‘Atwater was a single, poor, black parent who led Operation Breakthrough, which tried to improve local black neighbourhoods. Ellis was an equally poor but white parent who was proud to be Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan... When each listened to the other’s reasons, they realised that they shared the same basic values. Both loved their children and wanted decent lives for their communities.’
In The Best of Enemies, Osha Gray Davidson recounts a famous case of seemingly impossible reconciliation. Ann Atwater and C P Ellis – the black activist and the Klu Klux clanmen, from Durham, North Carolina – occupied completely different worlds. They hated each other viscerally, threatened or attempted physical harm against the other on multiple occasions. But when their community’s schools had to be integrated, and the two were forced to co-chair a robust eight-hours-a-day, ten-day public discussion on the process, something extraordinary happened. Through asking each other questions, day after day, and listening to each other’s answers, they uncovered shared values that allowed them to build common ground and lead a successful integration successfully. As Ellis later said: “I used to think that Ann Atwater was the meanest black woman I’d ever seen in my life … But, you know, her and I got together one day for an hour or two and talked. And she is trying to help her people like I’m trying to help my people.”
As the philosopher and practical ethicist Walter Sinnott-Armstrong observes in his essay on the importance of effective arguing, none of this happened easily or quickly. ‘They were also’, he notes, ‘exceptional individuals who had strong incentives to work together as well as many personal virtues, including intelligence and patience’.
In today’s explosive world, riddled with partisan politics and gridlocked democracies, there is much to learn from this example. Robust arguments, good questioning, lasting patience and a willingness to see through the eyes of others – even those you consider your enemy: these are the qualities we need for the VUCA environment we find ourselves in.
And as the volatile terrain of 2018 falls away and we brace ourselves for what lies ahead, there are many other things to anchor us. This year, I have written about the rise of purpose-led business, the education revolution that has begun around the world; the Sustainable Development Capital initiative, launched to effectively channel finance into Africa and kick-start a new age of prosperity and opportunity. We’ve seen 15-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg shame world leaders with her searing rejection of the postures of progress that ‘only talk of moving us forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess’. We’ve seen courage, ingenuity and global co-operation across the world to save 12 boys trapped in a Thai cave. We’ve seen a female engineer from Gaza create bricks from the ashes of constant destruction and build new homes. We’ve seen the balance of power tipped on gender equality with astonishing speed and scale, and new life breathed into grassroots activism.
Change is possible and it is happening. But there are things we must all be willing to do. Open our minds. Seek to learn constantly. Embrace the inevitability of change. Bring rigour to our thinking. Challenge our assumptions. Hold arguments with ourselves about the things we believe and why. Use our voice to defend the values that stack up to our interrogation. Use our time productively. Hold ourselves to account for the impact we create. Look actively for opportunities to help. Apply our skills to the local and global problems we can shape. Believe, above all, that change is possible – but it must start with you. In the words of Thunberg: you are never too small to make a difference.
Happy Christmas to all, and may the new year bring us the courage to be the change we seek in the world.