Friday, 23 January 2015

Virtues hunt in packs

"Virtues hunt in packs". These words really struck me when I heard them on the radio as I was making the children their breakfast a couple of weeks ago, and I have been pondering them since. Revd Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin in the Fields, was on Thought for the Day talking about the French national slogan "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" shortly after the shootings in Paris. His point was that in an effort to uphold "liberty" of speech we cannot lose sight of equality - the same liberties (and rules and opportunities) should apply to everyone. But more than that - what do we do when someone's views are incomprehensible, ridiculous or unpalatable to us? That is where the last part of the triad comes in.  Fraternity is the virtue required when we have to live alongside, and value people with whom we may seem to lack any common ground. It is certainly true that ridiculing someone is not the best way to win them over to your point of view.  It is also true that killing people who ridicule you or your faith cannot be justified, ever.  These three French virtues need to be held in tension together as the three corners of a triangle pull out into a strong shape. 

I am an idealist. When I hear people, in work or school or on Facebook, complaining that this or that is wrong with the world then my instinct is to think "let's not settle for this - what can we do to put things right?". Once I've decided on a goal, then I'm absolutely determined to achieve it. It's not a very relaxing way to be, nor is it comfortable for the people close to me, and it often doesn't make me very popular. It is just how I am! 

But an idealist is in danger of venerating one virtue over others which sometimes pull in other directions. I love having Facebook friends who hold different religious and political views to me and I value the exchange of ideas, as long as everyone remains polite! The title of my blog is Dreaming Equality and I spend a lot of my time thinking, and feeling passionate, about equality - by which I mean that I believe everyone is:

equally valuable.  

To me, equality is not about everyone always receiving equal treatment, in schools, hospitals etc - we are all different and require different levels of support to thrive and flourish, and at different times in our lives. But everyone has equal value, should be treasured, and should not be preventing from reaching their goals. This sounds trite and naive because unfortunately for huge numbers of people all round the world these are impossible ideals - but I think equality of value is something to feel passionate about and strive towards.  Every few weeks one of the parents of a child with a disability on one of my Facebook groups complains about a doctors or therapist who has, for some reason, decided to tell the parents what the child won't be able to do in the future. This is demoralising and sad, and has the effect of denying children their value in the present.  When children are told there's little point in working hard to be walking and independent now because "they're likely to end up in a wheelchair when they are older" this is not valuing them in the present. The doctor or therapist may also "end up in a wheelchair" in later life but they would be surprised if someone suggested giving up and getting into one now.  

Humans naturally want to aim high and achieve and feel a sense of purpose and value, and that's where "Liberté" comes in. We need the space and encouragement to make the most of opportunities that come our way. We are inspired by artistic ability, athletic prowess, exploration, lucrative innovation and we need to be free to make choices.  So whilst I have a passionate belief in equality, which often leaves me feeling angry when I feel that others do not share it, I have to accept that relentless pursuit of equality will not bring a perfect world, and freedom to choose and to be different has to be pursued alongside it.  

I engaged in a few on-line and off-line discussions about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the expression of solidarity afterwards.  It was clear that people hold very strong, and often opposing, beliefs about liberty of expression and to what extent respect, and strong religious belief, and cultural differences should limit our freedom. The discussions were quite uncomfortable. I then read an article by journalist Tim Lott in the Guardian, and although I didn't necessarily agree with it all, as I read it some of my uneasiness fell away. He suggested that we all hold strong "beliefs' that sometimes can't be verified and often are held so dear to us that we are not open to discussion about them.  He then said, to my surprise, that "the alternative to belief is faith" - faith which accommodates doubt, which includes those in our midst who do not share our view.  He wasn't talking about religious faith especially, just as deeply held beliefs are not always religious in the usual sense.  He was talking about the faith in the reality of love, of the feeling of human connection, in reason, in the pursuit of truth.  These words, too, have stayed with me.