Our emotions are never far from the surface when we're talking politics (and we're always talking politics). But what does this mean for democracy and how we build agreement? Joy Warmington, CEO of brap, talks about some of the issues...
My son was really upset at the Brexit result. Like many young people, he was born into the European Union and very much thought of himself as a European. Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehearse the pros and cons of the Brexit debate (not that I could anyway) but, rather, I’d like to talk about how we feel when we are not heard, misunderstood, and not included.
This brings me onto the subject of democracy, which believe it or not is what I really want to write about. ‘We’ would like to believe that we are the pillars of democracy – that if you looked in a dictionary for a definition of democracy, that Britain will be there staring back at you as the ultimate example.
However, recent events have forced us to question whether democracy is more than the majority versus the minority – or the belief that casting your vote is equal to having a voice. This type of democracy is leaving a legacy of disengagement, of people who don’t believe that anything they say will be heard, and ultimately a belief that ‘winning ‘ at whatever cost is what democracy is really about. I don't know about you, but there are some other words I think of when I think about what democracy means - inclusion, trust, stewardship, and the distribution of power. These words rarely form part of political discourse, but they are the foundations of democratic engagement.
Like my son there are people who feel hurt and let down and those who feel victorious. These feelings create judgement, defensiveness, disengagement, and even hate. Now, this bit might sound a bit ‘soft’, but if there is one thing we should know it’s that our emotions are never far from the surface when we're discussing politics. We only need to look at politicians performing in Parliament to see that. Yet we remain uncomfortable about feelings, rarely acknowledging their existence or recognising that they are often the key to real understanding. We would like to think that we operate purely on the ‘facts’ – but the facts are often used to disguise and uphold strongly held beliefs. Our beliefs are so embedded that presenting new ‘facts’ doesn’t really change our mind and can seek to further entrench our positions.
So how do we come closer to understanding conflicting viewpoints, when the means of our debate with each other and the terms of our engagement are so limited? There are opportunities to - dare I say it - raise our game; but only if we believe in the importance of all of us, rather than those who have voted as we have. If we really believe that casting a vote means that we understand everything about people's motivations and feelings, then not only is our analysis flawed, but we have acted under the influence of a false logic which makes enemies of people before we really understand anything about them.
So, as much I as understand how upset my son is, operating on one side of a divide will not make him feel better. Deepening our democratic engagement means that we need to listen beyond words and hear things that we don’t agree with. It means that we need to acknowledge that others have views too, and that they are entitled to these views, in the same way we are entitled to ours.
If you're interested in understanding more about how we can have deeper conversations, why not come along to our open discussion event on 21 October. We'll be debating how to find new ways of living together in our diverse city and nation. More details here.