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.