What does it mean to be accepting? How can we live up to the idea of respecting others when some people express values that are so different from our own?

When I moved to Malaysia in 2015, one impressive quality about this country I noticed was that people of different faiths and cultures could live together in harmony, even collectively celebrating different festivals and holidays.

It was a refreshing change from living in Britain, where we excel at presenting an image of refined civility and yet pockets of the country can, sadly, be extremely intolerant towards other cultures and faiths.

From political leaders and other authorities, we hear a lot about the importance of respect, understanding, and acceptance. Ideals of human rights, civil liberties and freedoms of expression are embraced by those who wish to live in a society that moves with the times. On the other hand, modern times are often at odds with traditional values and customs.

How do we reconcile those differences?

To some people, the solution is easy: We should do whatever is right, regardless of what it takes. Wiser heads, on the other hand, know that change is nuanced and takes time.

During America’s civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, those who fought for equality knew that their struggle was a marathon and not a sprint. Effective change would be brought about by activism that was measured, and delivered a clear message of substance based on humanity rather than division.

Here in Malaysia, there are many heated topics that continue to spark lively debates between those who wish to maintain traditional values and those who seek progressive change. In any kind of struggle throughout history, these two tensions have played their parts. US President Abraham Lincoln found himself in their midst when he fought to end slavery.

Lincoln was a master of deploying the key ingredient to manifest change: the ability to see the argument from the other’s perspective. As he once observed, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Lincoln knew the importance of hearing out the other side. While he often disagreed with his opponents’ views, he was successful in ending slavery largely because he always made his opponents feel like their voices had been heard and their views respected.

The 16th president of the United States was also keenly aware that, more than from any outside enemy, a country’s strength was most easily felled when the unity of its people was fragile, warning: “If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

In Malaysia, debates continue over a range of divisive topics such as capital punishment, abortion, and LGBT rights. Understandably, commentators on both sides argue their cases strongly, wishing to see their version of a civilised society upheld. In any healthy democracy, these are the kinds of debates that, hopefully, carry a nation forward in a healthy direction.

Having said that, a debate is only as strong as the participants’ desire to listen and their openness to having their minds changed. When we argue only to assert a position, to inform rather than learn, and to score points rather than receive insights from new perspectives, we all lose out.

It’s easy to forget that we’re all largely products of our upbringing, culture and environment. When we embrace an open mind and curiosity about another person’s views and values, it’s in that space that we find an opportunity to understand and grow. For as long as we stick stubbornly to our own perspective, we remain the frog in the well who is convinced the entire universe exists within his small space.

If we truly see ourselves as champions of free expression, free speech, and human rights, then to be accepting means starting from a place where we recognise that not everyone agrees with what we think or how we see the world. The further we dig our heels into the sand, the more we’re likely to be buried by our ignorance.

As black rights activist Martin Luther King Jr eloquently put it, “We may all have come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

When we drown ourselves in the noise of our own opinions without creating the silence to hear the voice of another, we do ourselves a disservice by failing to notice how everyone contributes to the value of a society, and strength of a nation.

As St Francis of Assisi implored in one of his noted prayers, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned”.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail star2@thestar.com.my.