COLUMN: In search of the common good
Looking back on 2016, it's clear we live in a time of increasing complexity and uncertainty as we approach critical junctures on the road to our shared future.
I am saddened and frightened by the racial, gender, economic and other discrimination evident in the world and even more so that it is practised by some who should be leading the call for social and environmental justice in pursuit of peace on our collective behalf.
It seems instead that we are more divided than ever on a growing number of issues.
And so, as we embark on this new year and the opportunities and challenges therein, I find myself looking to the tradition of the new year's resolution for inspiration in moving forward.
The practice of beginning the new annual cycle on the first day of January was instituted by the Romans under Julius Caesar in 62 BC.
The Roman celebration centred on the two-faced god Janus from which January derived its name and from which the tradition of the new year's resolution was inspired.
Janus signifies humanity's quest for peace through civic order and social justice achieved by simultaneously drawing from the past while looking to the future.
Initially, it was customary that deep self-reflection inform commitment to a new year's resolution aimed at enhancing the common good.
While it remains customary that resolutions are informed by a process of self-reflection, today they are more often inwardly focused and self-serving for example, lose weight or stop smoking.
To be sure, these are good things to aim for, and yet the nature and magnitude of humanity's current challenges seem also to call for a return to the outwardly focused roots of the new year tradition and the goal of contributing to the common good. Therein lies another challenge.
The events of 2016 highlight deepening social divisions about what best serves the common good and even about what the common good is.
These philosophical and practical dichotomies were evident in events around the US election, in the 'war on terror,' at Standing Rock, the conflict over pipelines in Canada, and in Nelson on the issue of panhandling.
In seeking common ground on divisive issues, Nelson City Council relies, as do many elected bodies, on debate to elicit new information, hear different opinions and discuss options for moving forward collectively.
The process is structured to ensure respectful discourse with equal opportunity to participate.
Although debate can be frustrating, difficult and personally challenging, when engaged in by open-minded participants willing to change in support of the common good, the process ensures a more fully-informed, better outcome than would otherwise have been possible.
2016 suggests that society has reached a point of standoff on many important issues.
In response, we tend to complain about injustice to those who see things as we do and avoid discussing divisive issues with people who disagree, believing that further debate is pointless and erosive of social harmony.
In fact, this approach ensures that the standoffs and their undercurrents continue to build social tension and with it the potential for more serious social breakdown and conflict.
And so, regarding this year's resolution, perhaps the most useful thing I can commit to is to keeping respectful, open-minded debate alive within the spheres of my own influence — on climate change, on poverty and inequality, on racism and our responses to terrorism — not to convince others that my perspective is right, but in a search for common ground knowing that there is nothing to gain in standoff and striving for a softening of position that will make progress for "the common good" possible.
Nelson city councillor Valerie Warmington shares this editorial space with her council colleagues.