Do the Left need to listen to the Right?

Earlier this week Jonathon Pie shared this video, which I agree with, so I shared on Facebook:

It’s a bit of a rant, but I think he makes some very valid points, notwithstanding his style.

I do need to point out that when he says “if you feel my mansplaining is triggering you can fuck off” he is falling into the very trap – insulting people – that he urges the Left to avoid. I wonder if that is why some people are rejecting his message -this morning my Facebook feed told me that one of my friends had liked this post:


I think this tweet/share is a mis-comprehension of what Pie is saying. He’s not saying respect other people’s opinions, he’s saying: respect their right to hold those opinions. Because at the moment those opinions, those voices, are being SILENCED: removed from the forum of public debate.  This is particularly true in the media: Pie is spot-on that the Left-leaning media has demonized the expression of Right-leaning sentiment, to the extent that people have stopped saying it…. but then vote the way they really feel.

Is this what the Left want to stand for: allowing people a voice only if we approve of that voice?  The Left probably won the culture wars (though are losing the elections…), but in a democracy that does not make us the arbiter of truth. It means we think we are right, but then so does everybody: those people expressing racist (etc.) sentiments also think they are right…. And when two groups having opposing views exist in a democracy, the democratic way is to engage. Having an arbiter of truth is not democracy, democracy is allowing everyone the chance to debate. Shouting down voices is not democracy, democracy is letting people speak (within certain carefully-delineated restrictions, such as to protect against harassment). It’s also worth mentioning how ineffective trying to silence people is now we have the internet….

Now, I do have some sympathy with the Left’s position. I can see why many are so insistent on quieting the voices on the Right: it’s because  we on the Left are frightened that if the Right are allowed to express themselves, their sentiment will take over, and democracy will come to mean “tyranny of the majority” – the hard-fought-for values of tolerance, respect, and goodwill to all people will have been lost. And that is an absolutely well-founded fear that I totally respect: already violence is being committed in the US by the emboldened Right (much the same way as Brexit emboldened the Right in the UK), and I am very disturbed to see that Muslims, women, African-Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ people in the US are already living in fear of violence from Far-Right white males.

But whilst this fear – that “if you give them rights they’ll take yours away” – is completely justified, the action – shutting down Right voices – though well-meaning, is ultimately misguided. In fact right now it is backfiring horribly – I believe Pie is right that the Left’s approach is part of what is creating the resurgent Right.

(Other factors are incompetence, in particular in-party in-fighting; the “more-of-the-same-but-slightly-nicer” message of Milliband’s Labor and Clinton’s Democrats; the Right’s outright lies; the election system; and the media. Those problems are beyond the scope of this post).

So in order to start moving towards a world of peace and tolerance, what do we (on the Left) need to do?

My focusing teacher Ann Weiser Cornell teaches that when we suppress an emotion, it doesn’t go away – it just festers in the dark, out of reach of our awareness, causing harm we can’t identify the cause of. For example, the pain of childhood trauma, long suppressed, will often cause dysfunctional behavior such as alcoholism or violence. What’s true within an individual is also true between individuals, i.e. in society. If in our society we suppress certain emotions (for example, racist anger) then those emotions don’t disappear, but simply get buried, eventually causing dysfunctional behaviour: in this case Far-Right voting and violence. That’s my personal interpretation of what Pie is saying: the Left has been suppressing the Right’s emotions, forcing them underground, thus causing the current eruptions.

So counter-intuitively, we need to let the Right speak. The first point is that freedom of speech is simply basic democracy,  but I do understand that the Left fear that freedom of expression will embolden the bigots (and in the short-term, it is emboldening them). I do also understand that this is a very dangerous situation, but I feel that our understandable and well-meaning reaction to suppress that which we are scared of is counterproductive: it’s making the problem worse, not better. To put it bluntly: we on the Left are losing badly right now: is more of the same really a good idea?

So we need to allow the Right the right to a voice.

The first and most important point to understand about all this is that allowing someone the right to speak DOES NOT mean agreeing or even acquiescing: it simply means acknowledging that before us is a human, who has something they feel, and our suppressing that feeling doesn’t make it go away.  Saying “Stop saying that!” is tantamount to saying “Stop feeling that!” which doesn’t work: if it did, then the words “Cheer up!” would long ago have revolutionized psychotherapy (and we’d all be perfectly happy by now….)

(I might also add that for bigotry and intolerance to be resurgent means they never really went away in the first place –  they just went underground, to fester and come back stronger. Our suppressing it arguably meant that we were lulled into a false sense of security).

The second is that contrary to popular belief, it is possible to really listen to someone and simultaneously disagree with them (or even, find what they say abhorrent). You know the expression “I’m in two minds”? In actual fact we are in a lot more than that: what we think of as “ourselves” is actually a mishmash of conflicting desires, needs, wants, thoughts and emotions. So we can, if we try really hard, allow someone to speak whilst simultaneously having another part of us that vehemently disagrees.

So as we allow someone on the Right the right to a voice, we will have a part of us that feels very strongly that “this person before me is a fucking racist” – we need to acknowledge that part, then put it on a back burner: take a deep breath and organize ourselves so that this part is not in the driving seat. Because if we let that angry, insulting part into the driving seat then we’re going to say what it is thinking, and name-calling has no place in a de-escalation strategy (scroll down to the subtitle “Don’t Insult Him”). And let’s be honest: right now we on the Left are basically shouting “You’re racist and ignorant!” at the Right, who are showing us that (sticks and stones can break their bones but…) names can’t hurt their ability to vote for what they feel.

Respecting someone’s right to a voice when we have parts of us that strongly disagree is very difficult. To avoid falling into the trap of insulting people we can help ourselves with a little linguistic trick: in place of insulting names let’s use descriptions. Names imply permanence, which leaves no room for change, whereas descriptions are simply statements of what is true right now, and thus allow room for change (from The Radical Acceptance of Everything,  p109). For example, if you say someone is “a racist” that becomes what they are, in your mind and theirs, whereas if you say someone is “saying something racist” then there is space for them to stop saying it. Name-calling is thus anathema to constructive dialogue.

Having created conditions that allow dialogue, we now need to engage in that dialogue: we listen to them, and they listen to us. Of course you’re probably thinking “But they won’t listen to us!” and in that you are making a fundamental error (and indeed doing the person before you a fundamental disrespect). With the obvious exception of fringe psychopaths who were likely damaged in early childhood  the reason neurologically basically healthy people don’t listen to you is because you don’t listen to them. It’s just like with children (my specialist field): if your child is not listening to you, it is almost certainly because you are not listening to them. Want to break the cycle? You have 2 options:

1) You can try forcing them to listen to you, but I predict that will not go well (not today, and certainly not long-term).
2) Or you can put your own need to be heard on a backburner for a while and listen to your child – I bet you anything they’ll be more ready to listen to you once you’ve listened to them.

The same is true of the Right.  Do parents on the progressive Left feel the best response to a toddler tantrum is to shout it down and silence it? No? Then stop doing it to these adult tantrums: just like your toddler, the Right’s rage needs to be heard and respected (whilst still holding our disagreement). The Left is reacting this way because they are rightly scared: these adult tantrums (the racism and misogyny) are very very dangerous. But disregarding what we know about human nature because we are too scared to apply it is a recipe for failure. I don’t think I need to remind anyone on the Left that in the current political situation the price of failure is very high – therefore we MUST act with skill, not panic and act from fear.

So we need to engage, and debate, not insult and silence, and when we do so, I believe we need to listen to the emotions, not the facts. We can argue the intelligent intellectual point that “race is a social construct” until we are blue in the face, and a person with a racist view will just ignore us, because their racist view does not come from an intellectual analysis of the concept of “race” – it comes from some (unknown to us and even to the person themselves) combination of anger and fear. And the only way for us and them to get to the bottom of why they feel these emotions is to listen to what they have to say, in a constructive way that allows them to talk, and then talk in a constructive way that allows them to listen. Marshall Rosenburg’s Non-Violent Communication (watch 0:50~3:30) provides a way of doing this, as does Ann Weiser Cornell’s Inner-Relationship Focusing (these are simply the two I am familiar with – I am sure there are also many more).

So that’s the theory. How can we apply it?

The first thing to acknowledge is that doing what I have suggested is really difficult. We’ve all been conditioned by our upbringing and by our society to push back when someone pushes us. Not pushing back feels like weakness, like giving in, so we instinctively push back (in the way that I have already outlined as well-meaning but ultimately doomed). But John Kabat-Zinn, using aikido as an illustration, shows us that rather than just two options:

1) push back
2) be trampled

when we are (or feel) attacked we actually have four:

1)be trampled – inherently unsatisfying.
2) run away – also unsatisfying: we escape the immediate danger, but lose all power to resolve the broader situation.
3)push back – also unsatisfying: we just end up shouting at each other, and both positions become entrenched.
4) lightly sidestep and twist so that you and your attacker are now both heading (at least momentarily) in the same direction.

(Full Catastrophe Living, p371~3)

This fourth option is both much more satisfying, because we are simultaneously satisfying our need to take some action (when attacked we need to act!) without causing any of the problems associated with options 1-3; and because  it is constructive, with the possibility of movement and change: now instead of butting heads you are dancing. You may still disagree with each other, but now that process of disagreement has become both much more democratic and respectful (neither is being silenced) and it is also changing and flowing (instead of simply entrenched) and so has the potential to reach a new, perhaps more mutually-satisfactory conclusion (1-3 will never lead to any improvement: 4 might).

Now, I want to re-iterate that allowing a voice to something that makes you angry is very difficult. When my children were younger and had tantrums, although I knew from my reading that what they needed from me was love and respect and compassion, what I actually felt was a strong visceral urge to hit them. This got so bad that, after putting a few holes in the walls with my fists, I had to buy a punchbag and disappear outside to beat the shit out of it for ten minutes whenever I couldn’t remain calm as my children raged (this allowed me to re-enter the family having spent some of my own rage, and so minimize the harm I was doing, though I stress this is not a long-term solution – it’s Ann Wieser Cornell’s focusing that allowed me to move beyond this very painful period in my life).

Likewise, many of us on the Left react with similar anger to bigoted behavior. Right now it seems to me we have a sort of moral panic going on: “Oh no that’s racist you can’t say that!” (said with a shrillness that the Right laugh at). Our challenge is to move beyond that initial reaction, and to get to a stage where we can treat a person who is acting in a bigoted way with compassion and respect without condoning their behavior (hate the sin but love the sinner). We can do this with the voters (despite all the conspiracy theories it seems voting does still count….) and we can also do this with the spokespeople, the Farages and Trumps.

And I believe that is possible. I haven’t experienced it myself very often (if at all…), but I’m working on it, and this is my inspiration:

“I used to cringe when someone…raised a complaint or a dissatisfaction….I wanted to avoid conflict at all costs. Anger was the scariest emotion I could encounter. Now I turn toward angry complaints with delight. I’m excited about encountering the real person who is feeling the anger, and finding out what that person’s needs are.”
Ann Weiser Cornell, The Radical Acceptance of Everything,  p125.

So what would all of this look like in practical terms?

The Left-leaning media, exactly as Pie says, need to stop calling Brexit/Trump voters racists, and start interviewing them, listening to them, learning from them, and taking their concerns seriously.

A minority are of course violent individuals who are committing crimes – we as a society need to make absolutely clear that this will not be tolerated, using all the means at our disposal (media, grassroots, education, the justice system) to control them. And we also need to vigorously debate and oppose the Right’s spokespeople when they make comments that incite or condone violence.

But many voters simply hold intolerant attitudes that they may be open to moving beyond (in much the same way as you are – I hope – prepared to try to move beyond your angry response to anger) if we can give them the kind of dialogue which will provide them with space to do so. Ask them why they hate Muslims and listen respectfully to what they have to say before you present your own view (Remember: listening respectfully is not condoning. Part of our problem is that we conflate the two, so we need to practice separating them).

I did this recently. A student of mine was wearing a t-shirt with a design that I considered to be expressing a disrespectful attitude to women. I asked him about it, and when he’d explained that he just liked the design, I outlined why I didn’t like it, and I also wrote a short blog post about it here  (it’s in Japanese, but you’re welcome to see what a mess Google translate makes of it) which I also showed him at the next lesson. I didn’t get angry, and certainly didn’t insult him. I just respectfully presented my opinion. The result: he said he wouldn’t wear it again. I realise this is an easy example, but nevertheless I think it illustrates the point. We all need to take any opportunity we can to first listen respectfully to someone who’s opinions we disagree with, and then answer presenting our own perspective. Dialogue, not shouting. This can be both in person and online, both two-way conversations and one-way social media shares, etc.

In addition to those who hold genuinely bigoted views, many voters are simply people like you and me who have valid real-world concerns that they need to have addressed – at the moment the only people speaking in terms they can understand are the Right. So we on the Left need to up our game, and make sure we are speaking in ways that potential Right voters can identify with and engage with, not be turned off by. The many pressure groups (Avaaz, Fight for the Future, 38 Degrees, Occupy, etc) do a great job of mobilizing people who are already on the Left, but they’re working inside the filter bubble – clearly they’re failing to reach the people they need to reach in order to swing elections and get a progressive party into government.We need to figure out how to reach those voters.

Brexit and now Trump are the results of people’s decisions at the voting booth, which are a result of their attitudes, and those attitudes can, I believe, change, but they cannot be changed by insulting them or writing them off or driving them underground, which is what we on the Left have been doing. I believe we need to change our tactics, and I have outlined one of the ways I think we can usefully do that. I hope this post contributes usefully to discussions about how the progressive Left can regroup and start to make headway against what are, undoubtedly, very frightening developments in our global political landscape. Currently I fear for my children’s future – this is, I think, the best course of action.

Thank you for reading.


“Do the Left need to listen to the Right?” への1件の返信

  1. I love it. The largest divide between people seems to be education. People use extremely harsh labels such as bigot and racist freely. Listening to the concerns is the biggest problem. Failure to point out statistics and facts is what got us here in the first place. The 1% of outspoken &a violent people ruining it for the other 99% who agree with that viewpoint. You can find both sides having this problem.

    Wish I knew where I learned it, but the largest thing in my life I remind myself of daily is: “you can always be wrong”. The phrase “crazier things have happened” comes to mind whenever I instantly discount what someone else is saying.

    Lastly is how I feel about movements such as “occupy”. People always have a right to free speech. The largest thing you will see is someone pointing out a problem. These movements need to rally behind ideas of how they want to see things work. The “Occupy Wallstreet” movement died because when interviewed, most people didn’t even know why they were there. If you aren’t happy with how the country is run, then please have some form of alternative in mind when you begin protesting.

    We need to chat more often.


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