The apex of my current preoccupation with understanding happened around Christmas when I struggled to understand. There were tweets in my timeline sending best wishes for the season, or that kind of thing, to everyone except people who’d voted to leave the EU, or everyone except Trump supporters. Those people should fuck off.
The people I follow on Twitter generally value empathy and place a high priority on kindness , so it jars when I observe something that feels incongruous with that. Of course we can’t be kind and empathetic ALL the time. There are things happening and behaviour which, rightly, make us angry. And yet there are clearly groups who, at least in the world of social media, are excluded from this consideration and people seem to think this is OK. Can we excuse that on the basis that fools and bigots deserve no better than they give?
Kindness often starts with understanding and seeking to understand doesn’t mean you support or sympathize. Occasionally we should listen without trying to change someone’s mind or telling them how they’re wrong. If we seek to understand the values which lie behind someone’s beliefs we may find something, however slight, in common. Even if there’s no common ground there is always value in being exposed to a different perspective.
Seeking to understand can seem like treachery. My light reading over the Christmas break was a book about the rise of National Populism. I was looking for something which might help me to question my own opinions and assumptions. To look beyond the echo chamber caused by a combination of algorithms and the way our brains are wired to pay attention to facts which support our existing opinions. It wasn’t until I’d nearly finished that I read this review and wondered whether, if I’d seen it before, I’d have bought the book. Bizarrely I felt slightly ashamed that I’d actually found it worth reading and not thrown it down in disgust.
Listening to and seeking to understand people you disagree with takes courage. This programme in which a vegan activist visits a dairy farmer gives an idea of how difficult it can be. Maybe one of the challenges – as well as confronting ideas which contradict our own – is that, if there’s an active role for us to play, it means that we are somehow accountable. Peter Block writes in his book “Community” that the “mind-set that the other is the problem means we have to wait for them to change before the change we want in the world can come to pass.” It’s much more comfortable for us to tut, complain and deride rather than see ourselves as part of the problem and, at the same time, the solution.
Shouting louder, insults and derision aren’t working. Doing more of the same isn’t working. Isn’t it worth trying something else?