This week is National Child Protection Week in Australia. Many public figures are saying all the right things about keeping kids safe but their policies often separate out the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’. Doing this positions whole groups of people as ‘not like us’ and therefore inferior. You may begin to believe that ‘these people’ do not have the same rights or needs as other human beings – people like you for instance.
When we focus on the differences between ourselves and others we are in danger of seeing some people as objects, not quite human. Dehumanizing others opens the door to atrocities as were seen in Nazi Germany and are now being perpetrated by ISIS and other regimes across the world; it allows men to treat women as commodities and children as possessions; it denigrates anyone who has a different sexuality, skin, religious belief or has fallen on hard times, it justifies bullying, cruelty and callousness.
The photo of Aylan’s little body washed up on a beach has challenged this comfortable perception of the ‘other’. What many have done is replace this little boy with an image of their own child and this has touched a raw nerve. This could be my child, my loss, my overwhelming grief. Suddenly we can no longer be complacent.
Shared humanity goes beyond empathy, beyond equality and beyond acceptance of difference. It is tuning into the common threads that bind us all together. We all have the same basic physical and psychological needs – for shelter and sustenance and to be connected and cared for. Every major religion in the world espouses a version of the Golden Rule – treat others as you would want them to treat you – do not behave in ways that would be hateful for you. This ancient philosophy is being overwhelmed by the focus on personal success and exclusive belonging – only me and mine matter. Where inequality rules wellbeing for all takes a hit.
In our schools we teach academic subjects in the hope of economic security – but security for our future world depends on how well our children, the next generation – learn about the importance of shared humanity. We cannot leave this to chance – we have to teach it – actively and across every age level. Many thoughtful and dedicated teachers are building this into everyday interactions, some are providing structured opportunities for learning. It begins by breaking down barriers and stereotypes – mixing everyone up to ensure that students talk with each other – not just their own social group – and giving everyone the opportunity to share their stories. The next step is where young people and their teachers find commonalities – simple sharing can lead to profound understanding. By asking children how they want to be treated we can begin to help them make the links between their needs and those of others – connecting rights with responsibilities.
Teaching shared humanity is not difficult but has been left on the back burner with a million excuses of no time, not a priority, not part of our assessed curriculum. It is about time this changed in all of our schools and for all of our futures. Wherever you are, whatever your background, whether you are a teacher, a parent or just someone who is concerned about the future – please start making demands. Now would be good!