Saturday, May 6, 2017

So, yes, I slightly forgot to blog yesterday, but I did talk about writing this blog post, so I’m counting that as, well, “pre-blogging”. 

There are, I think, several commonalities between the election of Trump last November and the vote to Brexit the European Union nearly a year ago. But the one commonality that I have been thinking about the most recently is the sense that there are a lot of people across the USA and the UK who feel that no one is listening to them. And, let’s be honest here, no one is listening to them. There are a few academics, maybe, who are talking to these forgotten people and who are creating a narrow set of narratives in an attempt to explain what happened.

Some of those narratives are being seized upon as if they are the gospel truth, as if all we need to do to “fix” politics is read a few long-form pieces on Quartz or The Atlantic and bingo, problem solved. It’s an attractive proposition – let other people do the hard part, the actual listening, and then we skim the cream off the top of their reports and decide what needs to be done from that. Tempting. But very, very wrong.

The problem comes in two parts:

  1. By not listening to commonly ignored people, we fail to learn about what truly concerns them, what challenges they face, and how policy could be shaped to help them.
  2. By not giving these ignored people the opportunity to talk about their experiences and problems, we effectively tell them that they are of no importance to us, that we do not care about them and do not create policy with their needs in mind.

That’s political poison, and we’ve seen the consequences across the UK and US. When people feel ignored and belittled, they search for an outgroup to blame, whether that’s a group of politicians they don’t like, people whose political views they don’t like, people who look or sound different to them, or any other marginalised group. They get angry, and look for ways to punish any or all of the outgroups that they’ve decided are to blame for their woes.

Academic studies, as valuable as they can be, are not the whole of the answer. What we need to do is to actually get out there and listen to what people have to say, listen deeply and seriously, and make people feel listened to. This doesn’t mean referendums or other forms of mob rule, and nor does it mean taking people’s concerns at face value. It means listening intelligently and carefully, and analysing what we hear.

For example, people might say that they are concerned about the level of immigration in the UK, and this might be a concern that comes up again and again and again, but that doesn’t actually mean that immigration levels are too high. That would be an overly simplistic interpretation. Instead, we need to dig a bit and find out why people feel that immigration is too high, especially given that these sentiments tend to be found in towns where immigration is actually very low. Is it fear of the unknown? Is it the absorption of propaganda from the tabloids? Is it economic insecurity? Is it something even less obvious, something we can’t even guess off the top of our heads?

If we don’t fully understand what drives these sentiments, we can’t derive policies to address the underlying issues. Instead, we would produce ineffectual policies that people might like the sound of, but which achieve nothing for them. Populist policies which scratch people’s emotional itches, such as the desire to scapegoat immigrants, but which do nothing to actually improve people’s lives.

The Tories and Republicans have been very good at creating these sort of shallow, populist policies that make people feel good, but which don’t actually fix the causes of any problems and often make them worse. Unfortunately, Labour and the Democrats have not understood that the Right’s failure is their opportunity. Especially in the UK, they have instead taken what one might call a ‘populist-lite’ stance which accepts the incorrect narrative about, in this example, immigrants and merely tries to make regressive policies sound progressive.

That’s not good enough, not by a long shot. And, as if this left-wing populism wasn’t bad enough, it completely misses the second part of the problem – that people know that they are being ignored and that they, rightly, resent it. We don’t just need to listen to people to learn about their problems, we need to listen to them and for them to feel listened to in order to help them believe that someone cares about them.

In this highly partisan atmosphere, such listening needs to be done very, very carefully. We cannot listen to someone saying that the problem with the NHS and education is all those damn foreigners and then give them the sense that our solution is to get rid of all the immigrants. We need to take them on a journey with us, through the kneejerk blaming of immigrants to the point at which they and we uncover the real reason for their stress and unhappiness, and where they understand that that reason is what’s really the core of their problems.

We need to do a kind of ethnographic and anthropologic listening, bringing the skills of these disciplines to politics. We need to find a scalable, repeatable, sustainable way to consult with underserved, ignored and marginalised groups. And we need to think very, very carefully about who those groups are. They are not just the traditionally marginalised groups that spring to mind, but also those who are often seen to having privilege and power yet who are, increasingly, shut out of the conversation because of the culture that they inhabit and that has grown up around them.

There is a parallel here with the attitudes towards university attendance amongst white working class boys and young men. Whilst they are seen as being in a privileged community due to their whiteness, a toxic culture has arisen wherein going away to university is seen as a betrayal of family and community. This traps these young men in a socioeconomic strata that is under constant pressure, trapping their families too.

We cannot turn a blind eye to these people’s problems because we assume that their troubles are lesser than other groups. We need to listen to them, and truly understand what pressures they are under, what challenges they face, and what policies would help them without harming others. As much as I campaign to support women, I also recognise that other groups that are traditionally seen as privileged have lost a lot of opportunity over the last 15-20 years, and that we must address that. If we don’t, we breed resentment and we make life harder, not easier, for traditionally marginalised groups.

We need to create a new model of consultative democracy, one that reaches out to the people it serves, listens to them deeply and carefully, and which not only turns those lessons into policy but makes sure that people understand exactly how their participation has helped. We have to give the agency to talk and learn and participate back to groups who have lost it, and defuse the resentment and hatred that causes so much pain and harm to our communities.

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