Which Are More Important? Similarities or Differences?

Israeli wall 4


July 27, 2014 Susan notes: Over the last 10 days violence has erupted again. It seems a good time to revisit this post.

May 31, 2010 Susan notes: I first posted this blog on January 20, 2009. Today, May 31, 2010, the world erupts once again in violence and hatred sparked by the killing of Pro-Palestinian aid activists by Israeli soldiers. It seemed like a good time to revisit this age-old question once again…


Tonight, during the US presidential inauguration, the wise man who made the benediction said: “Let us choose love over hatred. Inclusive over exclusive. Tolerance over intolerance.”

Likewise, eight years ago, former US President Bill Clinton gave a wonderful, thought-provoking lecture on the BBC in December 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, and during the bombing of Afghanistan. The title of the lecture was “The Struggle for the Soul of the 21st Century.

There were similar themes, then and now.

Clinton, though optimistic, suggested in his remarks that our capacity to make a success of the 21st century depends on how we choose to answer one simple question:

The terrorists who struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre believe they were attacking symbols of corrupt power and materialism….. they thought they had the truth and because they had the whole truth, anyone who didn’t share it, was a legitimate target.

They thought that the differences they have with us, political and religious, were all that mattered and served to make all their targets less than human. Most of us believe that our differences are important and make our lives interesting but that our common humanity matters more. The clash between these two views over this simple question more than any other single issue, will define the shape and the soul of this new century.

(I’ve searched high and low online, and I can’t find a video version anywhere. But  the full text as well as the audio is available here.)

A Disheartening Chat

The importance of this simple question has been hammered home to me several times over the past 10 days. It all began in a chat with a facebook “friend” whose personal message said: “Take all the jews and throw them down the well so I can have my country back… Yipppeeeee!!!!!!!!!!”

Until then, our “friendship” had consisted of a few messages exchanged online. We had never met or spoken. We hadn’t even chatted before.

The conversation went something like this:

Him: Hey Susan ! Long time no see…
Me: Hi how are you?

Him: Fine, u?
Me: Great, not sure about your message though…

Him: What message?
Me: The one about throwing people down the well….

Him: Why? Are you a zionist?
Me: If I were, would you throw me down the well?

Him: All zionists deserve to die. Are you a jew?
Me: If I am a Jew, you will want to kill me?

Him: Are you a jew?
Me: If I were, would you kill me?

Him: Are you? Tell me!
Me: You don’t know me, why do you want to kill me?

Him: If you are a jew, I want to kill you.
Me: I want peace, why do you want to kill me?

Him: If you are a jew, you don’t want peace, you want to kill children.
Me: I don’t want to kill children, I want peace.

Him: No.
Me: What do you mean, no? Others may not want peace, but I do. Can’t we talk about it? I thought we were friends.

Him: No. There is nothing to talk about. If you are a jew, you are murdering children. You should die. I want to kill you. That’s it…

We went on like this for quite a while, back and forth, back and forth. In the end, he un-friended me and nothing was resolved. I felt shocked, saddened. No worse – sickened, that someone who doesn’t know me, who has never even met me, would be so full of hatred that he would want to kill me without having any idea of who I am, what I stand for, or what I believe in. The force of his hatred was terrifying.

It’s one thing for anonymous people thousands of miles away lob rockets and drop missiles on each other, it’s quite another to come under attack yourself, for no reason other than the possibility that you might have some label, a few letters, a word, attached, however tenuously, to the worthwhile human being you believe yourself to be.

I don’t know this “friend” other than as a random collection of postings, pictures, and miscellany that comprises his facebook profile. He is nobody in the landscape of my life. He means nothing to me. But somehow, it felt so, well, PERSONAL.

An Interesting Paradox

Equally sad is the fact that the hatred of some Jews toward Arabs is at least as deep as that which he expressed toward me. In fact, you don’t even have to be Jewish – when I recounted my facebook experience to a British friend who lives here in Dubai, she looked at me squarely and said: “I wouldn’t even bother talking to that type of person. I just want to take a machine gun to people like that. I think they should just nuke the whole place.”

A machine gun? Nuke the whole place? Hmmmm. The following day, the same woman, an amazing and inspiring friend whom I cherish, helped me compose an email to my brother that increased the chances that I might create a bridge, rather than a chasm, in our strained relationship.

I’ve ruminated over this paradox for a few days.  I’ve thought how much easier it is to GIVE advice than it is to LIVE advice. It’s a good lesson. One that I will, imperfect as I am, no doubt continue to learn over and over again.

We Love Our Boxes

And in thinking about conflict, I’ve come to the conclusion that scale doesn’t really matter. Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Shia and Sunni, my brother and I, all of us would be well served to listen to what Bill Clinton had to say in post-9/11 lecture:

What this is all about is that simple question: which will be more important in the twenty first century – our differences or our common humanity?

This is not complicated. The people that want to kill us over our differences do so because they think their life doesn’t matter except insofar as they are different from and better than others. Those of us who are trying to change ourselves and change them, we think our common humanity is more important and if we could just live up to its potential, the world would be a better place. And which side wins will shape the twenty first century. What do you think is more important? The answer is easy to give, but very, very hard to live. Think about this as you go home tonight.

Think about how important your differences are to you. Think about how we all organise our lives in little boxes – man, woman, British, American, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Tory, Labour, New Labour, Old Labour, up, down – you know, everything in the world. I like red ties, I got a blue shirt on, think about everything you define yourself by.

Our little boxes are important to us. And indeed it is necessary, how could you navigate life if you didn’t know the difference between a child and an adult, an African and an Indian, a scientist and a lawyer?

We have to organise that, but somewhere along the way, we finally come to understand that our life is more than all these boxes we’re in. And that if we can’t reach beyond that, we’ll never have a fuller life. And the fanatics of the world, they love their boxes and they hate yours. You’re laughing, but that’s what this is all about. And it’s easy to give the right answer but it’s hard to live.

Yes, it is hard to live. I’ve re-discovered that in the past 10 days. But surely we must try. Because there is hope in trying. And without hope, there is nothing.

Let us increase our capacity to choose love over hatred, inclusive over exclusive, and tolerance over intolerance.


Susan Macaulay is the creator and curator of She QuotesAmazing Women Rock and My Alzheimer’s Story. She also blogs about other random stuff here.