Alternative Editorial: Listening Without Hearing
By Indra Adnan, Co-initiator AUK
At the end of 2018 – partly as a promise to Greta Thunberg - we promised our editorials would describe more action and less ideas. Of course that’s a fake dichotomy: no actions are devoid of a set of ideas that prompted them.
Yet the observation - that there was too much talking and not enough activating of the kind of new habits that would generate different outcomes for our planet - remains pertinent.
Climate breakdown is a whole system problem. With only 11 years left to change the course of our collective behaviour, none of us can afford to cling to the notion that it’s everyone else who has to change. Even if we had good ideas and practices ourselves till now, we need to change the way we have been working together to get new results.
In the midst of multiple crises that arise out of social division – Brexit, poverty, crime – we now need to be able to move into a different vision of the future that transcends those differences.
More than that, there has to be a way for every single person to take ownership of that shift, or it can’t go fast enough. The time for trickle down ideas which leave the majority of people passively following instructions, is over.
To get there, rather than going to the lowest common multiple between us – such as a movement that captures the most people – we should start with the highest common factor. What is biggest thing we all have in common? It’s not simply that we all live and breathe – a commonality that cannot distinguish us from animals and plants. But maybe it’s something more like: We all have recognisable physical and emotional needs and capacities.
Traditionally, religion and science has been far more successful than political movements in naming these common factors, in a digestible form.
Religious leaders – and those politicians who borrow from their repertoire - evoke values, morals, simple rules of behaviour. Often modelling the attraction of those qualities with charismatic leadership. Followers trust them to be their interlocuter with the infinite, unknowable deity. In return, they receive acceptance, belonging, love.
Scientists, on the other hand, offer material evidence of the truths that bind us: our common biology, physiology and, increasingly, our growing understanding of our common neurology. There’s excitement and belonging, too, from knowing more about ourselves and our environment: our common struggle, our shared fate.
There is also a growing understanding between the scientific and spiritual traditions—especially on the nature of consciousness. Take Iain MacGilchrist’s The Master And His Emissary, which explains how the two hemispheres of our brains help us connect the material to the mysterious. Or the scientific rationale for the Power of Attraction, a popular exposition of how ‘being the change’ can, in fact, create the world ‘you wish to see’.
Philosophy too, might be said to be converging on the consciousness-and-agency question in popular culture. From Malcolm Gladwell’s books on, for example, the ‘tipping points’ of collective action (ref), to initiatives such as Alain de Botton’s School of Life, the notion that it’s possible to understand how we can affect change is creeping up on us, from all corners and disciplines.
This isn’t simply through books, but through actions too. Movements such as Occupy, Extinction Rebellion, Permaculture, Transition Towns have relied heavily on new ways of acting and being together, to elicit the ambition to transform society among their members. Unlike 20th Century mass movements – the suffragettes, the miners’ strike - they have increasingly located agency in the idea of the awakened human being, rather than in government.
Traditional politics, on the other hand, has so far failed to find such commonality in humans. Even the most progressive political movements find their strength in opposition to “the other”. They often attribute to those who vote differently from them quite extraordinary traits. And in so doing, they divide communities against their own most natural allies - the people they share their daily lives with.
The politics of waking up
Is it impossible to imagine a politics that could achieve that goal of genuinely bringing people together? That is clearly the aim of Flatpack Democracy, often referred to in these pages. These independent politicians coming directly from non-Party, citizen action networks are beginning to capture public attention.
They offer new ways of working across the community, based on shared values and active participation. As such, they are more representative of the broader convergence in society we described above.
But such alternative political behaviour and culture are not easily brought into being. Simply standing as an independent and claiming to stand outside party politics is not what’s needed – and is more often the refuge of a former MP. Either after being de-selected or after jumping ship as the party loses credibility in Westminster.
To be able to represent citizens in their commonality requires skills politicians rarely display or even seek. For example, the characteristics of a successful politician in Westminster might be best described as performative: the ability to lead from the front.
That would not exclude empathy or compassion – important qualities for politicians of all kinds. But it could not, within our current political culture, require standing back. The politician must model the authority of the government at all times.
For example, we watched Rory Stewart, Conservative candidate for Prime Minister, holding his ‘listening’ tour of the UK. This included appearing in a circus tent, to conjure up the idea that he understood our distrust of the ‘spectacle’ of politics.
In many ways, Stewart’s strategy was a good one: if Brexit suggested anything, it was that more than half the population felt they needed to be heard better. However, the idea of ‘listening’ has been tried many times before – including by Labour’s Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband before him. It tends to mean: MP speaks, people ask questions, MP answers.
By contrast, I took part in an Empathy Cafe last night that was entirely run through listening. Here is how it goes:
In a group of 4-6, one person speaks for an agreed time (typically three minutes), either on an agreed theme or on whatever subject they choose. That same person chooses someone else in the group to reflect back what s/he has just said.
If that person has reflected back accurately what was said, that person will say s/he has felt ‘heard’. The reflector then takes their turn to speak, choosing another person to actively listen.
There is no requirement to respond to what the first speaker said – in fact, it’s more important the second speaker gets to say whatever is uppermost in their mind. Again, either in relation to the theme or on what is burning for them.
While any political actor might feel such an exercise lacks any prospect of advancing solutions, the effect on those taking part in almost always remarkable. People report feeling ‘heard for the first time’ - sometimes, for the first time in their entire lives. It stirs something deep inside about the possibility of ‘having a voice’, developing agency.
This is a kind of waking up to something that most of us, reading this, have always taken for granted. Although even the facilitators of these events report something different from the regular listening they receive in their busy lives.
Whichever ‘side’ of a debate the people in the group may be on, they share what is often a profound experience. Bringing with it all sorts of new possibilities that our current politics has never imagined. Possibly – for fear of the energy it brings – that would be hard to control.
What is in equal part exciting and disturbing, is that this kind of awakening is occurring often at Extinction Rebellion meetings. Exciting, because it suggests that people previously alienated from the party-political culture have found a reason to participate again. But worrying, because what they are ‘waking up to’ is a world almost past the point of saving. This deep stirring of so many people’s nascent power can cause as much grief as joy.
In Frome, home of Flatpack Democracy, all these different shifts in awareness and behaviour are being carefully held and translated into a new idea of politics. A regular Extinction Café is held to give community members the chance to meet and listen to each other as they navigate their way through the transition required.
This means both a personal development to becoming fully activist – many were arrested in the London uprising. But also a shared transition as the Council prepares to make good its declaration of Climate Emergency and move the town to carbon neutral by 2025.
The Council itself has designed and adopted new ‘ways of working’ which required a ‘tearing up’ of the previous rule book. Allowing citizens to be active participants in the deliberation over and spending of the town’s budget. Eight years ago, it was only the Independents from Frome. In these last local elections, around 15-20 councils have followed the same path, adopting the same culture. A further 20 or so are on the road.
What all this points to is a political shift that the current party politics cannot successfully articulate or emulate. However, to the people involved, it seems very natural and human. If they can’t see themselves in the culture of Westminster, they will look elsewhere. If the current system offers them no direct participation, despite having led us collectively into a dire environmental crisis, then they will seek it by other means.
Once that pattern is tried and successful, others will follow. This ‘fractal’ growth – the easy adopting of prototypes, based on shared conditions of desire, values, capacities – defies the top down, centralised model of the old politics. It’s made possible for the first time in history by the mechanisms of our new social networks.
What remains for us to do, is to imagine a future in which many more people, in towns, cities and regions across the UK and beyond, take back this kind of deliberative, constructive control. In particular, in those towns where the Brexit vote caused a fleeting moment of hope: their vote had an impact. But has left them with a gaping vacuum for any kind of meaningful action that would improve their lives in real ways. This is fertile ground for citizen action networks (CANs) to come into being.
Meantime, what can be achieved, as more and more people wake up to their own, very human, locally, globally, connected, power (I, We, World) If our Daily Alternative is anything to go by, so much is now possible. As the CANs increasingly come on line, we will be hearing more and more Utopian visions arising from people gathering and dreaming together. Watch this space.