Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | A chance to heal a world divided by invisible barriers

Let us give humanity a chance and listen to those across the walls that divide our society

The coronavirus has accelerated de-globalization, which has been underway since the financial crisis of 2008. Nations have been closing off their borders to keep out refugees, stop imports of products and workers (in an effort to keep their own citizens employed), and to shut out terrorists and hot money. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted trans-border supply chains and shut down international travel. People are being forced to live and buy locally. The pandemic has highlighted that while virtual life can remain global, real life must always be local.

To attract talent, companies try to make their offices great places to work. They provide comfortable spaces with recreational areas and bright cafeterias. Larger ones have open campuses with gardens. Many have also been offering employees the option to work from home and be closer to their families. With the spreading pandemic, governments are quarantining people in their neighbourhoods, and companies are being compelled to close offices.

Enterprises has been changing form for some years, with bonds between companies and workers getting loosened. Employers want more flexibility to hire and fire, and manage costs. Technology enables this. For example, Uber drivers do not go to any Uber office. They are not even Uber’s employees. Propelled by these mega trends, humans are returning, by choice or compulsion, to forge bonds within their communities, rather than with companies.

Corporations in many countries compete to be recognized as “Great Places to Work", a concept promoted by Robert Levering, who developed the Levering Trust Index, which assessed companies on parameters that mattered most to employees about their work environment. Salary levels were not that important. What mattered more were “soft" attributes—pride in the work they did, trust in the people they worked for, and camaraderie with the people around them.

For their well being, citizens need great places to work and great communities to live in. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that the strength of American democracy lay in its local associations. Jane Jacobs found that the well-being of citizens in American cities was determined by the quality of social relationships in their neighbourhoods much more than by a city’s grand layout and infrastructure. (There is a lesson here for India’s Smart Cities programme.) As economics undergoes an intellectual churn, economists are rethinking the value of gross domestic product as a measure of well-being. They’ve realized that societal qualities such as inclusion, justice, harmony and the condition of the natural environment matter more to people than the economy’s size.

India lives in its villages, Mahatma Gandhi had said. While most Indians still do, large numbers are now also living in mushrooming towns and cities where they search for good places to work and live. There, Indians, who follow different religions and speak different languages come together to earn and contribute to the economy. Life is not easy for them. Tensions surfaced in Delhi recently, which had riots. But it also emerged that citizens care for one another. Globalization has enabled trade across national boundaries. Social media has enabled people to connect with people everywhere. The unintended consequences of these global trends are that people do not have the time or interest to meet their neighbours. Bonds within communities have been fraying. Recall the video clips of women worried by Covid-19 in Australia fighting over toilet paper at a supermarket.

Social media has been dividing communities into “people like us" and “people not like us". Conversations across these boundaries have almost become impossible. Global jet-setters meet people around the world who are like them. Living within gated communities, they are not concerned about those not like them across their narrow domestic walls. The world is a complex system. Many parts of it are ailing—the economy, the environment, society and politics. Economists alone cannot fix it, nor can environmentalists or sociologists. The solution lies across disciplines, and it must be a systemic one that improves the health of the whole.

Yoga may offer an idea for a solution. The human body is a complex system with many complex sub-systems—cardiovascular, digestive, neurological, etc. Breathing well could be enough to tone the whole body.

Listening is a simple solution, too. It can improve the health of complex societies. Those who speak well are celebrated, but not those who listen well. Children are taught to win elocution contests. They are not taught how to listen to and understand others. Especially those who are “not like them". “Well-educated" professionals are divided by the vocabularies and ideas of their disciplines. Economists listen to other economists. And sociologists to other sociologists. They are divided by intellectual walls.

The time has come for people everywhere to listen across invisible walls. In offices and communities, let us set aside some time to practice dialogue with people who are not alike. A time and space for “apni dil ki baat subke saath" (speaking from the heart with others; and listening to each other).

Dialogue is not a debate to be won. Rather, it is the art of understanding another’s point of view, and discovering the person masked by a stereotype we have in mind. It is a process of discovering humanity in others, and in ourselves.

Arun Maira is the author of ‘Listening For Well-Being: Conversations With People Not Like Us’ and a former member of Planning Commission

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