AP NEWS

A remedy for dearth of kindness

March 19, 2019

We started the year with the same acrimony between people of different ethnicity, race, gender, class, politics. It is especially sharp at this time when only last year we paid our respects to a late president whose character exemplified kindness and civility. Is there any remedy for this sore that refuses to heal? It is difficult. We are no longer the melting pot. We have become a country of tribes, each demanding to be heard when no one is listening.

It is only through personal contact that we can understand one another, our dreams, our challenges, our similarities. In his “Book of Joy” written with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama states that “education and wider contacts are really the only solutions.” War comrades understand. Fighting side by side focuses on the individual, not his tribe. He is just a guy who has your back as you have his, someone who has a family he misses as you do yours. The differences that exist in civilian life vanish in the immediacy of survival. They are reduced to human beings. Our current culture is focused on the self thanks to technology. How can we communicate with each other when we are glued to the cell phone or computer? Face to face contact is the past. Is there no remedy?

There is, and 15 other countries, mostly in Europe, are doing it with a 16th on the way (France.) It is universal national conscription. It brings young people together aged 16 to 18 years for a period varying from six to 24 months to learn basic military skills or work in community civics programs. The daily routine of working side by side would be a revelation to many who have never before associated with people of different class or culture. One is no longer the black man but Jim and the Latino becomes Carlos, the guy who sweats along with you as you both learn to dismantle and reassemble a firearm or work for a charity.

Living 24 hours a day in close quarters forces accommodation. Now your teammate is just like you, struggling to get along. It does not mean that once conscription is over they will be buddies for life. They probably will never see each other again but their conception of “the other” will have changed and so in time will the society we live in.

Last July, Emmanuel Macron, president of France, advocated conscription for young people to start next month. His goal was social cohesion, civic duty and national unity. It is ironic that he advocated this well before the violent street protests that are still going on. Fuel taxes were the original reason but it soon demonstrated that France was two countries, urban and rural, strangers to each other. Perhaps when the farmer’s son is working alongside the industrialist’s son during their year’s conscription, they will find common ground that will help them later in their lives. No need to add that in our own country as the election of Donald Trump was the result of a similar division. Mixing the urban and the rural young together, the rich with the poor and all the skin colors, working together to enrich communities and learn basic military skills might show our future leaders what constitutes the real America. A useful side effect: a generation of skilled men and women who can help in natural disasters.

In our technology-obsessed life, humans may first have to be forced to communicate via national conscription if civility and tolerance are to have a chance on their own. The military does it; colleges do not. Students gather among their own identities, political ideologies, religion and races. Breaking up these tribes has become a must if we wish to have a civil society. It is worth a try.

Greenwich resident Carla Wallach is an author of five books and writer of numerous articles in national publications and newspapers. Her latest book, “In The Company of Originals,” is available at Amazon.