Alternative Editorial: Learning to trust ourselves

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

How many of us woke up this morning to the news that ‘We’ – ‘Britain’, ‘America’, ‘France’ – had bombed Syria while we were sleeping? The news continues - that this action, taken in ‘Our’ name, could trigger extreme responses from ‘Russia’. And that ‘We’ were now, de facto, in a new ‘Cold War’. That could (again according to the news) lead to a new ‘World War’.

What can the average person in the street do with this ‘information’? Answer: very little. Compared to the feeling of needing to do SOMETHING, the vast majority of us have nowhere to go, no action to take, no say in the matter. There is no established political commitment to putting in place any form, or system, that could enable direct citizen participation in the biggest questions facing our survival. Instead, even in the most self-regarding democracies, the best we have on offer is political representation – trust in our elected leaders.

Sadly, trust is a most depleted notion in the political sphere. The biggest, globally co-ordinated, anti-war protest march in our history – against war with Iraq in 2003 – rallied over six million people in over 60 countries. It had no effect, faced with leaders who justified their action on the basis of evidence of weapons of mass destruction. 13 years later the Chilcot Report concluded that, in order to go to war, these leaders had ‘deliberately blurred the lines between what they knew and what they believed’. The fallout of these actions, for the victims and the perpetrators, are still being assessed – but suffice to say, loss of authority in national leaders was one clear casualty.

So should the people have a direct say in whether “our” armed forces – meaning, those we pay for - go to war or not? Could we imagine – and want – an online poll of citizens’ wishes having a direct say on whether we should bomb another nation or not? Do we trust ourselves – and each other – to know better than our elected leaders?

The most recent instances of popular voting have not led to consensus across the nation: both Brexit and the Scottish Independence referenda left people profoundly divided (52:48 and 45:55) respectively. The defeated sides, in each case, accused the victors of foul play in getting to these results. Populism, rather than becoming a term to describe the common good, has come to be over-associated with emotionally driven campaigns that are derided, rather than a respected force in politics.

Add to that the evidence that media and tech forces supposedly external to the contest – the BBC, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook – played an important part in shaping people’s views. Trust begins to look ever more ephemeral. We begin to doubt even the seat of our own judgements: can I rely on myself to make up my own mind on anything? Have my own confirmation biases, so easy to read through my social media activity, made me an easy target for propaganda? Are my thoughts shaped entirely by the bubble I live in?

The appetite for more participation nevertheless is on the rise. Online pollsters Avaaz now have 47.5 million members – equivalent to a decent sized nation of opinion. The UK site 38 Degrees boasts 39 million actions by its members since 2009. While it’s easy to dismiss the efficacy of such activity, the longer term effect on public opinion and politicians - always looking for votes - is harder to measure. More people belong to these sites than to political parties in the UK: which is ironic, as they are often accused of slacktivism by political activists.

My own trajectory through the world of conflict studies and practice – as Director of Conflict and Peace Forums in the 90s, Soft Power Network in the early 00s, a Human Givens socio-psychotherapist since 2016 – has led me to two conclusions. Firstly, the vast majority of us don’t know enough about war to be able to judge what is happening when we read the news headlines.

I don’t mean simply the facts of any given outbreak of violence. It’s well before that. I’m talking about how the idea of war is constructed as a narrative in our heads, which makes it a constant option for action in our society.

We may disagree with another person’s perspectives. But how many of us would imagine an army of young men with weapons, descending upon entirely innocent people – who have little or no connection with that disagreement - with an intention to kill? For that disagreement to result in what regularly amounts to massacres of civilians – in our name but without our explicit permission – there has to be a war industry constantly ready to act. For that war industry to be paid for, with our taxes, it has to be legitimised. That’s the job of our education, our culture (both artistic and commercial), and the mainstream media who construct and maintain the relationship between conflict and violence that leads to war.

If you want to know more about how this process works, I recommend Peace Journalism studies, originated by Johan Galtung and now taught around the world by Jake Lynch and Annabelle McGoldrick, whose book is here.

Hearts over minds

Secondly, whether we know enough or very little, the information we do have plays upon our emotions in ways that we hardly understand, causing us to react and make decisions we are often unaware of. Effective propaganda is the same as good advertising – built entirely on psychological and neurological insight. What makes us go to war is the same expertise as turns us into consumers.

Because each of us have taken on the dominant narratives of our culture, delivered by the mainstream news, we are prone to act from within those templates when prompted. For example, when the news refers to the actions of a small group of leaders in a country as the “actions” of that country – implying all the people living there – we easily equate those innocent people with the actions of those leaders. This is how our “consent”, as Noam Chomsky would describe it, is “manufactured” for the bloody actions of our governments.

Our own ignorance about our fundamental drives – what Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell have described as the Human Givens – makes us very vulnerable to external influences on our actions. This is true for people operating at every level, from activists to policy makers, including those directly in the field of conflict. For more on this, The Concilators Guild offers some simple explanations of how an understanding of our own emotional dynamics changes how we look at and assess our society and the world around us – at the levels of I, We and World.

In the meantime, if it’s true that we don’t know enough – either about ourselves or about the bigger picture - to engage meaningfully with the decisions that are made on our behalf, what are we to do? One recommendation from those who advocate more participation by citizens in national decision making, is liquid democracy.

In brief, that means every citizen can have a vote on an issue, but if they think they are unqualified to make a good decision, they can pass their vote onto someone, or a “proxy”, that they trust more. This is usually an expert on the subject, but could also be someone they respect for unrelated reasons. That way each citizen could have response-ability for the actions they are paying for. And, to some extent, the government could have more legitimacy as a result.

Another, slower but maybe more profound possibility would be the establishment of Citizens Assemblies in every city or region of the country. More profound because, for those that take part, a CA offers a much deeper level of engagement with the issues at hand (although there are fewer numbers involved). Selected randomly through a process known as sortition, a group of citizens take part in up to ten sessions of learning about the issue they have to vote on. What is remarkable about these sessions is that changing your mind in the course of this education process is likely and welcomed.

Both would add up to a welcome brake on the kinds of terrifying actions we are witnessing this week.  But is either process enough for the longer-term dream of a world without war? How can those of us who feel instinctively that war is not necessary at all find an effective way to resolve conflict? We suffer a long history of men giving their lives – whether in death, or in lifelong suffering with injury or mental health – for causes that later prove to be ineffective in making our world a safer place. How can this give way to more enlightened forms of transformation?

For that we need widespread commitment to learning more about the causes of conflict and how it leads to violence – but also how it doesn’t need to. More about the war industry – including the military industrial complex which feeds on the global economy. And more about alternative business plans for peace, as outlined here by Scilla Elworthy.

Should that learning commitment be left to individuals, already stressed out by the demands of their daily lives? Or should we think about taking it on at community level – making it part of a wider adult development programme? Imagine an experience that aimed to help us get our emotional needs met, while we were wising up together at the same time. Reading, thinking, dancing, eating together – it’s an idea that someone should fund.

With such a growing band of community sapiens, populism may begin to develop a much subtler image of “the people” as wise citizens, coming from a conscious and place-defined activism, aiming at long term change. Add citizens assemblies, liquid democracy and proportional representation and we may well have a new source of trust for the nation.