Learning to love the stranger

The future belongs to those who can combine the strength of community with the openness of globalization.

Scandinavia is an amazing place. You would think its high taxes would discourage entrepreneurship, yet it produces some of the most innovative companies in the world.

Every time I visit Denmark I’m struck by the cooperative and collaborative nature of its people. They are constantly sharing ideas, constantly trying to learn new and better ways of doing things.

I come from Ireland, a country which has been going through a massive transformation both socially and economically. Many people worry today that Ireland is losing its sense of community.

Community is a very powerful force. It gives people identity, roots, comfort, a sense of place. Community is about the common good, about the family, about rising above individual needs and thinking of the needs of others. Many people believe that globalization is the enemy of community.

Community has its dark side however. When the sense of community in Ireland was at its strongest, Ireland was at its most conservative, repressive and economically deprived. Community can encourage suspicion and even hatred of the stranger. Community can encourage conformity and discourage innovation. Community likes tradition and resists change.

Community can be closed to the outside. The thing that impresses me most about Scandinavia is that it is open to community and open to the world. It has got the balance right. This is a vital balance.

Gaelic football is Ireland’s national sport, and Mick O’Connell is perhaps its best known proponent. He started his career in the late 1950s. After his first big match there were two men chatting in a pub. One said to the other that O’Connell had played well. The other grudgingly replied: “Why wouldn’t he? Doesn’t he train!”

This man exhibited one of the very worst characteristics of community: rigidified tradition. Either you had the skill or you hadn’t. To train—to improve yourself—was rising above your fate.

Tradition is wonderful. It is a source of strength and comfort. But it can strangle innovation and hold the future back. It doesn’t have to be that way. As Ireland modernized, tradition became a source of ideas. The traditional Irish pub and Riverdance became global success stories.

When Ireland gained independence in the 1920s it sought to become totally self-sufficient. It embraced everything traditional and shunned all things foreign. This was an utterly disastrous strategy that impoverished the country in every way.

When Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, things began to change. The more Ireland opened up—the more it embraced globalization—the more prosperous the country became.

To trade we must trust. Primitive societies will only trust members of their own community. Sophisticated societies will trust the stranger as well. Success today is about keeping one foot in our communities and one foot in the globalized world.

We need to break away from the primitive idea that for a community to thrive it needs something to hate. We can love our communities and respect the stranger. It’s not a contradiction. We can embrace tradition and innovation. We can share and collaborate. In the global network of the Internet, these are things that will make us stronger and more prosperous.


11 responses

  1. Brilliant. Period.

  2. This is a profoundly important essay. Its insights give strength to those of us struggling with loss in the face of opportunity.

  3. I think your most recent email, entitled “LEARNING TO LOVE THE STRANGER” possibly revealed some political biases on your part and perhaps showed some ignorance.

    In this statement: “When the sense of community in Ireland was at its strongest, Ireland was at its most conservative, repressive and economically deprived.” you associate the label ‘convervative’ with extremely negative connotations. This when the political philosophy - conservatisism - is responsible for free trade and the opening up of markets - arguably at least; something it seems you are arguing for. Furthermore, conservatives cite Adam Smith quite often as their economic godfather and he is one who supported change and the dynamics of free markets - something I THINK you support with this concept of ‘community’. Meanwhile, it’s the so-called ‘liberals’ who seem to yearn for the days of economic regulation, restricting trade, unionization to restrict the availability of jobs to those not in unions, etc.

    All in all, I think this is a very weak newsletter with a lot of unexplored concepts and generalities, some with political overtones, which you may not have intended.

    You also state: “To trade we must trust”, but I’m not sure that that is true. While it helps to trust, to trade, we trade something that the other partner in the trade finds to be of value for something we find of value. To trade, implies freedom from coercion and the oversight of laws to protect against such things as fraud. Trust isn’t required. While it may help to have trust, trust is garnered over time through multiple interactions. But the beauty of free-trade and a law-abiding society is that I don’t HAVE to trust. The economy works okay even though trust isn’t required. Do I trust the cashier at Walmart? It’s not a need as the entire exchange is transparent.

    You might argue that I feel this way because I know I can trust Walmart. But Walmart of course, is just an example. I could say the say for any store I happen across while traveling the country, even one I have never been to or heard of.

    Perhaps in an online ‘community’ it helps to trust the other end, since you don’t really know who or even what country and nationality you are exchanging with and whethe or not they observe the same legalities that you do.

    Though I have to think about that.

  4. I’m a fan of the newsletter anyway, Gerry, but I particularly liked the latest edition (9/4/2007). You challenge the closed mindset that exists in relation to ‘foreigners’ - we need more voices to say what you just said. I love the way you use the Irish experience in the newsletters. I had the good fortune to attend your Masterclass in the European Commission last year, and am doing my best to spread those ideas on our websites. Thanks for the inspiration, and keep it up!

    Audrey Mac Cready

  5. This is so so true… and thankfully the web, combined with folksonomies of immense depth and breadth like Wikipedia are quietly, non-demonstratively, grass-rootsedly increasing the connectivity of people of good will right around the planet.

    The ultimate endpoint of it all must be to evolve the setting up of a Wiki which will create the constitution for ODW - One Democratic World (ODW)* potentially “authored” by every citizen on Earth.

    *(or - even bettwer - ODFFSW - One Democratic, Free, Fair and Sustainable World)

  6. At the end of the day, it comes down to people and their values, not technology.

    The Internet allows us to connect and build global communities faster and more easily than before. But it’s also great for spreading everything from plain old mediocrity to hatred and mistrust.

    All of us who publish on the web have a responsibility to think before we hit the “publish” button. We should consider the impact that our writing may have - today, tomorrow, in years to come - on the reader who will only see our online persona and never have a real conversation with us.

  7. Gerry, dear one…

    You do the world great service by sending out messages like this. What you describe is a developmental phenomenon, experienced by both individuals and societies. The swinging from inward-looking “us-vs-them” to outward-looking, individualist “the world is my our oyster”. At this stage, community tends to be neglected, if not scorned, and this of course creates the cause and conditions for the next learning: There’s only so much you can achieve on your own - we can do more together than alone, and if you’re not OK, the chances are I won’t be either, in the long run.

    These are lessons that take time to learn. Every person on the planet is born at stage zero and has to tread the path. Research shows we all take the steps in the same order. Some will hear your message and be strengthened by it. Others might not hear it yet, but this is wise, wise use of your influence, Gerry. I applaud you.

    Virtual hug until next time we meet.


  8. Referring to James comments, whilst I agree we all have a responsibility to take care before publishing at the same time people who read what we write need to exercise commonsense. It’s a two way street.

    I understand where you’re coming from Gerry, and get the message. And if you’ve made errors and others point them out in a constructive manner then we all learn, don’t we?

    It’s good to see you using your blog to extend the conversation, so much more interesting than one-way newsletters. Keep them coming.

  9. OK, while I’d rather be having this conversation with you face to face, I’ll have a go at it here.

    I agree absolutely with Gerry. Tolerance, valuing differences…whatever we call it, it’s positive and valuable. The right way to behave. As Gerry says, more or less, it’s not the instinctive way to behave. So we need to learn, adapt and grow.

    And I agree with Richard that commonsense is a two way street.

    My small point is that the global connection the Internet enables won’t automatically generate trust, sharing and collaboration. It’s not the tools themselves, but how humans choose to use them, that will make the difference.

  10. This is one of the weakest pieces I have read from Gerry. He goes around in circles trying to work out if community is good or bad. He needs to think about this much harder - and try again. Anyway, the premise is silly - why bother loving strangers? Love your neighbour. Love your customers. Love yourself. It almost sounds like this is verging into an argument about the richness of multiculturalism.

  11. Nice one Gerry. I liked the whole “loving the Alien” article.

    I totally agree. The times they are a changin. Most of Europe was insular back then. I gain comfort from Angela Merkel’s Speech to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome. She maintains that “Trust” and “Tolerance” are and will be the cornerstone of the new Europe. It has resonances of your own article..

    “I grew up east of this city, in the German Democratic Republic. When the Treaties of Rome were concluded I was just three years old. I was seven years old when the Wall was built. It divided also my own family. I did not believe I would ever be able to travel to the West until I was a pensioner. Only a few metres from here was the point where any walk I took would be at an end. But then the Wall collapsed after all. That was a defining moment for me: I realized that nothing ever has to stay the way it is”

    Dr Angela Merkel speech @ http://www.eu2007.de/en/News/Speeches_Interviews/March/0325BKBerliner.html

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