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Seeking to Understand

When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in 2016 I sort of ‘got it’. Yes, I was surprised like everybody else but I could understand his appeal. He was different and spoke directly to those who, with some justification, felt neglected by the political establishment over many decades.  However, after four years of incompetent and polarising leadership it was incomprehensible to me that he attracted 70m votes at the Nov ’20 election and continues to have a large and loyal supporter base. I would consider myself to be open minded and capable of seeing different perspectives but was flummoxed that so many could not see what was clear to me !

This caused me to reflect on why we have such difficulty understanding perspectives other than our own.

Some thoughts :

How we see the world and interpret world events is hard wired into us from an early age.  We naturally adopt the values and behaviours of our tribe of origin – religion, national allegiance, ethnic group, social class etc, which tend to define our identity for life. If you are born into a family of creationists, the chances are that you will believe in a literal interpretation of the bible. Also, the more closed the communities in which we live, the more fixed our perspectives are likely to be and the more ‘group think’ will prevail. The extent to which we travel, the nature and quality of our education, and our sources of news will also influence what we see as ‘truth’ and the level of our attachment to particular points of view.

Humans are inherently lazy thinkers – our responses to issues and events are driven primarily by our emotions rather than objective analysis of the facts, which would take a lot of more effort ! This leaves us open to being corrupted by those who feed us self- serving lies (for example ‘the election was stolen’, ‘Covid 19  is fake news’), especially when there is multiple repetition of these untruths and the messaging is consistent with our existing beliefs. We are therefore susceptible to falling for simplistic dogma, which fails to recognise that real world problems are complex requiring well thought out solutions, informed by verifiable facts and scientific analysis.  

Another complicating factor in the quest for understanding is the role of ‘stories’, which are our preferred way of communicating with each other. A litany of facts cannot compete with a good story in terms of emotional impact and memorability. Great things have been achieved though belief in stories, such as the life stories of the founders of world religions. The trouble with stories is that the story teller always has an agenda and will tend to modify the ‘facts’ or only choose facts which are aligned with this agenda – for  better or worse.  Problems arise when we believe too literally in a particular story. Blind belief in a specific version of events is often encouraged by autocratic leaders (these days using targeted social media campaigns) for personal gain or aggrandisement – causing us to reject completely competing stories and see the believers of competing stories as the ‘enemy’. This has a polarising effect setting up conflicts such as Christians v Muslims, Capitalism v Socialism, Democrats v Republicans.  

So recognising that the challenges to opening your mind to other perspectives are significant how might you go about the task? 

1. Acknowledge your biases. Be humble and recognise that we really don’t have as much ‘freewill’ as we think. What you believe and how you act is likely to be the product of the influences above. This will help open your mind to new perspectives. 

2. Practise being respectful of the opinions of others. Avoid labelling and demonising those who have radically different views to your’s.

3. Listen, and be eternally curious. Develop your listening skills, always ‘seeking first to understand’. Nobel Peace Prize winners, such as John Hume excel at listening and know instinctively that consensus building is not possible without first having a deep understanding of all perspectives.

4. Understand motives.  Seek to understand and question underlying drivers of individual (including your own!) and collective behaviours.

5. Seek common ground with others. Arguably a common moral code applies across all cultures and religions (and none). We are in essence social animals, who care about family, friends and our fellow human beings. But maybe the best way to develop bonds with others is through co-operation in the resolution of shared problems.

6. Read widely. Pay for quality news content and actively seek out different points of view on important issues.

7. Widen your social networks. This is easier said than done. ‘Birds of a feather DO stick together’ so you will have to be intentional about adding diversity to your network of friends and contacts in terms of  ethnicity, religion, social background, political views etc. Be prepared to share your vulnerabilities as you do this to build trust.

Experience social and cultural backgrounds which are different to your’s and outside your comfort zone. Lived experience is a very powerful way of broadening the mind.

8. Follow the science. Favour science over ‘stories’. A strong evidential base should support your opinions. This has become very topical during the pandemic, where time and again scientists have trumped (no pun intended !) politicians.  Education systems should instil a respect for scientific process and a love of lifelong learning. We should train the next generation to be critical and creative thinkers so that seeking to understand becomes habitual.

A further thought is that we should be advocates for integrated education. There is a strong case for discouraging segregated education in all forms as a matter of public policy. Idealistic perhaps, but what a difference it would make to ‘understanding’ if all schools were socially mixed, multi-cultural, multi-denominational, and welcoming for those with disabilities.

Conclusion. It is obvious that we need to do much better at deepening mutual understanding or we will fail to address pressing problems – such as inequality, racial discrimination, immigration, societal impact of technology not to mention  existential threats such as climate change, nuclear war and global pandemics. We are constantly reminded these days by environmentalists and epidemiologists that we are a global community and will sink or swim together.

Developing our social consciousness, favouring the common good over personal freedom (and long term over short term goals) has never been more urgent.

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