The Path Paved with Unity

Aangi ShahMarch 4, 2024Crisis & ChangeFeatures

Artwork by Luciana Rodriguez, age 17

Hidden behind history’s veil of social crises and upheaval are stories of suffering citizens, conflicting ideologies, and oppressed communities.

These stories are propagated across countless generations through endless conflict and discrimination, continuously feeding the cycle of division and further conflict. It is said that history repeats itself; yet perhaps there is a way to start a new trend of peace, communication, and, most importantly, unity.

To understand how best to address divisive social crises, it is important to first examine what causes them. Social crises can be, and have been, caused by a myriad of reasons throughout history. Some causes can’t be controlled, such as natural disasters and epidemics/pandemics, like the recent COVID-19 pandemic and Turkey-Syria earthquakes. Other social crises have been caused by human actions, including economic crises like the great financial crisis of 2008, political crises like the Arab Spring, and disastrous wars. Oftentimes, these crises are connected, one leading to another like falling dominoes. For example, the 2011 Arab Spring, a political crisis caused by corruption and economic stagnation, led to armed rebellion in the countries it affected, including Yemen. In Yemen, war still rages today, where a decimated healthcare system and government has caused fatal cholera outbreaks and high inflation.

Delving deeper into the causes and effects of social crises, there is an obvious pattern that emerges: uncertainty, fear, and a sense of hopelessness and oppression, leading to social unrest. Regardless of what type of social crisis occurs, these factors are always the agents of division, conflict, and change. Empirical evidence proves this point. Famous social movements like the women’s suffrage movement and civil rights movement were sparked by communities wanting to live freely after generations of oppression. The countless religious and territorial wars throughout history have been caused by opposing ideologies and fear of the other party gaining power. Similarly, pandemics and epidemics cause widespread public fear of disease, leading to uneasiness and chaos. The recent COVID-19 pandemic displays this exact phenomenon; the entire world was forced into a lengthy quarantine marked by panic over basic necessities (like toilet paper), protests, debates over the vaccine, and a state of fatal pandemonium as countries were left shell-shocked by waves of virus variants and high death tolls.

Eventually, the unrest leads to the questioning and destruction, or sometimes reconstruction, of social policies, practices, and institutions. For example, COVID-19 changed healthcare and the virtual world, the women's suffrage movement ended in women’s rights to vote, and the global financial crisis led to the fall of the Lehman Brothers. In each instance, an inevitable change, whether positive or negative, took place. However, one fact is undeniable: the journey of change in a social crisis is a period of panic and division as society falls into ceaseless internal conflict and seeks stability through suppression. Within this period, families, communities, and countries are torn apart. Perhaps there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel; yet can this light erase the long, dark tunnel that lays behind it?

In a simple analogy, social crises are like a pendulum. In the beginning, the pendulum is stable. Yet a disturbance causes it to swing uncontrollably, flailing to find equilibrium again. Society is that pendulum, shaken by the fear and conflict of a social crisis, trying to find security and to overcome the two opposing forces. Imagine, now, a hand, suddenly stopping the pendulum and guiding it back to its original place. That hand represents the unity of different people deciding to embrace each other to face and solve the infinite problems that are to come.

Through the study of the root causes of crises, preventative measures promoting societal cohesion can be adopted. One of the primary methods for approaching divisive social crises is fostering open dialogue and communication. Effective communication serves as a bridge to understanding, allowing individuals with differing perspectives to engage in constructive conversations. Local initiatives such as community forums, town hall meetings, and online platforms can provide spaces for diverse voices to be heard, facilitating a deeper understanding of the concerns and experiences of various groups within society. Communication forums and summits created at a larger scale between entities representing marginalized communities, such as those for women, LGBTQIA+, and indigenous people, would help provide fresh perspectives and foster an inclusive society where all voices are heard, while avoiding instability through promoting teamwork.

Tunisia’s 2013 National Dialogue Quartet is an example of a successful practice of this theory. The country was still shaking from the political revolutions of the 2011 Arab Spring; the Troika government coalition which was in place at the time was quickly losing popularity, while radical political groups were on the verge of violent confrontation. In this pretext, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) took initiative to form a federation which was soon joined by three other civil society groups: the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA); the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH); and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. They were joined by 21 political parties and were able to negotiate peaceful solutions to the issues at hand. Much of Tunisia’s democratic stability is accredited to the Quartet’s works, a fact affirmed by the Nobel Peace Prize that was bestowed upon them in 2015.

Education also plays a pivotal role in promoting empathy and understanding. By encouraging an open mindset through educational curriculums and furthering awareness of historical and contemporary social issues, societies can lay the groundwork for more compassionate and informed citizens. Awareness and education also remove stereotypes and stigmas that lead to biases against certain groups. For example, the implementation of a gender-neutral education curriculum in Sweden has played a crucial role in eliminating the influence of gender stereotypes on children. An article published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found children who had experienced gender-neutral pedagogy were less prone to make biased assumptions on the basis of gender, and were more open-minded to playing with other genders. This proves that instilling the cornerstone values of respect and tolerance through a diverse curriculum from a young age will ensure a future filled with collaboration.

Solutions can’t be simply on an individual or internal community basis. Collaboration channels must also be installed between powerful social institutions such as the government and law enforcement and the people they serve. It is these institutions that can help mediate and prevent social crises. This involves breaking down silos and encouraging partnerships between individuals, community organizations, and governmental bodies. Case studies from successful community engagement projects, such as those addressing urban revitalization or environmental conservation, demonstrate the power of collective action.

For example, in recent urban design projects, Australian state governments have worked with LGBTQIA+ NGOs to develop infrastructure that shows acceptance and inclusivity for this historically marginalized group, marking the end of an era of discrimination. Dating even further back, in 1996, Boston implemented the Ceasefire program to address a surge in gang violence. Law enforcement, community leaders, and social services collaborated to address the root causes of violence. The program successfully reduced gang-related homicides by fostering trust between communities and law enforcement and providing alternatives to gang involvement. Research conducted by social scientists on community-based problem-solving initiatives highlights the effectiveness of collaborative approaches. By involving diverse stakeholders in the decision-making process, these initiatives not only address immediate concerns but also contribute to the development of a shared sense of responsibility and interconnectedness.

On a larger level, divisive social crises also stem from discrepancies that exist in the workings of these larger social institutions themselves. Policies that perpetuate inequality, discrimination, or exclusion can exacerbate tensions within a society, in addition to policies which continue to benefit the privileged while abusing the poor, leading to economic disruption. Addressing these root causes necessitates a commitment to policy change and reform; the most effective policies are often developed through consultancy with majority stakeholders. Historical examples, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States, demonstrates the transformative impact of policy change on societal divisions. The legislation not only addressed discriminatory practices but also laid the foundation for a more inclusive and equitable society. This holds true for any laws that have been made to bring equality to a previously oppressed community in society, and examining successful cases can provide inspiration as to how social crises can be mitigated.

Ultimately, the questions of crisis, conflict, and division must be addressed at all levels from individuals to governments, and can only be resolved through unity and teamwork. While history has proven social crises to be tumultuous times, taking measures through education, communication, and policy reform can prevent the exacerbation of division, turning social crises into oases of progress. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Similarly, a society plagued with dispute is doomed; but a society bound with unity is destined to flourish.

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