A few weeks’ ago I found myself walking next to a middle-aged man who wanted to tell me something important about his experience. He told me that in all the discussions about Brexit, all the programmes and phone-ins that he’d listened to, one thing had never been acknowledged. He had never heard someone talk about losing a sense that they belong in their home town… losing a sense that they were safe in the street.
I tried to say what I’d heard, ‘You want acknowledgement that some people don’t belong any more, and don’t feel safe in the street, is that it?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and they are afraid of saying this, for fear… of being seen… as…’
‘Racist?’ I asked.
‘Yes, that’s it,’ he answered, letting out a sigh. Then he thanked me.
I felt puzzled, as if I hadn’t really understood the significance of this exchange. Then I started to wonder if he was actually telling me about his own experience. We walked in silence for a while. Then I recalled that he was in the process of moving away from the town where he had lived for many years. I knew from my own experience that this town had become increasingly multi-racial.
I decided to check my understanding, ‘Are you feeling uncomfortable because you don’t belong in your hometown anymore?’
‘Yes,’ he said, matter of factly.
‘And are you afraid for your safety in the street?’
He said, ‘Yes, there are gangs of young men around.’
‘And are you angry because you’re telling yourself you can’t talk about your experience for fear of being seen as racist?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘if someone tries to talk about it during a phone-in, they get shot down.’
Why has this stuck in my memory? My guess is that this gentleman, who was so keen to tell me his truth, is one of the people who is likely to vote Conservative or even UKIP at the General Election. I fear what will happen if the Conservatives are re-elected, in relation to the European Union and protection for the environment. I fear that the Conservatives will put economic and nationalistic interests above the general welfare of the nation. In strong contrast, I believe in the old saying that if you have extra food, build a longer table rather than a higher wall.
During the recent US presidential election, I read some research that suggested that the more you disagree with people, the more entrenched they become. This is known by psychologists as the Backfire Effect, because your efforts at rational argument backfire on you. It’s very difficult to discuss complex issues with people who are fearful and angry. If disagreeing doesn’t change people’s minds, what does? I’ve tried acknowledging what’s alive in them. When I do this, people become more open to listening to my point of view. People who get heard are more likely to listen.
Acknowledging what’s important to a person doesn’t mean agreeing with their world view. It also doesn’t mean agreeing with their ideas of how they are going to change the world. I can understand that this man wants a sense of safety and belonging where he lives. Like many people over the age of fifty, he’s afraid of losing his way of life. That doesn’t mean that I agree with his choices about how to meet these needs.
On my side, my dream is of political life that focuses on the needs of all beings, recognising the truth of interconnectedness. I imagine a political system based on consent rather than majority voting. Majority voting actually undermines cooperation and community. The ‘minority’ are afraid of being overruled and so continually fight to get their voices heard. Consent promotes cooperation and mutual responsibility. It leads from consumption to contribution, from transaction to trust, from isolation to community.
It’s difficult to imagine how we could transition to this. At the moment our political system is antagonistic. Politicians sit opposite each other and slog it out until there is a winner. In general, political power is alienated from the voters. And party politics means that the careers of politicians and the fortunes of parties play a much greater part in the process than the welfare of the whole.
Can we take one step towards my dream? What are the needs of the people you disagree with? How can you create space to acknowledge people like the one I found myself walking with? Then ask, ‘Can we think of ways to value the needs on both sides?’