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Let’s talk about . . . tolerance

Our most recent set of 30 emotional learning cards, Let’s talk about values, includes those identified by the Department for Education as British – Democracy, Rule of Law, Individual Liberty and Tolerance – along with Determination, Belonging, Empathy, Forgiveness, Gratitude and Honesty. Each of the ten values is featured on three separate cards highlighting what they look like in practice and how they affect our emotional life within the context of family, peer group relationships and the wider community. This set marks a departure from our existing sets: the images have been created especially by artist Shiraz Bayjoo using techniques which relate to his own practice.

This blog post marks the first in a series over the months to come written by Lyn French director of A Space; Iniva’s long term collaborator in producing the Emotional Learning Card sets and across our Creative Learning strand. Each post from Lyn’s series will highlight one of these ten values, linking the discussion with other life values and contemporary as well as historic themes. Selected images from Let’s talk about values enrich and extend Lyn’s reflections.

Let’s talk about values is now available to purchase in the Iniva shop.

Tolerance around friends by Shiraz Bayjoo. Image courtesy of the artist.

Tolerance is one of the four values highlighted by the UK Department for Education as ‘British’. Labeling key values as specific to one nation raises intriguing questions such as, Is any government best placed to decide which values to prioritise? Can political or personal agendas really be avoided when choosing which values to promote? How might ideologies, religious beliefs or even ‘spin’ skew the selection? Do other countries also have nation-specific values? What does ‘being British’ mean anyway? Debating these questions seems increasingly important given that many of us live in complex and diverse communities reflecting cultures, beliefs and lifestyles which have both points of overlap and difference. If we don’t recognise that we are all members of the same human family with a shared set of emotions, we risk discrimination, misunderstanding and potential conflict.

Whether or not one accepts the idea that ‘British’ values can give us a sense of belonging or promote a shared ‘national identity’, (itself a concept that is rightly questioned), it seems important to reflect on our understanding of them. Perhaps tolerance is a good place to start as living well with others within families, social groups and the wider community depends on our willingness to respect beliefs, views and lifestyle choices which may differ from our own.

Most of us take pride in being open-minded and take it for granted that contemporary life is bound to be marked by difference and diversity. Yet conscious and unconscious prejudice, also known as unconscious bias, is something that none of us escapes. Without thinking, we can all rank ourselves in comparison to those around us whether we use class, culture, religion, race or gender to determine our position. How we experience our social status, and how others label us either openly or in more nuanced ways, fundamentally shapes our understanding of the world. Hierarchical social systems need to be challenged if we are to live our values in meaningful ways. Shiraz Bayjoo’s images illustrating Honesty within our Relationships reminds us that all change begins within personal realms.

 

Honesty within our relationships by Shiraz Bayjoo. Image courtesy of the artist.

In this image, a wolf is looking into a mirror but seeing a sheep’s face reflected back. This reminds us that we can all be dishonest about our more unattractive qualities. It is tempting to see ourselves as tolerant and non-judgmental yet, look beneath the surface, and another picture emerges. We often view ourselves through a distorting lens, either magnifying our strengths and our finer characteristics or honing in on our perceived ‘lack’. Hierarchical ranking often starts in our relationship with ourselves. If, for example, we are focusing too intently on where we fall short of the mark, then we are more likely to want to escape from the emotional pain this generates by putting down others in order to restore a more acceptable sense of self. This kind of behaviour can take an overt form such as bullying in the playground, the workplace or the family or be much more nuanced. For instance, consciously or unconsciously overlooking the experiences of others by prioritising our own perspectives and feelings can be a subtle form of rejection, allowing us to feel ‘on the inside’ in comparison to those we’ve silently excluded.

Our ideas of who we are can easily be influenced by how we imagine others see us. We may, for instance, unquestioningly assume we have value simply because we reflect the dominant culture. Or we might unconsciously adopt the views of those around us, judging ourselves as ‘less than’ in some way. Tolerating differences starts with our internal view of ourselves and our relationship with our own perceived differences.

Tolerance, accepting differences by Shiraz Bayjoo. Image courtesy of the artist.

Any form of judgment of self or other will have historic and contemporary contexts. Reni Eddo-Lodge focuses in on the themes of racism and discrimination in her book ‘Why I am no longer talking to white people about race’. She says, ‘I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like they can no longer hear us.’ Her view is that this emotional disconnect is rooted in the unconscious belief embedded in the psyche of white people that ‘their skin colour is the norm and all others deviate from it’.

Reni Eddo-Lodge describes what is called ‘structural racism’, that is, a form of racism embedded in the very structure of our society that privileges ‘white as normal’. This is a position that, as liberal minded individuals, we may have difficulties accepting. For instance, we may firmly believe we are all equal regardless of our race but we don’t go any further in our thinking, In fact, we are not all treated equally: our society is skewed to favour the white population. Reni Eddo-Lodge says that, ‘Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up one organisation, and acting accordingly. Structural racism is an impenetrably white workplace culture set by those people, where anyone who falls outside the culture must conform or face failure. “Structural is often the only way to describe what goes unnoticed – the silently raised eyebrows, the implicit biases, snap judgments made on assumptions of competency.’ Shiraz Bayjoo’s image depicting Belonging in our Community highlights how we form groups or create a dominant culture based on our similarities and shared beliefs.

Belonging in our community by Shiraz Bayjoo. Image courtesy of the artist.

In this image, Shiraz has superimposed outlines of irregular shapes over  the group of young children, their eyes closed in prayer or meditation. This could suggest that even within homogenous groups and religious communities, subgroups may form and power struggles can ensue. In other words, who we are cannot be reduced to binary categories of being ‘the same as’ or ‘different from’.

James Baldwin, an influential black American author and social critic (1924-1987) said, ‘Of traditional attitudes there are only two – For or Against – and I, personally, find it difficult to say which attitude has caused me the most pain.’ In this short statement, Baldwin captures society’s urgent need to move on from binary thinking. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ / ‘same as’ or ‘different from’. We are all members of one human family – as such, we are all complicit in our shared history and in shaping today’s world.

A.O. Scott’s New York Times review in February 2017 of the recent film on the life of James Baldwin called ‘I am not your Negro’ said, ‘Whatever you think about the past and future of what used to be called “race relations” – that is, white supremacy and the resistance to it, in plainer English – this movie will make you think again, and may even change your mind. Though its principal figure, the novelist, playwright and essayist James Baldwin, is a man who has been dead for nearly 30 years, you would be hard-pressed to find a movie that speaks to the present moment with greater clarity and force, insisting on uncomfortable truths and drawing stark lessons from the shadows of history.

Baldwin could not have known about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, about the presidency of Barack Obama and the rise of white nationalism in its wake, but in a sense he explained it all in advance. He understood the deep, contradictory patterns of our history, and articulated, with a passion and clarity that few others have matched, the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: the dialectic of guilt and rage, forgiveness and denial that distorts relations between black and white citizens in the North as well as the South; the lengths that white people will go to wash themselves clean of their complicity in oppression. “I Am Not Your Negro” is a thrilling introduction to his work, a remedial course in American history, and an advanced seminar in racial politics….’

Perhaps a good note to end on is a quote from James Baldwin himself: ‘The questions one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world and become one’s key to the experience of others.’ Who are we? What makes us who we are? What are our values and how do we apply them to ordinary life? How do we live alongside others who are simultaneously both the same as and different from us? What are the power dynamics operating in a society marked by privilege and disadvantage and how can these be challenged? are all questions that are more essential than ever to pose.

 

Individual liberty and our beliefs Shiraz Bayjoo. Image courtesy of the artist.