Immigration, Polarized Politics, and a Bear Called Paddington

By Suzanne Ross 2-03-2016
Via paddington.com

“Looking for the best in people, you can sometimes find it.” Paul King, writer and director of Paddington.

When debates get polarized it can be hard to find our way back to more reasonable territory. We see it happening right now on the issue of U.S. immigration policy or the refugee crisis in Europe. It’s hard to make progress because we have gotten stuck at the extremes. We have demonized one another – an easy thing to do with people whose positions appall and offend us. Compromise? Why would I compromise with someone who is so obviously wrong!

Mrs. Brown reads his label: “Please Look After This Bear. Thank You.” She is not the sort who could ignore such a plea.*

Though many of us are well aware of this dynamic, in our hearts we make excuses for ourselves. We think, “Yes, I suppose I have demonized the odd opponent here or there, but this time is different. This time I am right and my opponent is willfully obstructing the good!” And when our cause involves someone who is vulnerable or in harm’s way, someone like an abandoned child or a refugee from war, our belief in our own goodness and the heartlessness of the opposition is so obvious as to not need comment.

Paddington: London is not how we imagined it… It’s hard to see how a bear could ever belong in such a strange, cold city.

But the damaging effects of polarization receive the commentary they deserve in the wonderful movie about the refugee bear from darkest Peru, Paddington. What polarization deserves, of course, is the understanding and compassion it rarely accords its victims. To move beyond polarized politics, we must find a way to forgive ourselves and our opponents. Unless we can do that, the victims we so desperately want to help will languish on the sidelines while we duke it out with our political adversaries.

Mrs. Bird: This family needed that wee bear every bit as much as he needed you.

What Paul King, the writer and director of Paddington, accomplished was to find a way to soften hearts with a moving story of what is lost when we hunker down in opposing corners. Or what happens to our families when we allow fear of strange foreigners to infect our lives. Because shutting ourselves off from the stranger in our midst has the odd effect of diminishing all of our relationships. Paul King movingly demonstrates the way the Brown family finds healing and renewal through welcoming Paddington into their home. A risky undertaking, to be sure, for Paddington is comically accident prone and innocently unfamiliar with indoor plumbing. Paul offered this tongue-in-cheek tagline for the movie: “Bad for the Brown’s plumbing, good for their hearts!” Or as Paul explained to me when I interviewed him about the movie, “Letting a little bit of danger into your life, and a little bit of the unknown, can be enriching.”

Mr. Brown: It doesn’t matter that he comes from the other side of the world, or that he’s a different species, or that he has a worrying marmalade habit. We love Paddington. And that makes him family.

Sometimes it’s easier to imagine our way into a relationship with a foreigner than it is with our political opponents. The reason, I believe, is that immigrants and refugees come to our shores expecting the best from us. Even though Mr. Brown’s first response to Paddington was to cry “Stranger Danger!” and herd his children away from him, Paddington never hardened his heart towards Mr. Brown. Perhaps he couldn’t afford to. After all, this was the only family that had offered to help him find a home in London and so he was completely dependent on them. In the same way that refugees and immigrants are dependent on the nations in which they have placed their hope for a safe and secure future for their families. What Paul discovered at the end of the process of making this movie was that “The expectation of kindness in others can sometimes breed that kindness itself. And so it’s like London has become its best self because Paddington has come there with his heart open.”

Paddington: Mrs. Brown says that in London, everyone is different – but that means anyone can fit in.

When Paddington is forced to leave darkest Peru, he chooses London as his destination because an explorer from London had traveled to Peru long ago. He planted a love of London in Paddington’s heart and when Aunt Lucy tearfully sends the little bear off on his journey she says, “You know, there was once a war in the explorer’s country. Thousands of children were sent away for safety, left at railway stations with labels around their necks and unknown families took them in and loved them like their own. They will not have forgotten how to treat a stranger.”

Spending some time with a bear called Paddington may remind us of what have forgotten about how to treat strangers and political adversaries. It’s my belief that Paul King’s movie is just the thing our polarized climate needs.

Paul King is the winner of the 2015 Raven Award for Excellence in Arts and Entertainment, given annually by the Raven Foundation to an artist for their creative exploration of some aspect of mimetic theory . You can watch Raven founder Suzanne Ross’s interview with Paul King here.

*This and other quotes are from the script for Paddington.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

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