Long division

A woman got onto the train the other day and sat down opposite me. She was fifty-ish, tanned and smartly dressed. She had come from the airport and was breathless. We chatted and I learned that she had been to Spain for a family gathering, organised by her brother who lived out there. It had been a lavish affair, she told me.

At one point, as the train pulled along the Fife coast, she proudly pointed out her daughter’s house, with picture windows and wooden decking and a fine view across the Forth. Her own house, a few miles further on, was even closer to the water and had even better views, she said.

I couldn’t quite place her accent. She was Glaswegian, she explained, but her English mother had forbidden her to speak Scots as a child. ‘So I spoke like this at school’ she went on, falling into broad Sauchiehall Street, ‘and like this at home’ reverting to the more neutral accent that had confused me. I expect that for her part she assumed I was English, since that’s how I sound.

It happened that the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, was sitting two tables along from us with an aide. She must have just come from the Scottish Parliament where that very afternoon she had spoken against the so-called ‘rape clause’ in the changes to the legislation relating to child tax credits. I had already watched a clip of her speech, which she had given with great passion. Although I am not a Labour supporter, I had taken the opportunity to congratulate her as she passed.

We reached Kirkcaldy and as my new companion rose to get out, I drew her attention to who was sitting behind her. She snorted and muttered ‘not impressed’, then added, ‘now if it was Ruth [Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader] …’ and gave me a complicit smile. I thought no more about it till later when it struck me that what I had been doing was seeking a reaction, and on the basis of our conversation had got the very one I expected, my prejudices confirmed. I had looked for division and found it and had no one but myself to blame.

We hear ad nauseam today about how divided we have become, be it Trump or Clinton, Leave or Remain, Macron or Le Pen, Tory or Labour, Scotland or the Union, and so on. And I wonder, can it be otherwise when there seems in each case to be so much at stake? People divide (and collide) over the things that really matter to them and that has always been necessary for progress. I’m no physicist but I know that at the atomic level when miniscule things whizz about bumping into one another, energy is released and change occurs.

But if division is an inevitable part of the process of change, how do we live with it? I know I’m bad at it. I grew up in a house where reasoned debate was pretty much unknown and disagreement tended to take the form of needling, with occasional explosions into vicious argument. I become far too personally invested in things. Yet it seems that some attempt to understand one another has never been so pressing.

I believe, for example, that Scotland should be free to run its own affairs like every other nation on earth, and that in doing so it would stand the best chance of becoming the small, peaceful, prosperous, socially just European country I believe it could be. Yet I know that others feel just as strongly that this would be to tear up something of great value and to leave safe haven for a voyage into the unknown in a fragile craft at a time when the seas have seldom been more turbulent.

So how do we talk to one another? How do we survive emotionally in an age where almost everything we read or watch seems designed to amplify our differences? Somehow we have to get out of our fortresses and listen to each other. We have to walk onto the battlefield like monks in all humility and try to understand one another.

Empathy’s the only possible starting point. We must be having conversations about our feelings, at least to begin with, rather than the reasoned arguments with which we batter one another. At least that’s how it seems. Or am I talking nonsense? Please tell me. It seems so hard right now.

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