Alternative Editorial: Revealing the Human

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By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

The day before Brexit, I was sitting in a café in Piccadilly Circus, anxious to engage. I could feel the mood for Leave all around me and I wanted to understand it, what was at the bottom of it. I didn’t want to be a victim of what I could sense coming down the line.

Londoners voted to Remain, but almost a third of the voters in this most cosmopolitan of capitals did not. Next to me was a group of young women, office workers having an early evening drink. I leaned over and asked them if they were voting the next day: they were. We got into a conversation and they happily shared that they were Leavers.

They weren’t shy: there was something about the mood of the country, the permission granted by this vote to be straight forward – honest – about feelings and motivations. I was listening hard and understood how they felt: resentful about politicians that don’t credit them with perspectives worth taking account of. Distrustful of experts that act clearly in their own self-interest.

Two of them left and the remaining two got more personal, sharing their fears about the homeless people on the street – many of them recent arrivals to the country. I remember one saying – “Its’s the way they look at me. They want what I’ve got. I don’t feel safe”. For a moment her vulnerability was uppermost, and who could question that? Working hard five days a week, she didn’t appear to have much to bank on in this age of austerity: and now she had a target for her feelings of insecurity – the immigrants and refugees - and she was going to act to keep it at bay.

I shared with her a story of some friends who had to flee their country – leaving all their possessions behind. They too worked hard and had built a decent sized business, but now they were on the streets of Europe, with nothing. We sat together and thought about how awful that must be. Imagine, I mused, in ten years-time - if they get the chance - how they will have brought their skills and flare to whatever city they settle in and..The girl beside me interrupted me: “I should be more kind”, she said.

It’s an experience that’s stayed with me: not because I’m under any illusion that people’s fears are easily allayed: I don’t think they were in this case. What I remember is the sense that it doesn’t take much to find connection with people when you listen hard to what they are saying and notice what they are feeling. And how quickly, in this case, strength appeared where only minutes before there was only fear and vulnerability.

One moment she portrayed herself as a victim of the refugees arriving in her neighbourhood, with nothing to their name. The next, she was an agent – capable of creating the circumstances in which these temporarily helpless people might thrive. What caused that shift? It seemed to me that it was just an act of imagination – the ability to step outside of the bubble she’d been living in and take a different perspective for a moment.

Within a different frame of reference – I was now talking about friends of mine, not strangers – she easily felt sympathy for their circumstances. But it was when I leapt into a future in which these - now real - people were bringing their full selves to the community, that she saw a role for herself in making that possible. Simply with kindness – which she had an abundance of.

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I’ll never know if the two girls voted Leave or Remain the next day. But I was grateful to her nevertheless for showing me that, even when we are under the influence of crude and manipulative narratives – from whatever side – our human qualities might not be far below the surface. It might not take much to find common ground.

When Alternativet first launched in Denmark, it was without a political programme. Instead it named six values that were offered as the core of a political shift. At a first glance, these values are easily signed up to: courage, generosity, empathy, humility, transparency, humour. Who would not approve? Yet when you are in a political space, how hard is it to see these values in action?

From the Westminster debating chamber to local party hustings, we might say the opposite values are in operation. Cowardice (not facing the suffering of the poor); meanness (austerity logic); disconnectedness (unable to hear the diversity of needs); arrogance (there is nothing to be learnt from the Opposition, or the excluded); opacity (who knows where the power really lies); dullness (only satire makes the grade).

This is not an attack on politicians - per se - but an observation of the culture within which they operate which clearly impacts their behaviour. Binary ideologies of Right and Left on opposing benches. Historically embedded patriarchy, that prioritises vertical structures and hard power (guns and money). The legacy of public boarding school educations that deny the emotional needs of leaders, let alone voters. Disconnection from the polity – only 2% of people are members of political parties. And a media that feeds on the worst of politicians’ excesses and weaknesses, amplifying them to become a mirror into which they dare not look. How to be human in that culture?

Yet, it’s quite possible that as soon as they step outside of that milieu, a different person would appear – one that would lay claim to the values Alternativet takes as starting point.

How can we design new political spaces that bring out more human qualities in our politicians? A circular chamber design has led to more dignified debate on the floor of the Scottish Parliament – a good start. But does this extend to the debates between Independents and Unionists in the pub?

In our laboratories, we pin the six values to the wall and point at them as a guide when debate becomes heated or discussion backs off the difficult issues. But - in a way that echoes my conversation with the four girls on Brexit's eve - talking about the past or even the status quo can trap people in defensive postures. Ones that the media has pre-framed, or even established as comfort zones for sections of the demographic.

The constant refrain for example, that middle-class people are selfish, can lead to self-righteousness on their part about their life-styles. When they are defensive, they don’t consider change, they hold onto the status quo defiantly. So they don’t warm to ideas like shorter working weeks, or Universal Basic Income, because it appears as a challenge to the thing they are defending. Empathy has to be extended in all directions to allow change to occur.

One way we find helps us to step outside of these caricatures and traps is to look at the future – 20 or 30 years away – because it requires imagination. What will be the effect of automation, artificial intelligence, biological enhancement? Without exception, this conversation conjures up a mixture of fear and excitement and people across diverse communities, express vulnerability - but also ambition. A creativity emerges, not just each for themselves, but for the broader society: as if stepping outside the current siloes, it’s more possible to imagine a society that works for everyone. A fantasy maybe, but something that people can point themselves at, to bring them together in the present moment.

It’s a socio-political experiment. Join us if you can.