Updated: Aug 26, 2020
I’ve been wanting to write this article for a while. What stopped me was my own doubt about who I was to lecture people about this topic. Was I not, for a long time, the first to judge anyone who was on the other side of the political spectrum? Did people not know me for my many monologues and strong opinions about politics, feminism, and the EU?
So what is it now that urged me to share some of my gained ‘wisdom’ with you? Well, in all honesty, I think I might have found a nugget of insight that could help us with our ‘The-world-has-gone-map-conundrum'. I'm referring to our collective confusion and anger about the fact that Fukuyama’s end of history* didn’t happen AT ALL and the world has not become one big happy democratic family. Do I mention Fukuyama to impress you with my intellect?
Instead, we now have several leaders that, by many standards, are dissolving the pillars of our democratic institutions: free media, critical and free education, an independent judicial system. How did we get here?
We can debate the fairness of these elections but even if we do, we cannot deny that a large percentage of people have voted for these ‘undemocratic’ leaders out of free will**. 'Why are people so stupid?’ I hear you think. That brings me to the first message of this article: I believe we need to learn to listen to people without judging who they ARE and instead see them as equals who HAVE different ideas. Don’t take this as moral superiority from my side; I judge all the time, but I’m learning. The more I learn to listen without judgement, the more people tend to open up to me and the more I see that people are actually quite wonderful to talk to. Especially the ones I disagree with.
Last year, I committed myself to speaking to more people who thought differently. I started interviewing people who voted for - by my definition - populist leaders and asked them about polarization. Instead of asking critical questions, I asked them to share their beliefs with me while I stayed silent as much as I could (which was difficult).
I found out a couple of things:
They’re not stupid. People who voted for Trump or any ‘populist’ leader are not collectively stupid, racist, and sexist. They are many things... just like you are. Some are frustrated, some are misinformed, some are well-informed and still made this decision. Some are parents, some are invested in making the world better, and some like Brussels sprouts (they were the hardest to relate to).
They’re often hurt. Hurt by the harsh words of people who judged them solely on their political affiliation and were sometimes even bullied by coworkers, acquaintances, or family because of it.
They know things I didn’t know. Since they tended to worry and get angry about different things, they had researched different topics and therefore knew a lot of things I didn’t know.
We're in a real pickle. Like many of you, I watch the news and I worry. I worry we're electing leaders that won’t bring us forward, I worry we'll break down many of the institutions we’ve spent so many years building, but most of all I worry we won’t find our way back to each other. I love the term ‘cancel culture’ coined by Obama because it finally gives us a term to describe a behavior that we're all growing more and more familiar with. Instead of simply disagreeing with someone’s (political) opinions, we show disrespect, contempt, or even disgust. I know it’s hard to talk about issues we're emotionally involved in. I also know these are big and sometimes scary conversations to have, but we need to give it a try if we want to deal with the major challenges we’re facing in the world.
So how do we do that? In addition to letting go of judgement, there’s one really important skill I believe we need to cultivate, which is: being able to hold several seemingly contrasting stories in our heads at the same time. What I mean by this is that the world is complex and therefore not black and white. Case in point: yes, global warming is awful, and we should work hard to stop it. At the same time, if we force measures on the whole world immediately, developing countries might suffer from increased poverty due to the implementation of expensive techniques. Yes, gender inequality has led to a lot of suffering for women, and at the same time, I see many men struggle with a new stigma of being too masculine and confused about their role in society.
If you read the two examples above, and they make you angry: great! This is exactly the anger we need to be aware of in ourselves, so we can empathize with similar feelings on the ‘other side’. The world is messy, confusing, and we never know the complete story. None of our stories are entirely true, correct, and complete, so let’s make them better by bringing in the necessary complexity and beauty they deserve. If we discount the other side of the story we will never be able to fix these problems successfully without inadvertently creating negative side effects, simply because we are unaware of them. People who disagree with you will almost definitely have some information that is useful for you to strengthen your cause and help you build stronger foundations.
As a thought exercise, I’d suggest we all come up with three things we feel passionate about and think of at least one conflicting story that is also true. If you can’t think of any conflicting stories, ask around. You might learn something from your grumpy neighbor, nationalist uncle or conservative teacher ☺. It might feel frustrating or even unsafe but I’m convinced that this is the explorative space we need to get to, to be able to find our way back to each other.
Good luck pioneering!
Author: Lotte Cloostermans
* For those of you that don’t know it (or haven’t Googled it like I did), at the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama prophesized that we were at the end of mankind’s ideological evolution and that the Western free-market liberal democracy was the big winner. This would be the final form of human government.
** Not referring to Belarus