A few years back now, on a whim, I decided I was going to drive from London in the UK, 50 miles north to Luton, so I could be there during an EDL (English Defence League, far-right group) rally. I’m drawn to edges, and to what I don’t know. I’m also fascinated by human beings and their world; I spend time investigating my own, and am endlessly interested in that of others. I was interested in what the human nature was of this event and its relational dynamics.
As I got closer to Luton a sense of tension arose in me. The roads were heavily policed, and cars and buses were being stopped from going into the town centre. I negotiated the necessary travel hurdles and managed to park a mile or so from the centre. I began to walk towards the central precinct where the rally was being held. As I walked through the town there was, I guess inevitably, an uneasy atmosphere. The rally had been high profile on the news and emotions were running high.
The first gathering I stumbled across was not the EDL rally, but in fact an anti-fascist protest. A band was playing on a stage and people were holding placards and chanting anti-fascist slogans. I stayed for a short while and watched the proceedings, before heading off to find the EDL rally. What has stuck with me most about that day, was the walk I made between the anti-fascist gathering and the EDL rally. The two groups were held, maybe 600 metres apart, by a heavy police presence. As I walked from the one to the other I became aware of an eerie silence reverberating around the precinct. The area was deserted, there was simply no one in between the two groups.
As I sit now with my growing interest and understanding of human relationships and the nature of conflict, I think of how it is not only why and what we are disagreeing about that is of interest, but how we are disagreeing. How would two groups with an immense amount of ill-feeling between them, explore common ground in the silence of the deserted between? The police were naturally there to keep them apart and to keep order, to contain the difference of the two groups and prevent violence, but beyond this security presence there was a palpable sense of emptiness.
The interests and needs on both sides remained within the walls of their chosen areas. They were in their own echo chambers (Ricky Gervais, 2017, Oxford Union). For parties in deep conflict, without a representative middle ground, such as a neutral space and a third party to facilitate that space, there is often no relational middle ground. Human beings have differences, everywhere and everyhow. Every individual on this planet is different. One of the challenges of our time is to create the conditions whereby these differences can be shared, aired, enabled, known, understood, and from time-to-time, accepted.
What is of interest to me at this moment is the specific nature of these conditions and spaces. What are the field conditions (Kurt Lewin, 1951, Field Theory in Social Science) that will best support discussion of difference? For example, third party impartial personnel? A “neutral” place? Pre-established boundaries? Then to mainstream such meeting spaces for the expression of difference, throughout local, national, and international communities.
The go-dialogue experiment of Meeting Point that ran in August 2017 began to explore this question. The plan is to develop Meeting Points further in this manner, to be a place where people can come to talk on just another day in just another place. It is time we took human relationships seriously, and created the conditions for them to thrive, rather than merely survive. I would welcome your thoughts, comments, and suggestions as to the development of public spaces for dialogue and relationship building.
One such place may look like the photo at the top of this article. (Photo by Margarida CSilva on Unsplash)