It's easy to become intolerant to those who think differently. But there's a way to acknowledge difference—while still focussing on what we have in commonby Brendan Cox / January 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Western politics is being reshaped by an insurgent political force. From Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán, what unites these movements is their central strategy of using hatred against minority groups to gain favour with the majority population.
We have taken to calling these forces “populist,” though in my view that sanitises their hate-based strategy, and falsely suggests that all their views enjoy real, popular support. If this were happening in one or two countries, we might put it down to national dynamics or charismatic leaders, but it’s not. It’s a pattern being replicated across Europe—and, of course, in the United States. That’s not to say that there is a single cause; rather, in each a range of factors are combining in different and dangerous ways.
First there are the myriad factors that breed anxiety: stagnant wages, waning economic optimism, the threat posed by Islamist-inspired extremism, the pace of cultural change. Second, is the reality that all these anxieties are playing out in deeply divided societies, which are less able to cope with the pressure—the institutions that used to forge societal cohesion have weakened, and social media is sorting us into narrow silos. Third, there has been a collapse of trust in institutions that used to uphold democracy, from politics to the media. Even support for liberal democracy is sinking.
Some states are already succumbing to a wave of authoritarianism that draws strength from these three factors. Hungary is lost as a liberal democracy for the foreseeable future, Poland is hanging on by a thread, as is Austria. In France, a third voted for the far-right Front National last year; Donald Trump lashes out against the courts and the media, two crucial pillars of democracy. Even in Germany, the extremists are making progress.
Over the last two years, an organisation I co-founded called “More in Common” has done research across Europe and the US into this new political wave. One of our less obvious conclusions is that we cosmopolitans—a descriptor that covers me, and probably many but not all Prospect readers—are ourselves an important part of the problem.
For one thing, we have become intolerant of people who think differently to us, and who harbour anxieties about change. We are too quick to condemn those who are worried about migration, concerned about what being transgender really means or questioning the role of Islam in society, as racist, bigoted or Islamophobic. Many people who air such worries simply want reassurance. Our increasingly self-indulgent indignation is driving people into the arms of the extremists. We have to meet, listen to and engage with people with whom we might disagree, not write them off as deplorables.
Having failed to engage with people’s worries, we are unable to provide compelling answers to them. I have done it myself, in assuming that the best way to deal with people’s cultural anxieties is to talk about the economy rather than reflect on migration or integration. As politics re-orientates from the old left/right argument to something closer to an open/closed divide, that’s not going to be sufficient.
Meanwhile, we’ve given up when it comes to nurturing a shared identity. That leaves a space for others to fill. Some of whom will use it as an opportunity to denigrate minorities. Our fixation on difference and diversity undermines our country’s shared sense of itself. We should realise that the social change that many cosmopolitans find enriching and exciting, is seen as daunting and destabilising by many. It’s not that we need to shut up about difference; rather, we need to talk more about what we have in common.
We also have to change how we communicate. Cosmopolitans have a tendency to respond to emotions with facts. I learnt this lesson when Jo my wife was breast-feeding our second child. Lejla had been up feeding most of the night, and Jo turned to me in the morning and said, ‘I’m exhausted, I’ve been up all night, I literally haven’t slept.” I responded : “I got up in the night at one point and you were asleep—so don’t worry, you got some sleep.” She swore at me. Repeatedly. And I learnt the lesson that answering emotions with information is not only futile but counterproductive.
Cosmopolitans do not need to give up on their convictions; we must hold on to them, and I still believe we can do so while being part of the solution. To play a constructive role, however, we must get out of our comfort zone, and break down polarisation—even when it feels more satisfying to lean into it.
The first step is moderation and engagement, even if this earns fewer social media “likes.” We also have to be ready to seek out difficult debates, and then engage with them—instead of shutting them down. We should search out people we disagree with, and really listen to them before we react to their views. We also have to re-engage in our local communities, and be ready to talk with an open mind about how we rebuild an inclusive British identity.
It is comfortable but wrong to assume that there is something inevitable about liberal democracy, that it’s the default. The reality is liberal democracy is a relatively recent phenomenon and there’s nothing inevitable about its continuation. To protect it, and the minorities in our own societies whose rights depend on it, we all have to play our part. And at the very least, we must stop being part of the problem.