Going Beyond Yes and No, Going Beyond Right and Wrong
In the run-up to the referendum and beyond, caring people on both sides looked at information on various issues and came to different conclusions. I don’t mean that people read biased media from their own side (of course we all did) but that people can read the same piece of information and come to different conclusions. I know this because I have both yes and no voting friends and we shared information before the referendum. I also know it because of many posts I’ve seen presenting a fact as “proof” of one side’s rightness, with comments below claiming it does the opposite.
If even apparent facts are open to interpretation, maybe it’s time to look at this whole issue differently? Since the referendum, I’ve been doing just that with a small group of yes and no voters. The aim is not to persuade each other, but to listen with compassion and to develop understanding and empathy. I welcome Bella Caledonia’s #noway invitation for submissions from no voters, since it offers an opportunity to expand our vision to a wider audience.
Centuries ago, the Sufi poet Rumi wrote: Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
It’s not easy to live by those words, but it’s far, far easier than not doing so. Letting go of ideas of right and wrong enables us to listen with compassion, even when the person we are listening to (or reading) is attacking us.
People from both sides of the referendum divide have blasted the other as uncaring, selfish, and fearful. Several years ago, I read a book by psychologist John Bradshaw in which he explained that what we dislike in others is what we repress in ourselves. At first I wasn’t keen the idea, but I’ve come to see that it’s true. This is possibly more obvious in politics than anywhere else.
To protect our own image of being the caring side it’s necessary to ignore or deny anything that doesn’t fit, and to demonise the other side. At its most extreme, this kind of thinking leads to atrocities like the one we’ve just seen in France, or the one last year in which Taliban members murdered school children. Those men believed they were right.
If we try to create change through hatred, what we get is hatred. Hate has never yet created peace.
But how we move beyond right and wrong? How do we find compassion and bridge the yes-no divide? Or any political or cultural divide?
One way is by realising that all humans share basic needs. Apart from physical needs, we have many emotional needs – for example: to belong, to feel safe, to contribute and, of course, to give and receive love. When those needs aren’t met, we feel what are commonly known as negative emotions – anger, fear and so on. Every one of us develops strategies to try to get our needs met. Often we mistakenly think these strategies are our needs. For instance, for some, an independent Scotland might seem like a need, but it’s really a strategy to get a much deeper need met – possibly the need to feel safe. Likewise, remaining in the UK is a strategy – probably to meet the exact same need!
Another way to think about this is to notice that many of us share the same values. Blasting the “other” side as uncaring shows that caring for others matters to you – but it doesn’t mean the other side doesn’t care. They just have a different way of showing it. (Strategies again.) Almost all of us want to protect our children, to care for the sick, the elderly and the poor.
We all react to current events from the perspective of our pasts. For many people the referendum rekindled childhood memories of rejection or of fear. How people deal with that fear varies depending on individual life histories.
We also tend to view politicians as parental figures. When Gordon Brown got involved in the Better Together campaign you could almost sense some people thinking, “Dad’s here now. He’ll sort things out.” After Alex Salmond resigned, supporters tweeted: “You didn’t let us down; we let you down.” In other words: “Sorry Dad.”
Arthur J Deikman writes about leaders as parental figures in his book: Them and Us. Although he mainly focuses on religious cults, but he says that we all share cult-like thinking to some degree – characterised by defensiveness and accusation. This occurs in politics and in corporations as well as in smaller groups. Deikman says the “longing for parents persists into adulthood and results in cult behaviour that pervades normal society.” This longing is even present in our leaders, and Deikman sees it as more problematic than the desire for power. Of course, many of us also want to rebel against our parents, and this shows up in our reactions to leaders of the “opposite” side.
Recently, a (yes voting) friend asked how it could be possible to practice compassionate listening towards George Osborne and his ilk, in the face of deeper and deeper cuts. At first, I had no clue. Then, as I considered her question, I realised that many Conservative ministers were once boys sent to boarding school at a young age, probably feeling fear and loneliness. Maybe their need for connection has never been met? Maybe growing up away from parents they feel the longing Deikman writes about but have no clue how to deal with it so they behave as they did years ago at school, trying to be top-dog and blaming others so that they wouldn’t be blamed. We all experience some damage in childhood, whether the damage comes from poverty of money or poverty of love. That answer made sense to my friend.
As I write this, I feel wary of the reception those last few sentences will get. However, recognising that even government ministers suffer doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop them. It doesn’t mean we stop looking for solutions to Scotland’s problems.
Scotland has many problems, including one of the highest rates of alcoholism in the world. Glasgow Shettleston, the UK’s most poverty-stricken constituency, also has the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths. The Scottish government estimates that excessive alcohol consumption cost Scots £3.6 billion each year. The connection between poverty and alcohol consumption is complex but it needs to be addressed. Claiming poverty is entirely Westminster’s fault doesn’t actually help those who are alcohol-dependent and in poverty. Independence, on its own, would not have solved this; nothing short of a radical change in attitude will create the change required. Blaming Westminster (or anyone) reveals the same attitude that blaming the poor does.
The trouble with blaming others is that it leaves us feeling like victims, reliant on someone else. This is the conundrum at the heart of wanting independence while blaming someone else. When we take responsibility (which is not the same as blame) for our part in a situation, no matter how small that part may be, it actually makes us stronger, not weaker. It makes us happier. That’s true on a personal level, and it’s true on a national level.
In inviting submissions, Bella Caledonia suggested no voters might want to aplogise or that perhaps we feel vindicated. Neither is true for me. Like many of my friends, I made a decision based on a mix of information gathering and gut instinct. In ending, I am tempted to explain why I voted no. But that would go against every point I’ve been making in this post, so I won’t. Some of you will have understood the points I’ve made; some of you won’t. That’s okay. Perhaps you aren’t ready to meet in that field Rumi wrote about. When you are, I’ll meet you there.