Society is not an auto­ma­tic process

Common values and skills, stemming from each and every individual, are the foundation for a sustainable society. They need to be fostered.

Around this time of year, in the wintry streets, we come across them again: Salva­tion Army members with their coll­ec­tion tins. Their presence in the cold season is a tradi­tion and a constant. ‘As long as the Salva­tion Army sings in the streets in the run-up to Christ­mas, all’s well with the world,’ says Simon Bucher, Salva­tion Army media spokesper­son. ‘This tradi­tion reassu­res people.’ 

The work of the Salva­tion Army, like that of many other orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, makes a considera­ble contri­bu­tion towards reli­e­ving suffe­ring and poverty. At Christ­mas time, its work beco­mes visi­ble. Yet even at this time, poverty and loneli­ness are often quietly hidden away. 

The excerpts from the collage are taken from posters from the book ‘Ja! Nein! Yes! No! Swiss Posters for Democracy’.

Values and faith

Faith is an important anchor for the Salva­tion Army – the foun­da­tion for ever­y­thing it does. Accor­ding to Bucher, ‘The belief that every person has a lot of good in them, and in a higher power who watches over ever­y­thing in confu­sing times and radia­tes secu­rity,’ helps people to keep their footing even in diffi­cult times. Faith can make it easier to bear suffe­ring and increase resi­li­ence. But even William Booth, who foun­ded the Salva­tion Army, noti­ced all those years ago that people were not coming to church. That was why the Salva­tion Army needed to be present on the streets. The distinc­tive uniform proved to be an excel­lent way of iden­ti­fy­ing them. It still stands for tradi­tion today. Bucher says: ‘The Salva­tion Army treads a middle path between great open­ness to new things and holding onto those values that make it what it is, and for which it is treasu­red and respec­ted.’ In a rapidly chan­ging world, this balan­cing act is beco­ming ever more chal­len­ging. The tradi­tio­nal coll­ec­tion tins are now faced with a world of digi­tal dona­ti­ons. Finding common values in diffe­rent, some­ti­mes discon­nec­ted worlds, does not come easy. This will chall­enge our society more and more. Bucher is convin­ced that it will be essen­tial for the future that we meet one another half­way and seek dialo­gue. Society needs to agree on common values. In a secu­lar world, the search is open-ended. The pream­ble of the Swiss Fede­ral Consti­tu­tion begins: ‘In the name of Almighty God’. Howe­ver, the reality of life in our society does not indi­cate a unified under­stan­ding of values. Many NPOs play their part. They uphold values such as soli­da­rity and convey them to society as a whole. But the ques­tion remains: how can a libe­ral society find common values and deve­lop them further? It’s easy enough to talk about values like free­dom and soli­da­rity, but how they are inter­pre­ted and expe­ri­en­ced may vary consider­a­bly. The chall­enge is to reco­g­nise, in times of prospe­rity and peace, how neces­sary this debate is to society. To do this is to provide the basis for a sustainable society.

Under­stan­ding democracy

Swiss direct demo­cracy has an advan­tage: citi­zens’ values are repre­sen­ted through regu­larly held refe­ren­dums. ‘At least super­fi­ci­ally,’ points out Eric Nuss­bau­mer, a member of the Natio­nal Coun­cil and Chair of the Board of Trus­tees at the Anny Klawa-Morf Foun­da­tion. ‘In Switz­er­land, we learn a lot from going to the polls,’ he conti­nues. ‘Some people can deve­lop their own system of values and world view from that.’ A low voter turn­out, howe­ver, shows up the short­fall. A large propor­tion of the popu­la­tion has with­drawn itself from these discussions.

A resi­li­ent demo­cracy should have an inte­rest in ancho­ring demo­cra­tic values among the entire popu­la­tion and main­tai­ning them. ‘We have to keep rede­ve­lo­ping them, empha­sis­ing them and contex­tua­li­sing them,’ he says. This is what the Anny Klawa-Morf Foun­da­tion sets out to do. It is geared towards the core values of free­dom, fair­ness, equality and soli­da­rity. Nuss­bau­mer says: ‘These are, of course, values that are set forth in the consti­tu­tion, but it can’t be taken for gran­ted that we have an under­stan­ding of what soli­da­rity means in the speci­fic context of the situa­tions in which the world or society curr­ently finds itself.’ It’s about the funda­men­tals. People’s under­stan­ding of demo­cracy has to be main­tai­ned. Poli­ti­cal educa­tion doesn’t happen by itself. It is an invest­ment in the future that has to be made. ‘Acting as though direct demo­cracy is just some­thing you can pick up as you go along; as though ever­yone learns via refe­ren­dums how demo­cracy works – that’s too simple for the rapid pace at which we live now,’ says Nuss­bau­mer. He percei­ves plenty of thre­ats to demo­cracy. Fake news. Pola­ri­sa­tion. A lack of under­stan­ding of history. That’s why he sees it as important to make these invest­ments. And that, in his view, is what Switz­er­land has failed to do enough of over the past few years. It has limi­ted itself to teaching civics, he says, with educa­tion focu­sing on issues such as what an initia­tive is, and how a refe­ren­dum works. ‘A person’s rela­ti­onship with a system of values, or what actually makes a good demo­cracy, can only be lear­ned through addi­tio­nal lear­ning oppor­tu­ni­ties,’ he says. And this is the foundation’s approach: a supple­ment to the poli­ti­cal parties. Estab­lished by the Social Demo­cra­tic Party of Switz­er­land (SP), the foun­da­tion aims to promote poli­ti­cal educa­tion that consciously goes beyond the Abstim­mungs­sonn­tag (‘Voting Sunday’). It has also speci­fi­cally under­ta­ken not to mention elec­tion issues, or be active in refe­ren­dums. Its educa­tio­nal program­mes are open to anyone. As Nuss­bau­mer says: ‘That’s why it’s important to invest in poli­ti­cal educa­tion and a lively demo­cra­tic culture; to train people’s capa­city to reflect and deve­lop their own positions.’

To form your own opinion, you need others

This means that theo­re­ti­cal discus­sions are broken down into values at a prac­ti­cal indi­vi­dual level. People in a society need to be able to form their own opini­ons and to defend them. And this is precis­ely what the YES programme – Young Enter­pri­ses Switz­er­land – focu­ses on. The chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­tion enga­ges with prac­ti­cal busi­ness-rela­ted and opinion-forming schemes.

The ‘Jugend debat­tiert’ (‘Youth deba­tes’) programme culti­va­tes poli­ti­cal know­ledge and under­stan­ding. ‘An important part of this is getting to grips with diffe­rent opini­ons; lear­ning how to argue,’ says Johanna Aebi, CEO of YES. During the course, young people learn to debate, even on less fami­liar topics and views that they may not share. Seeing a topic from various points of view not only opens up their under­stan­ding of other people’s posi­ti­ons, but also shar­pens their own, or even enables them to form an opinion in the first place.

‘If you don’t have an oppor­tu­nity to discuss a topic, you can’t form an opinion on it,’ says Aebi, ‘and that’s what we want to encou­rage: an objec­tive debate, listening to each other, coming toge­ther cons­truc­tively.’ YES wants to help young people learn to listen to what their coun­ter­part has to say. The programme aims to give them the skills to think carefully about the content and to react to it in their response. These are exactly the skills that Aebi belie­ves are under threat today. She has noti­ced a tendency towards extre­mism and popu­lism, and a lack of discourse. She says: ‘It is really valuable if young people learn this. It contri­bu­tes enorm­ously to the deve­lo­p­ment of resi­li­ence.’ Deba­ting is only one of YES’s program­mes. They also run a scheme for primary school pupils in which they explain, for exam­ple, how a local autho­rity works, in order to raise aware­ness of the fact that our society doesn’t just happen by itself. Under­stan­ding this inter­con­nec­ted­ness streng­thens resi­li­ence. It explains to the child­ren what holds society toge­ther and enables it to func­tion. Part of this invol­ves various insti­tu­ti­ons passing on this know­ledge. Aebi does not see it as a fail­ure on the part of the state school system that YES has seen success with its program­mes. More the contrary, in fact. It is the lived inter­con­nec­ted­ness, the comple­men­tary thin­king, that crea­tes added value. YES works with many volun­teers, espe­ci­ally from the private sector, who provide child­ren and young people with new perspec­ti­ves. This is one of the grea­test strengths of the Swiss system. These strengths, eclip­sed by the current poli­ti­cal pola­ri­sa­tion, slip into the back­ground at times, but still work. Distances in Switz­er­land are short. People know each other. Making cont­acts is easy. ‘As a poli­ti­cian, I am often even invi­ted to visit compa­nies before refe­ren­dums,’ says Nuss­bau­mer. There are discus­sions, which he finds valuable. All stake­hol­ders have to culti­vate a poli­ti­cal culture, he says. That cannot be left enti­rely to poli­ti­ci­ans. ‘All stake­hol­ders, from reli­gion to poli­tics and busi­ness, must play their part, so that our commu­nity func­tions,’ he says. This enga­ge­ment may take many forms. Some compa­nies give their employees time off for poli­ti­cal work, others make a finan­cial contri­bu­tion. For instance, the Anny Klawa-Morf Foun­da­tion is able to provide its basic poli­ti­cal educa­tion thanks to untied dona­ti­ons from various compa­nies. They promote demo­cracy based on their shared respon­si­bi­lity for society in a funda­men­tal way.

Lands­ge­meinde meeting at the end of the 18th century. (Museum Appenzell)

You can make a difference

In order to do justice to this inter­con­nec­ted way of thin­king, YES is devo­ting a programme to entre­pre­neur­ship. Young people learn what it takes to run a company. They learn that profit is not guaran­teed, and what is reali­stic and possi­ble. They find out how team­work works, how to cope with setbacks and that they can be over­ru­led. And they have to learn that they cannot influence or predict ever­y­thing, but must instead react to chan­ges. In short, ‘They learn that what’s needed is solu­tion-orien­ted thin­king,’ says Aebi, ‘and what diffe­rence they can make.’ In today’s world, that is a parti­cu­larly important point for a sustainable society. Young people are growing up in a society that lurches from one crisis to the next. ‘For young people, it is incre­di­bly important to see that they can make a diffe­rence. In view of these huge chal­lenges, they need to feel empowered to find solu­ti­ons.’ This is the only way that they can actively contri­bute towards a resi­li­ent society.

 People’s own resilience

The Salva­tion Army has proven that it has resi­li­ence in spades. It has expe­ri­en­ced two world wars. Despite, indeed because of, these diffi­cult circum­s­tances and their effects on church congre­ga­ti­ons, on their members and on people living on the margins of society, the Salva­tion Army pres­sed on with its work. Bucher says: ‘This will to carry on, and their perse­ver­ance in stan­ding up for the values and convic­tions they hold, are surely the reason why the Salva­tion Army is so resi­li­ent today.’ By the way: fund­rai­sing with coll­ec­tion tins, now known as ‘red kett­les’ in North America, was thought up by Captain Joseph McFee, a former sailor and Salva­tion Army offi­cer, in 1891. He wanted to provide 1,000 impo­ve­ris­hed people in San Fran­cisco with a Christ­mas meal. So he hung a crab pot on a tripod, set it up in a busy thorough­fare, and Salva­tion Army members asked for dona­ti­ons. The idea caught on. Six years later, the proceeds from these coll­ec­tions paid for 150,000 Christ­mas meals across America.

Coll­ec­ting for the poorest with a crab pot: Joseph McFee inven­ted the pot coll­ec­tion with this idea in 1891.

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