Friendship Bench a great example for society

Among other things, the bench will hopefully serve as an open forum for deep and honest conversation.

On Thursday, the University will celebrate Beautiful U Day with multiple projects that will enhance campus aesthetics. One project (in which I am involved) also has to do with the aesthetics of relationships. The project, titled Friendship Bench, is a collaboration between two student groups; one Christian, the other Muslim. It is a bench on the south side of the Bell Museum of Natural History designed as a place to explore and understand our deepest differences while cultivating friendships.

In light of the current political and cultural divides, terrorism, interreligious tensions and globalization, this project is a beacon that celebrates aesthetic values, cooperation, mutual respect and, most importantly, the beauty of unity in the midst of diversity. It helps to answer the question of how we are to live in a pluralistic society.

One often-provided answer to the question is to put our differences in the closet, refusing to talk about them. Acknowledging differences, it is thought, leads to awkward situations, tensions, endless bickering, societal disintegration and sometimes human tragedies such as riots, civil wars, genocide, etc. Under such circumstances, it’s not surprising that a person, a community or a state will use power to impose unity, especially when there is a significant political, economical or social interest in doing so.

This kind of imposed unity is common throughout much of the non-Western world. The price of national unity is a heavily centralized and autocratic government with tight control of capital. Meanwhile, expressions of diversity are only allowed in the social realm. Common people’s political rights to dissent and to voice different opinions about the livelihood of families, communities and nations are curtailed or rejected in favor of development, modernization and a general lack of education.

Institutions are set up from the top level down to the villages and schools in order to promote unity and monitor diverse opinions that could significantly challenge or even topple the existing unification principles. But, in the end, ironically, this unified and diversity-free environment nurtures the very tensions that can easily spark the very horrific tragedies it is designed to prevent. As a minority member coming from a society with a long authoritarian history (Indonesia), I have witnessed the terrible price of imposed unity.

Another possible answer to the question is to feast on diversity and to eject the possibility of unity in a pluralistic society. Such a quest, however, is futile, stumbling and crumbling upon itself. It is not possible to build a family when one member of the family does his or her own thing while another destroys what he or she has done, all in order to express diverse opinions.

Extend this to communities and nations, and the results are obvious. Positive social interaction is strained in this diverse, schizophrenic environment, for it would take forever to agree upon what it means to have “positive social interaction,” let alone agreement upon how to have such social interaction. But, then again, even before any discussion can proceed, the parties in a highly diverse society would need ages to flesh out what people mean by “agreeing” with each other.

This leaves us with only one option: accepting unity and diversity on equal terms, realizing that the universe is both unity and diversity, without which we would not have a universe. We must responsibly and wisely navigate between and bring these two seemingly contradictory concepts into harmony. This is where our project intrigues me, as it fleshes out this balance in a pluralistic society.

Among other things, the bench signifies an open forum for deep and honest conversation, a safe place to join together, to be unified in talking about differing opinions and fundamental principles. The bench shows that some religious communities are eager to step outside of their stereotypical boxes and comfort zones to reconcile the misperceptions and misconceptions that are the fruits of stereotyping.

Cooperation and coexistence are portrayed aesthetically in the setting of the bench and its surroundings. We suggest that it is foolish to believe that cooperation, friendship and getting along with each other demands that we turn a blind eye toward real differences that we have. We should learn to live with the ever-present tension between the desire to maintain our distinctiveness and to achieve a sense of unity.

The answer to this tension between diversity and unity is to realize, accept and talk about our differences. Because there are real differences, we need a place where we can talk, discuss or debate differing values in an honest, open and intellectually stimulating environment free of physical and verbal violence. This is far from a disagreement-free environment, where people sweep their differences under the carpet, walking around on top of it as if nothing happened, all the while subject to a stifling and imposed unity. It is also far from a schizophrenically diverse environment, where people argue aimlessly and pursue mutually contradictory or opposing objectives.

Finally I would like to invite the University community to attend the Friendship Bench Dedication; it will start at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the Nolte Center knoll. It will last approximately two hours.

Derwin Halim is a graduate student. Please send comments to [email protected]