I’m watching Debate Night, the new BBC Scotland channel’s answer to Question Time. It serves to underline a question I have been asking myself more and more frequently in recent months: how do we engage with people who hold diametrically opposite views to our own?
In today’s febrile political climate we hear much talk about the need to come together, to set aside differences, to heal divisions. But it tends to sound glib. It’s easy to adopt the rhetoric, much less so to put it into practice.
The truth is that most people find it extraordinarily hard to conduct a meaningful exchange with someone from the ‘other side’, whatever that side may stand for. All the good intentions, all the desire for empathy, all the active listening skills evaporate the moment emotional responses are triggered. Entrenched views come to the fore, a battle of the facts ensues and tempers become frayed.
I witnessed this at first hand last weekend, running a workshop for our local pro-Scottish independence group – although the subject could equally well have been Brexit or any of the other polarising issues of the day.
The point was that all present had experienced conversations with supporters of the opposite position that had degenerated into shouting matches, whether on doorsteps, at street stalls, or among friends and relatives. Yet all recognised how counter-productive this was, how important it was to be able to make some kind of connection in these encounters.
We began by asking people to identify why the issue of independence was so personally important to them, what values were tied up with it for them, what they felt was at stake. The list featured words such pride, dignity, justice, democracy, responsibility, self-esteem, normality, freedom, empowerment, potential – mostly values, it must be said, which could just as well be claimed by the ‘other side’.
We then asked people about what they had experienced when conversations with potential antagonists started to go wrong. Feelings of vulnerability, disempowerment, belittlement, defensiveness, being tongue-tied, poorly informed, caught off guard, intimidated, patronised, insulted were all cited – again, the legitimate property of both sides.
Finally we invited them to take part in a role play: one person took the part of a Union supporter, one an Independence supporter, and a third the observer of the exchange. The Union supporter initiated the conversation by stating their position. The Independence supporter listened and attempted to reflect back the feelings they were hearing expressed, for example: ‘So I can see that you’re really worried by the thought of such a big change.’
There were three groups of three in the room. Within a few minutes each group had abandoned the attempt to listen actively and reflect back empathetically, and had resorted to arguing the facts. It seemed that it was just too difficult for people to set aside their own positions and really hear the opposing one; on feeling threatened, however irrationally or sub-consciously, the act of empathy appeared to become almost impossible, the impulse to fight back took over.
I am by nature an optimist. I believe in the deep human desire for connection, the potential for kindness. But this seems a real conundrum, perhaps the great moral, even philosophical, challenge of our era. How do we suspend those views that we believe define us, that shape our identities, in order that we can begin to engage in real dialogue with those of opposite persuasions?
I don’t know the answer, but being an optimist I believe it must exist. Practice has to play its part. We must at least try and learn from trying. The alternative, on so many fronts, doesn’t bear thinking about.
We must have a conversation about this very topic sometime. I know if someone tells me they like Trump, then I cannot discuss anything with them. End of. Bit like if you tell me the sky is green. What is the point? Anyway…. I look forward to this discussion someday.
Reading “A Strange Freedom ” by Howard Thurman gave me great insights in this arena .
Another would be “The Freedom of Being” by Jan Frazier .
The underlying message in these books is that whatever one believes one’s ownTruth to be at any one time would be helped by putting it into the existential context of never taking oneself too seriously !
It’s an interesting read – these are my thoughts.
Very interesting and difficult to deal with. I often just listen as agree there is no gain in arguing. And sometimes Oh really, why do you think that. But I feel I should have my say too and what I find is the other side usually entrenched doesn’t bother to ask how I feel about the issue! There are winners and losers in these changes as we will find out with Brexit. Sidestep and look at climate, environment, dealing with poverty, roots of crime and hatred? Good luck in Scotland. Wish Better Together had been Remain’s slogan. People need real positives.
There seems to be a new idea of what democracy is. It seems now that if one group win an election or referendum, the losing group should just give up and never address the issue ever again. This is often vocalised as “the people have spoken” or “it is the will of the people” as though that is the final word on any topic. Heaven forbid that anyone should ever change their mind in light of new evidence! And though democracy is about majorities, it only works well when minorities are respected and protected otherwise it is little more than mob rule in which the vulnerable are bullied or oppressed.
Maybe it is because of my scientific training that I struggle with purely emotional arguments in which facts are disregarded because they don’t fit in with the emotive appeal of thatr person’s position. It seems that personal opinion is now given greater weight than scientific evidence (just trying talkng to anti-vaxxers!). However, when I have tried to empathise with Brexiteers it has been seen as a sign of weakness and the patronising and belittlement kicks in.
I think too that social media may have exacerbated the problem as people seem to think that it is perfectly okay to say hurtful or nasty things in an argument (which is what one encunters far more than discussion these days) that they wouldn’t dream of saying to a person’s face.