Rising tides of anxiety and antagonism seem to many to be afflicting politics in the West. Martin Rose, British Council Senior Adviser, Cultural Relations, who has worked for three decades to build relationships for the UK in Europe, the Middle East, and North America, makes a personal case for more empathy in public discourse. 

The yin and yang of European angst

Symptomatic of the fast-changing world in which we live are rising levels of angst. This is shared across the political spectrum: its underlying causes are universal. Many sense that the world order we have known since the middle of the last century could be undermined. We do not know how this situation will resolve, but some fear it may be very uncomfortable, or worse. Disorder seems to reign; war in Syria, Iraq and the Ukraine seem to presage a new and dangerous chaos. At the same time there are concerns that no one has all the answers – that the 2008 Crash has left a great many clothes-less emperors. 

Yet what has actually disappeared across large tracts of the West is arguably a real sense that we all look out for each other in a society that encompasses us all. We find people in Western countries divided increasingly into camps, with open communication difficult. It should not then surprise us that there has been an overturning of the political status quo in the US and the UK, with further, more radical change possibly soon to come in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere, seizing control in a rush of energy that traditional elites are finding hard to ride. 

The political change currently unfolding across Europe and America does not come from nowhere. If we are surprised by it that is because we have not been watching attentively. It is rooted in history. It is the effect of tensions suppressed for decades but now re-emerging – conflicts about the distribution of wealth and power in our societies. The effect has been to see political gravity moving from the consensual centre-ground. 

The left has one possible outline of the situation: growing nationalism, resistance to migration, a devaluing of accepted social norms, the shrinking of liberty and the growth of ‘undemocratic’ government, the decline of American civility during the recent election, the growing readiness to resort to rhetorical aggression. 

From the right, the collapse of the order we have known appears equally clear, but is sometimes described very differently: the West is feeling the pressure of migration, which is perceived to present fundamental challenges to its identity, it has lost the will to assert its true values, and its peoples are facing increased risks from violent Islam. The elites have, in the last 40 years, absorbed more and more of the West’s – indeed the world’s – wealth, and a great swathe of a once-proud working class, unable to adjust to the post-manufacturing world, have been marginalised, and blamed for their own marginalisation. Local, traditional and comfortable allegiances are scorned and ploughed under: identities dear to their owners are under threat.

In urgent defence of the great civility

But it is particularly important that people from both sides of the political spectrum now cross the central reservation onto the other side of the street rather than indulge in tribalism or identity politics. It is more important than ever that all of us – particularly those involved in cultural relations - should put ourselves firmly in the shoes of others, in this country and globally, and imagine their anxieties, insecurity and anger with empathy. Are we getting less good at this?

Whole echelons of people and opinion are put beyond the pale, in a moral wilderness where we no longer have to engage with them. Where is Voltaire’s belief that, while he disagreed profoundly with his adversary’s opinion, he would fight to the death for his right to express it?

If so this is a symmetrical phenomenon, with causes not debated so much as shouted on both sides, and a gradual breakdown of civil dialogue. The heedless and loud assertion of views from both sides of the political divide means that increasingly those with whom we disagree are somehow reduced to holding arguments that are simply not discussible. Whole echelons of people and opinion are ruled out of court, put beyond the pale, in a moral wilderness where we no longer have to engage with them. Where is Voltaire’s (probably apocryphal) belief that, while he disagreed profoundly with his adversary’s opinion, he would fight to the death for his right to express it? Instead, we risk finding ourselves divided into camps, which are socially and politically far apart. This is leading to societies in which we do not know each other and indeed live separate lives. There is a baying tone about what passes for conversation: fewer and fewer people are trying to persuade each other, or to advance their own understanding of complex issues, rather than to shout each other down.

It is this loss that should worry us more than anything else, a loss of the ability to disagree in civility and to face argument with argument. But this requires trust in one another’s sincerity. This trust is the cement of society, without which we fall apart. The great writer on science, Simon Shapin, wrote that “the great civility is granting the conditions on which others can colonize our minds, and expecting the conditions which allow us to colonize theirs.” True engagement, in other words, with an openness as to the outcome. “The ultimate incivility,” went on Shapin, “is the public withdrawal of trust in another’s access to the world, and in another’s moral commitment to speaking the truth about it: those who cannot be trusted to speak reliably and sincerely about the world may not long belong to the community of discourse. It is not just that we do not agree with them; it is that we have withdrawn the possibility of disagreeing with them.” Is this painfully close to what could be happening: are we seeing the moral and intellectual undermining of vital aspects of our open societies? Have we withdrawn the possibility of reasoned disagreement, as we simply reiterate our prejudgements, loudly, at each other? 

We should be very apprehensive about where this could lead, not least because it isn’t clear that it is reparable. All the external conditions seem set against a reintegration of intellectual and moral argument. This could have major implications for how Western societies function and how they are seen by the rest of the World. We live increasingly in our self-made bubbles of comfortable opinion, disdaining to immerse ourselves in what others think, wrapped in solipsistic social media blankets. We have become uncritical, and isolated. We seem content to chuckle maliciously at stories we know to be ‘fake news’ that relativises truth and undercuts objectivity. We watch democratically elected leaders appearing quite insouciant about truth. Indeed in some parts of the world it seems likely that long-term strategic campaigns are in progress designed to soften all statements of fact by reducing them to debatable opinion which undercuts the crisp objectivity of sincerely designed, and open-ended, debatable fact. That objectivity has been the aspiration of enlightenment culture for several centuries. It is fundamentally important to the functioning of our societies as well as their positive attractiveness to the rest of the world.

The theme has recently been taken up by the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, who has pointed out  that “the job of artists is empathy – trying to see through different eyes, the other’s view,” in other words the opposite of binary thinking. She gave a refreshing call to intellectual openness: “We’ve forgotten how to say I don’t know. We confuse information with knowledge and knowledge with wisdom. We fail to deal with complexity. We are segmented. Although we have information we know little of the world … we need a radical new humanism.” 

What does this mean? I think it means struggling to understand, not to condemn, the other, both in our own country and elsewhere. This is particularly important for those involved in the business of cultural relations, but it should apply more generally to everyone invested in civilised public discourse. Shafak put nicely the path we need to follow: “How can I understand you, when I don’t understand myself? Cultivate political distance – and learn.” However infuriating we may find those who bluster and fume, however exasperating the slippery refusal to engage, we must struggle to be open, to seek to understand, and to be rational. No de-legitimisation of those with whom we disagree, no contempt (though a proper scepticism) for expertise, no wallowing in the solipsism of social media isolation, but a constant, relentless, untiring promotion of the great civility.

Martin Rose has worked for the British Council since 1988 in Baghdad, Rome, Brussels, Ottawa, Rabat and London. He is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Islamic Studies at Cambridge.

This is an edited version of Martin’s personal reflections on a recent Brussels conference entitled ‘European Angst’, and is published here with EUNIC’s kind permission.