Omid Miri discusses the culture of antipathy within politics today.
When the historian Eric Hobsbawm named the “short 20th century” an age of extremes, it was clear to see why – and while the great catastrophes of the last century have now passed, we find ourselves in a young 21st century fraught with division, tribalism, recrimination and hostility. The destruction and despair wrought on a near-cosmic scale by Hobsbawm’s extremes is thankfully over, the extremes themselves largely consigned to the fringes, but in its place a new affliction has emerged.
A political and cultural tempest which, while worlds away from the conflicts of the past, threatens to paralyse our politics and drag our public discourse down into an acrimonious and unwinnable war with no end. Not an age of extremes, but an age of antipathy.
It goes without saying that politics requires argument; a battle of ideas in which our principles are worth fighting for and certain red lines mustn’t be crossed. Tense political disagreement in and of itself is neither anomalous nor undesirable, and the antidote to our hostile political environment is not a politics of placid agreement. Politics requires debate and intellectual conflict, or else risks becoming detached and irrelevant, devoid of the spirit required to address the problems of the real world.
But in the age of antipathy, we find ourselves approaching the exact same risk.
In the age of antipathy, your political opponent is reprehensible and irredeemable, unworthy of your consideration or respect. In the age of antipathy, the motives of those you disagree with are sinister and malevolent, intended to cause maximum harm and suffering. In the age of antipathy, your objective is not to win your opponent over, but to smash them out of existence altogether.
In such an age, the profound value of human perspective is thrown out the window and replaced by a mentality of total war – either victory or defeat.
The problem is that we are not dealing with physical objects that can be destroyed, but with our fellow human beings who have thoughts, experiences, histories, individual psychologies, and perspectives that colour the way they see the world. Ignoring the complexity of how we arrive at a thought or belief and the myriad conscious and unconscious factors at play is irresponsible, and it is in recognising that fact that we have an opportunity to restore the true nature and effectiveness of politics.
Therein lies the antidote to the age of antipathy: empathy.
To clarify, the argument is not that we should nod along and play nice with those with whom we vehemently disagree, simply because we recognise our shared humanity, or that the struggle for social justice should be forsaken in the name of avoiding conflict. But if politics is the art of persuasion, concerning human beings and their actions, then overlooking the human element is unwise.
We need only look to our own experiences to recognise that people are far more likely to see our point of view if we treat theirs with respect – indeed it’s exactly what we expect from others. And it is only through trying to understand why someone feels the way they do that we have any hope of changing their mind; only through starting from a place of open-minded understanding, while staying true to our principles, that we have the opportunity to bring them over to our way of thinking.
It may be an extreme example, but the work of Daryl Davis reveals this profound truth an - African-American man who, over the last 30 years, has convinced hundreds of KKK members to give up their racist and dangerous beliefs by befriending them. The point is that despite what he thought of their ideas and what he knew they thought of him, he did not waver in his commitment to the notion that no human being is unreachable or unworthy of understanding.
Imbuing our political interactions with this commitment is no easy feat, particularly when we have deeply held convictions, but it is only through the painstaking work of trying to understand and change individual minds that we can ever hope to end the current climate, transforming our age of antipathy into an age of empathy.
Omid is an active member of Hammersmith CLP and currently works for a Labour MP.
He tweets at @omidmiri93.