Yesterday, I was descending the nine-story spiral staircase from the top of the Japanese Pagoda in Kew Gardens in London. A perfectly intelligent middle-aged woman was coming up the other way and insisted on coming round to my side of the staircase, virtually accosting me on the way up. When I pointed out that the signs clearly state that when you meet someone coming the other way you should pass on the left, she sneered at me and said, “Oh yes, let’s all do the right thing.” I instantly felt annoyed at this woman’s apparent arrogance.
Later, on the way home, I saw a man walk straight out onto the road, without looking, into the path of an oncoming car. The driver stopped and beeped his horn. The man flipped him the bird and shouted “fuck you.” I tutted at them both in a very condescending British way.
What do these two seemingly small and inconsequential incidents tell us about modern life? Well, quite a lot, actually. But in particular, they show how we instinctively make judgements about each other based on very little evidence.
A much bigger case in point is Brexit. The past three years have not been an easy time for me, and many others, living in the UK. For 20 years or more, I had been wrapped up in my little bubble of London-centric liberal elitism. I thought that the whole country shared my world view. Specifically, I had assumed that everyone thought that immigration was a great idea, making our proud nation a more interesting, cosmopolitan and vibrant place to be. I was wrong.
The EU referendum of 2016 was a huge wake-up call. It shattered my illusions about the way that we British people think. It turns out, quite a lot of people think uncontrolled immigration is not a good thing.
As a consequence, the majority of those people who voted decided that we should leave the EU. My initial reaction to the referendum result was one of despair. I went straight to the conclusion that these people are stupid and selfish, their views don’t matter. I sat with this idea for a very long time, sulking about these people who were seemingly destroying a country I love.
It’s not just about having a close-minded point of view. It seems that millions of people like me are sticking to the idea that what they believe is right, and there has been a similar number of people on the other side of the argument, thinking they have the right solutions, too.
Neither side has wanted to listen to the views and needs of the other, and this has led to sterile and entrenched discourse with no room for reasoned and constructive debate. No one wants to give any concession to “the other side.” But, unless this standoff is broken, the UK will continue to be a divided nation torn apart by the issue of whether we remain inside or outside the EU.
It should come as no surprise that this polarization and entrenchment is not specific to the UK. It is happening the world over, in local and national politics, in person, and especially on social media.
You only need to look at the millions of comments on Facebook and online articles about emotive topics to see entrenched views and a lack of empathy leading to ever more vitriolic and abusive dialogue.
The rise of social media is a wonderful development for facilitating self-expression and freedom of speech on a global scale. But it is also de-humanizing discourse in a way that could prove to be deeply damaging to how we communicate as humans. People insult and react to each other online in a way that they never would have dreamed of doing in person 20 years ago. As this form of online discourse becomes the norm, its de-sensitizing effect could also impact how we show up in person.
Fortunately, this trend is not an inevitability. There is an alternative, one which I have only recently discovered, that could see us coming together and solving the huge global challenges we face over the decades to come. What I am realizing is that it all starts with a small shift in mindset. It is a subtle shift, but the consequences could be enormous.
When I encounter someone or something I don’t approve of, or see a Facebook post or an article expressing a view that I vehemently disagree with, my natural reaction is to dismiss that person or view. Typically, I will also feel a whole host of emotions: anger, ridicule, pity, amongst others.
Whatever feelings show up for me, the common thread is that I will not be thinking about the person behind the screen as a human being. He or she is just a mouthpiece to me, shouting something that I don’t agree with. Indeed, I won’t even give a second thought to the fact that the person behind that mouth is real and has feelings, fears, and needs, just as I do.
However, what if, before this natural reaction kicks in, we could think of the person expressing this viewpoint as a real human being? What if we could put ourselves into that other person’s shoes? What if we could begin to appreciate the feelings and needs that this person is expressing beneath the specific issue being raised? How would this change the way we view the opinion being expressed, and the person expressing it?
I’m willing to bet that if we truly tapped into the needs of that person, our reaction to the opinion being expressed would soften, and our natural reaction to disagree would be reduced. Then, we could respond in a way that acknowledges the other persons’ needs, whilst also stating our own. Maybe then, a constructive dialogue could begin which allows both our needs to be respected and potentially met.
For example, I am beginning to understand that people who voted for Brexit because of their beliefs about immigration did so from a genuine place of fear. They fear people that they don’t understand or cannot relate to. They are scared that this relatively populous country will become crowded and that we will use up the limited resources we have available. I don’t share these fears, and yet I am learning to respect that others have them.
And so here is our challenge. When we encounter someone whose views we don’t agree with, either online or in person, let’s stop and pause. Look into the other person, try to understand the needs being expressed beneath the specific viewpoint, and then state to them that we acknowledge their needs. By taking the initiative, I am willing to bet that the others will feel permission to understand and acknowledge our fears and needs, too. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with them; it will only allow us to connect and see each other as fellow humans.
Remember that a force for change in this world can start with the actions of just one person. It may feel like acknowledging the views of another person is a pretty insignificant act in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, in isolation, it is. And, if each person who feels acknowledged is prepared to express the same feeling of acknowledgement in his or her interactions with others, the snowball will grow into an avalanche of understanding in this world.
Written by Richard Jones – London UK