Something’s been troubling me for the last couple of weeks. Typically, I’m only now starting to get a sense of what has upset my fragile equilibrium and, more importantly, what the answer to this disquiet might be. This clearly says something about the slowness with which my mind works. I like to think that it operates in a digital age, when I suspect that it is still having trouble adjusting to the Age of Steam.
Here’s the thing.
A recent Labour Party meeting. The usual combination of interesting insights into the workings of parliament from our MP, helpful comments from the floor, mind-numbing tedium made worse by the most uncomfortable chairs known to humanity, and all of this rich tapestry of life capped off with the desperate desire for booze and/or donuts.
Then this exchange.
Someone asks what to do when confronted on the doorstep by a constituent expressing anger at the way in which ‘they’ (not defined) get all the houses, benefits, and basically have an easier time of it than they do. Does anyone have any advice about how to respond to this kind of reaction?
A very good question, you might think. Identifying the implicit racism that seems to lie behind such sentiments, someone else suggested that the most appropriate response is to tell the person concerned that “they are reading the wrong newspapers”.
Now, far be it from me to criticise a bit of media analysis. I totally agree that the Daily Mail is a blight on the face of our democracy, and I still wake at three in the morning cursing the fact that I didn’t manage to win one of Alastair Campbell’s anti-Mail t-shirts when I saw him speak at a literary festival years ago.
Despite this, this suggested response troubled me.
Now, I may be new at this campaigning lark, but identifying the wrong kind of paper seems a rather flippant response that seems to come out of a particular kind of comfort zone. At the same time, it doesn’t strike me that dissing someone’s newspaper of choice will lead to a deeper conversation where it might be possible to get at what lies behind the concerns being expressed. If anything, you are likely to alienate the person to whom you are speaking, for it assumes that you are in a position to judge what lies behind such comments without further discussion.
So is there a better way to address such concerns rather than simply dismissing them in this way?
This has been the splinter in my brain, and this week I finally got the tweezers round it.
bell hooks, the African-American academic and feminist activist writes powerfully about the possibilities and difficulties of meaningful conversation between black and white, male and female, middle and working class. If we are to have a meaningful dialogue, she argues, we have to be prepared to look critically at ourselves and our assumptions, as well as the ideas and claims of others. As she says, “once you learn to look at yourself critically, you look at everything around you with new eyes.”
If we think we have all the answers we won't listen to what the other person says and engage with it, and that is an important thing to do, regardless of how barking or irrational what they say might initially sound. That doesn’t mean we surrender our own perspective or commitments. It doesn’t mean that we don’t confront racism or sexism when we find it. It just means that we don’t immediately start by being dismissive.
All of this raises for me the question of how to campaign.
I think we need to develop real skills of listening so that we can engage with people and their concerns rather than simply approaching them as fodder for the polling station who have to be bent to our will. We have to return the human and the humane, the person and the personal, to the heart of our campaigning. My best moments on the doorstep haven’t been elicited from a detailed discussion of policy or theory (no doubt an ideological failing on my part), but when there has been laughter and some kind of friendly connection made.
Whether that kind of connection translates into votes, I don’t know. But in developing a practical politics that both engages with people, challenges prejudice and also seeks to address people’s needs, aspirations and concerns, it might be as good a starting point as any.