Building golden bridges and keeping the golden rule

By Jill Segger
April 22, 2016

The life-blood of Parliamentary democracy is difference. Where a single view of society goes uncontested, tyranny can be the only outcome. But how to manage that difference with grace, intelligence and a respect that knows when to contend and when to forbear, is sometimes very difficult indeed.

Without strong feelings, neither conviction nor humility can be learned or nurtured. Conflict – an inevitable product of the collisions from which progress is hammered out – may easily become a zero sum game in which the weapons are point-scoring, insult and hatred. Under this dispensation, there must be winners and losers in every situation, nuance is crushed and the possibility of moving matters forward by creating the space in which minds may be changed and alteration made thus becomes impossible. The stakes of status and dominance are set too high and an ugly, increasingly negative discourse is the result.

Worse still, this mindset makes principled retreat – or at the very least, intelligent accommodation – all but impossible. Parliamentary bloodsport such as Prime Minister's Questions and high profile debates, both within and without the Chamber, may not be where the real business of governance is done, but it does inform public attitudes and political behaviour.

None of this is to suggest that unjust policy should not be challenged and resisted. But because responses to injustice arouse strong feelings, they all too often manifest as the kind of gladiatorial reaction which makes reform considerably more difficult.

It is in the discerning and well-targeted use of evidence-based argument that bridges may be built. A significant number of Conservative MPs have lately shown disquiet at some of their government's policies. Where such openings are met with a desire to inflict public humiliation, the opportunity to effect real change is lost. 'Winning' the battle for headlines will be to surrender the greater prize of countering unjust policy and improving the lives of vulnerable people. This is where the personal desire to take a pound of flesh must be rejected. Partisanship cannot be confused with probity if we are to truly understand that there is far more at stake here than always being 'right'.

“Build a golden bridge for your opponent to retreat”. The words are attributed to Sun Tzu, a Chinese military commander and philosopher, who is thought to have died around 500 years before the birth of Jesus. It is a both a humane and a pragmatic strategy and worthy of our attention.

Faith groups and people of good faith have a particular responsibility here. In part, this consists in shunning the temptations of polemic and self-satisfying anger. Public debate is important but so are those “quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place” of which Rufus Jones spoke when the Society of Friends held its first World Conference as the shadows of war gathered again in 1937. Above all, it requires of us a true understanding of the reciprocal cost of taking an eye and of the creative potential of doing unto others as we would have them do to us.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.