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Sunday, July 23, 2017

More in Common: How do we promote more hope, tolerance and understanding in politics?

Jo Cox dream
Jo Cox dream

The death of my wife, the British MP Jo Cox, last summer, shocked not only the UK but the wider world. In the days that followed I was humbled to see a response on a global level, including here in Kenya, with a remembrance ceremony held in Nairobi and a tree planted in Karura forest in her memory.

Jo’s death touched millions of people. Partly because of who she was: a young mum who had spent her life trying to do good in the world, driven by an overriding sense of empathy and compassion. But it was also because she represented something that is at risk.

In the last few years, right around the world, we have seen a rise in fear and hatred being used as a political tool. Parties and individuals who have no compelling ideas for the future instead used hatred and prejudice to gain public support.

In Europe, we have seen an increase in hate crime, and support for the far right, with emergence of populist parties that are determined to capitalise on fears and concerns for their own gain.

It was the emergence of this threat at home, to the rights and values Jo and I considered sacrosanct, that led her to enter domestic politics.

This isn’t just a European, or even a Western, phenomena. Over the past few days, I have spoken with political leaders, members of the public and old friends here in Kenya, and I have heard the same concerns, that as elections approach fear and hatred will increasingly be used as political tools.

Many easily recall memories of widespread political violence in 2007, a result of communities dividing and turning against each other during elections.

But while the threat of violence may seem to be increasing around the world, we do not need to be defeatist. Because those promoting hate do not represent most people.

They are a vocal and angry minority who have tried to portray themselves as the silent majority — when they are neither silent nor the majority. And I know that the hope of the Kenyans I have met, that this summer’s elections are free, fair, credible and peaceful, can be achieved.

I believe there are simple steps we can all take as citizens to promote a world in which active, free, political participation can take place in an environment free from hatred, fear and violence.

Firstly, we need to prioritise coming together, as communities, to defend our rights. And we need to learn the lessons of history, and recognise that an attack on one is an attack on us all. By coming together, we can ensure that the hateful voices of the few do not out-shout the voice of the many.

Secondly, we need to do more to reach out to those who are anxious or with whom we might disagree. Too often we refuse to engage with people who don’t share our viewpoints, preferring to see them as deplorable or stupid — this is a huge mistake. We need to listen to anxious and marginalised groups.

And, thirdly, we need to talk more about what we have in common — not to fixate on what divides us.

In the aftermath of Jo’s death, the phrase ‘More in Common’ — taken from her maiden speech in the UK Parliament — has been popularised. At its core is a simple insight — that we spend too much time talking about what divides us and not enough about what brings us together.

I believe that, if we do more to come together as communities, reach out to those with whom we might disagree and celebrate what we have in common, we will promote the world Jo believed in, a world that is more tolerant, understanding and hopeful, and this is what I continue to advocate in her memory.

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