Listening spaces: framing a concern

The British vote to leave the EU was a lightning flash, illuminating the social landscape. Commentators were quick with their analyses. Some blamed the result on inequality or austerity, seeing it as a protest vote. Others saw it as a sign of divisions – in age, education, or cultural values. Follow-up surveys and focus groups have revealed more detail. The referendum asked a simple question but it got mixed up with a variety of issues. We cannot say “the UK public wants x”: people want different things. The particularly striking revelation is the depth of difference in people’s visions for our society.

Humanity currently faces a constellation of crises in many interconnected complex systems (see figure). Dominant themes in the last few decades include a shift in global economic and political power, collapse of the cold war polarity, rapid globalisation and market liberalisation, the ‘war on terror’, growing impacts of climate change and resource depletion, and mass migration.

constellation of crises

Public dialogue in Britain is ill-equipped for dealing with this complexity, or for making the rapid, conscious, collective choices that are needed to address some of the crises. Our debates are usually simplistic, confrontational and destructive. We do not give time and space for real explorations of facts, feelings, values and visions. Our first-past-the-post electoral system leaves many, if not the majority of people, feeling unrepresented or even betrayed.

The nationalist turn in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world is a natural response, but may make it harder to address the issues. We need healing, mutual understanding, compassion, trust, and community-building. These are vital if we are to be at peace with ourselves and each other, and if we are to make any progress on things that really matter for the long term viability of our society and our civilisation.

There has been a lot of talk of building bridges and more collaborative politics. The Green Party proposes a ‘Progressive Alliance’. But this would be a one-off for the next general election, to bring together left-wing parties, “kick out the Tories” and bring in PR. It is not clear that there is a real willingness anywhere to listen, or to move beyond the culture of political tribalism, adversarial dialogue and personal attacks.

Where do Quakers come into this? Many Friends will be attracted to the Progressive Alliance. But I believe something deeper, broader, and longer-term is needed. A Quaker approach to politics and public discourse would:

  • Start from our own willingness to change. It would make openings for the Light – for people to see what is really happening, including our own stake in the status quo and our potential to be part of the way forward
  • Support people to listen, to answer that of God in each other, seeking to give everyone a voice, to build understanding, compassion and trust
  • Build unity – around a way forward together that all can acknowledge to be right even if it doesn’t fit exactly with their personal preferences
  • Recognise that our approach has to be consistent with our goals. If we want to promote peace and understanding we have to start with ourselves, our own tendencies to believe we are right, and our approach to those that disagree with us

There is perhaps a particular challenge in bringing together facts, analysis and deliberation with a sharing of feelings and needs, in the search for unity in a way forward. There are several ways in which we could work to create listening spaces – using processes based on Quaker experience to make it safe for people to talk and listen. These could include:

  • Local community gatherings, perhaps hosted by Quakers in their meeting houses, on themes that matter to everyone. An immediate focus could be on energy options – nuclear power, fracking and renewables. Meetings would need to be carefully held and could be supported through a range of resources including issue briefings and experienced facilitators.
  • Bringing together Quakers in politics, including the MPs and MEPs, to explore and develop shared approaches and principles.
  • Working with elected representatives and others in national or local politics in themed conversations, aiming to bring together people who don’t usually talk to each other and to have the kinds of conversation they don’t usually have – perhaps focusing on personal values, feelings, hopes and fears.
  • Developing a wider network of people in politics committing to/working from shared principles, perhaps with training in nonviolent communication and other skills. They could be asked to commit to a set of standards for positive politics – e.g. listening to those with different perspectives and responding constructively, focusing on agreement rather than disagreement, and refraining from personal attacks.
  • Similar initiatives working with the media

Please do get in touch with me if you have ideas about taking any of this forward or would like to be involved in a project group. This will be a focus at the Living Witness gathering at Bamford Quaker Community on 7-9 October.