From the place where we are right, Flowers will never grow in the spring

A while back, I wrote a blog for OpenDemocracy called ‘Helping people to find common ground on Brexit’. I proposed an American model for getting people together called Living Room Conversations. I suggested some forms that a conversation might take, as between people divided over Brexit. I’d like to take the extra space I have here to expand on the latter topic.

I’ll start by naming the characteristic above all others that I would like to inform such conversations: doubt. The world, says Peggy Seeger, the folksinger, is ‘divided into people who think they are right’. The dissolution of that certainty is probably the greatest benefit that can be achieved by dialogue between people who differ.

I can illustrate the value of doubt by calling on two writers of infinitely greater ability than me, Yehuda Amichai, described as “the most widely translated Hebrew poet since King David”, and Graham Greene.

I start with Amichai’s ‘The Place Where We Are Right’

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Greene expressed the value of doubt in his novel, ‘Monsignor Quixote’:

It’s odd, he (Father Quixote) thought, as he steered Rocinante with undue caution round a curve, how sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference: the doubter fights only with himself.

A blog I published elsewhere covered one way to cast doubt on one of the certainties of polarisation. In that case it was the notion that one’s opponents can be described in terms of stereotypes, usually just one and never more than a handful.

Related to the notion of stereotypes is the idea that one’s opponents are all of one mind, all extremists. This is not usually true. Some researchers surveyed animal rights advocates at a march in Washington, DC, USA. You might think that the fact that they made the effort to march would need mean that they were extremists. Actually, while over half disapproved of research that harmed animals, a quarter approved. It was also the case that a quarter of them felt that science does more good than harm, despite concerns over animal experiments.

Done carefully, you can show that each party that the other is not made up of a bunch of extremists. As with destereotyping, I draw once more on the work of Essential Partners in the USA. They organise dialogues between those who are for and against abortion. When they bring the two sides together, after a long period of preparation, they ask the people on each side to say where they stand, from mildly for or against to rabidly so. Each side is always surprised to see that the people on the other side are not all extremists, and that they are spread along the spectrum.

Next time, how can we help people step into the shoes of others?

Perry Walker