February activists favorable towards refugees and immigration gathered to demonstrate, now still standing their ground in tents on the southern end of the square. Only weeks later “Finland First” tents had sprung up on the northern side of the square to counter-demonstrate despite the freezing temperatures and snow that still covered the square in early March. It’s hard not to see the events as symbolic of the attitude climate throughout Europe as attitudes harden and opinions polarize.
Walking through the square, I also find myself rolling my eyes and thinking scornful thoughts about the slogans of the Finland First group, among them EU critical bits – “Fixit – Finnish Exit from the EU”. Do they really not understand what all the EU has done for us? Stable and global markets? Human rights? Peace? Jobs and careers? Academic cooperation and research? The list could go on …
But sometime later I ran across a video on the internet that really stopped me. In the video a man from Texas, apprehensive towards blacks, discusses why he feels the way he does directly with an African-American to try and change his feelings. The video illustrated how we all have reasons to feel the way we do and to fear the things we fear. And often that fear springs from a lack of conversation and information between us – a lack of open communication. Labeling this man a racist and telling him to get over his prejudices is not going to change his perceptions or help him get over his fears of others as a threat to his community and to his job.
What if instead of outright scorning the feelings of others, in this case even the quite radical Finland First group, I – we – at least heard what they have to say, even if in the end we don’t agree. What if I initiated a conversation where I really sat down with the people I disagree with instead of blaming, labeling or scorning what they have to say? Especially since the rise of social media, we seem to think that there are certain “bad” people who stand for things that we don’t like or understand, and thus everything that they stand for has to inherently be wrong. Opinions polarize and rational discussion disappears.
To really build a solution instead of dividing people, fears and problems need to be addressed from all sides before a solution can be found. There will always be radicals who are not willing to work towards solutions, and some beliefs may be so deeply rooted that only conversation will not change them. But when the media, our window of society, purports viewing the world objectively (which cannot be humanly possible in a world where we all have some background) we tend to view people and their opinions as static, fixed on certain preconceived notions that cannot be influenced. We understand opinions as simply “being” instead of “forming”, when in reality the majority of us do pay attention and consider our position, if someone also takes a moment to look us in the eye, see things from our side and listen.
Like the huddle of tents opposing each other on both sides of the same square, we are unable to meet each other in the middle to recognize that we both have valid points. If you are refugee and EU opposed, it does not matter whether you are worried about proper health care for your own family or jobs for yourself, you are labeled a racist and ignorant, thus denying the validity of your opinion altogether. If you are favorable towards immigration, you are labeled a hippie and an idealist with no real understanding of society.
We tend stick to our own bubbles of similarity; we interact with those of a similar social status and similar interests. When Brexit and Trump happened, they surprised the majority of the population, who just did not see them coming. Journalists worldwide are concerned about following their ethical principle of reporting neutral and unbiased news, but the bigger problem seems to be not saying anything at all about the problems and worries of underrepresented demographics and challenging the valid “truth” about society.
When I travel outside of the metropolitan area, I notice how much of a bubble we really do live in here with our tight-knit city layout, non-stop public transportation, shops open 24/7, medical care just around the corner, and entertainment facilities available for every taste and location. Meanwhile outside of the city areas, Finland stretches on in waves of green and blue countryside with very different worries and ideals. Each election we all wonder why the results look the way they do, why certain political trends happen without actually turning around and discussing the vantage point of the “rest of the nation”, whether city-dweller or country-lover.
Our modern understanding of the principle of democracy can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks. The original “demoskratos” could never be considered democratic by modern standards, as only white males with property were counted as citizens. Nevertheless, the idea that common people should be the ones deciding on government issues and taking part in the forming of government has passed down from the Greeks. Today we define democracy as “government in which people represent by voting”, but a core ideal of the original democracy was that every citizen should have the opportunity to make their voice heard and have the chance to take up a topic for discussion within the Assembly. Discussion was the main political activity of all citizens. But how can we discuss when the amount of participating citizens has gone from thousands to millions?
The demographic gaps in modern society, the trend of increasingly enclosing ourselves to our own spheres, and not openly hearing the rest only drives society further apart. So maybe we should go back to the origins of what democracy meant. To try to hear every voice and understand that for democracy to really work, we need to remember that society is a collection of people of all different backgrounds and with different needs. And for that we need a new perspective on how discussion works – or rather a quite old one; especially starting with public domains of discussion and representation.