The shoes of others

In this series, I am suggesting ways in which people who disagree over Brexit, maybe bitterly so, can have a constructive conversation. In the last two blogs I wrote about destereotyping and how to show that the ‘other side’ are not a bunch of extremists. This blog is about a third approach to reducing the polarisation that Brexit has caused.

Atticus Finch introduces this approach in Harper Lee’s famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. He says to his daughter: “First of all, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Let’s start in a situation where there was no great divide – but still a highly unusual way of working was used to prompt people to behave in the way that Atticus proposed. It came from David Lilienthal, chair of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), who was asked to head a small group to work out a plan for the international control of atomic energy, after the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. Said Lilienthal:

“We agreed that all questions coming up were to be considered as being brought up by the group as a whole rather than by any single member. If a member had an objection to any one point, it was to be regarded as something troubling the group as a whole…

We were not going to get into the usual type of barter system trading off one pet idea against another… We were trying to create a collective wisdom. …

At first it was hard to do this. Every now and then the discussions would break down just because one of us found it difficult to get used to the science of joint thinking and would lapse into the role of prosecutor or defendant. But little by little, the preconceived ideas dropped out; the clash of conflicting personalities became less and less apparent.”

The crucial sentence here is this one: “If a member had an objection to any one point, it was to be regarded as something troubling the group as a whole.” That is, if Smith has a problem, Jones has to treat it as her problem. In order to do that, she has to understand why it is a problem for Smith: she has to step into her shoes.

The next, rather lovely, example of how to help people to do this is set in a time of great division. It comes from Lucy Stone, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the USA. When she walked around putting up posters that announced speeches on abolition, young men often followed her and tore them down. Stone asked them if they loved their mothers and sisters? Of course they did. She then explained that in the South, men their own age were sold as slaves, and would never see their mothers and sisters again. She then invited them to her event: and often they came.

In the last blog, I mentioned a blog I wrote for OpenDemocracy called ‘Helping people to find common ground on Brexit’. I described how Talk Shop used a role play in the ten events that we ran, from Hackney to Halifax and from Hereford to Huntingdon, during the EU referendum campaign. Not everyone likes role play, but mostly it went down really well. Someone in Hackney, in London, said: “I found it helpful to have to put the other point of view, because it made me realise that I do have some things in common with people I disagree with.” A participant in Liverpool stated: “Arguing the case for leaving helped me realise that people who take that view, especially because of immigration, may have thought it through, rather than simply absorbing messages from the media.”