There’s an old DC comic called Knight and Squire. It’s about a group of superheroes and supervillains living in London, who frequent a pub called the Time in a Bottle. Time in a bottle is no ordinary pub. Aside from its regulars being made up of lycra-clad, mask-wearing and cape-swishing comic book characters, Time in a bottle is covered by an old, Merlin-esque magic which prevents the characters from fighting inside its four walls. Heroes and villains sit alongside each other at the bar – talking, drinking and taking the mick out of each other – but because of the ancient truce magic, they can’t fight. There may be tension, there may be arguments, but the battles are left at the door.
We live in a world which so often feels full of conflict, disagreement and fear. The media feeds us endless stories of hate crimes, racism and terrorism. We are quick to rile against difference, and slow to find common ground. Social media provides a platform for division, with exaggerated fake news headlines and impersonal, heat of the moment, hastily-typed debates. With just a week to go before the general election, the effects of differences in opinion are in the spotlight more than ever. People from all parts of the political spectrum demonise the other; whole people groups are blamed for the actions of an individual; and every word uttered by politicians is fed to the proverbial wolves and shredded to pieces. Politics has the power to divide us in an instant; friends, family and colleagues are brutally categorized into “us” or “them”, “heroes” or “villains”.
But the Time in a Bottle pub illustrates something profound: there is a difference between conflict and war. Conflict is the recognition of difference and dissonance, and a desire to wrestle with those disharmonies. War is the inability to handle conflict, resulting in a desire to (metaphorically or literally) kill the other in order to eradicate conflict. Conflict is sitting at the bar debating the issues over a pint; war is the punch up spilling out onto the pavement outside. The magic that lingers over the Time in a Bottle is not there to eradicate differences or brainwash everyone into agreement, running away from conflict. Instead, it provides a space where conflict can be confronted safely, and the Time in a Bottle – as a gathering place for all kinds of people and their differences – is inevitably a place full of conflict, but not of war. The heroes and villains who meet there do not dehumanise one another, hurt each other or try to force one another to conform. Heroes remain heroes and villains remain villains but, when you’re buying rounds of drinks, there is no “us” and “them”.
We are often so afraid of war that we avoid conflict as well. We shy away from potentially volatile topics of conversation, because we fear that to disagree is to be at war. I noticed myself intentionally avoiding a politics conversation with one of my colleagues, because I suspect we may be putting our crosses in very different boxes next week and I guess I’m afraid of the consequences of dissent. Some conversations feel like Pandora’s Box and we fear that admitting to differences in opinion is to risk the onset of war; a place where we hurt one another because we cannot understand the person on the other side of the battle lines.
The problem, of course, is that ignoring differences doesn’t make them go away, and avoiding conflict doesn’t prevent war. It is imperative that we create spaces where conflict can be welcomed. We need places where we take seriously the differences in religion, politics, culture and worldviews – not to fuel the ammunition of war, but to cultivate a shared humanity and to restore our human dignity. We need Time in a Bottle; real places in our lives where we the “us” and “them” can meet in neutral space and see each other for who we really are.
I often ask myself the question, “Who is sat around my table?” Who speaks into the fabric of conversations that weave together to form my opinions? Who is invited to sit alongside me, as an equal, to challenge me? Who am I sharing life with? If all the people sat at my table think like me, vote like me, have the same faith as me and live similarly to me, I am perilously at risk of narrow-mindedness. I am terrifyingly susceptible to a rhetoric of hate and stereotyping and scapegoating. I will become cowed by fear of the other and destructively dogmatic. If I only have “us” around the table, I will never come close to understanding “them” – let alone realising that perhaps there is no “us” and “them” after all.
It can be challenging to invite others to the table. It can be scary, it can be uncomfortable, it can be hard work. But unless we find a way to do conflict well, we will find ourselves at war. We’ve got a week until a general election that has the potential to divide us. Or we have an opportunity to invite different people to the table, to create our own Time in a Bottle. Ask someone to explain their political opinions to you – not so that you will have the opportunity to share yours, but so that you can listen and see and understand. Seek out people who are different to you, because there is beauty in difference. Read the political coverage in the news apps you wouldn’t normally visit. Buy a beer with someone of a different faith. Seek out common ground, and you might just find it overshadows your differences. Do not allow the fear of war to hinder our ability to do conflict well – let’s raise a glass and find our shared humanity at the bottom of a bottle.
Written by Anna Jacklin, Primary School Teacher and Pioneer