Recent neuro-biological research has shown that you cannot think clearly without engaging your emotions. Thinking and feeling are inextricably intertwined, and many of the failings of our political process arise from our reluctance to acknowledge the implications of this fact. The question to be asked about our public and private lives is how well we manage the interaction between the two processes. Do we speak and act from an understanding of how emotions shape us? Or do we deny the role of emotion and claim to occupy a higher plane of rationality?
The emotion in our heads
An everyday example shows the workings of this dynamic. Imagine a group of writers, editors and designers preparing to launch a new magazine. All are feeling tense as they ask themselves whether people are going to buy their publication when it hits the news-stands. On the way to the coffee machine one evening, an editor glimpses on a computer screen the layout that one of the designers is working on. It looks messy and bears no apparent relation to the look they had discussed earlier that day.
The editor feels her anxiety levels rising. Flooded by emotions that have been amassing all day, she is tempted to issue a dismissive putdown and unload her angst upon the luckless designer, with the likely consequence that he would feel hurt, confused and demoralised. An alternative strategy would be for her to think through how the designers apparent incompetence might spring from the climate of anxiety that percolates around them both, then to use this knowledge to engage with him, to help him through his difficulties and to draw him into her vision of the project. These are different ways of responding to emotional information.
It might be, of course, that the editor had learned how to offer the designer a banal phrase communicating her concern, but not her anxiety. Alternatively, she might have come to believe that it is better to pass quietly by in such a situation. Either of these apparently rational approaches would miss the opportunity to alleviate the emotional pressures that were blocking the designers capacity to deliver, and perhaps to reduce her own anxiety at the same time.
How the editors personality interacted with the emotional culture of the office would shape her response. Was this somewhere where employees were able to talk openly and honestly with each other? Could people explore together the pressures upon them, and the different ways these were being experienced? Could they say what bugged them about each other, and what would enable them to do a better job? Ultimately, did they know enough about each other to respond appropriately to signals of uncertainty or distress? Or was everyone expected to get on with the task in hand, to keep their concerns to themselves, and to put up with occasional bad behaviour from those who felt things getting on top of them?
Clare Shorts outburst comes from someone who, like the editor following the first option, is finding it difficult to cope with the pressures she is experiencing. Responsible for managing an intensely difficult situation, she appears to experience the perspectives of her critics as an intolerable reproach. Instead of looking for ways to keep some sort of dialogue going between herself and those who challenge the governments approach, Short tries to exclude them from her mind. In the process, she destroys the possibility of a potentially productive engagement between different outlooks, built around a sharing of common concerns.
The want of empathy
Such an unproductive approach is strongly sanctioned by a cultural attitude which says that those who pay attention to the subtler emotional dynamics in any situation are soft and limp-wristed. This idea has its historical roots in situations where people really did have no choice but to buckle down to the dictates of their times. Dialogue is not much use to those whose waking hours are going to be spent in Satanic Mills, or who have to walk tomorrow through a no mans land towards almost certain slaughter. Its absence, though, becomes highly dangerous when there is a need to evolve ways of managing complex situations. Here the need is for participants to be open to all the information currently available, and to be able to reflect upon it.
In reality, engaging with emotions by practising dialogue requires high levels of inner strength and resilience. It means acknowledging that others have outlooks that are different from ones own but are nevertheless capable of being justified by reason. More significantly, it means recognising that your own position may have to shift in the light of new information being a distillation of inner feelings that pull in different directions. It also means being able to tolerate the anxiety, anger and hatred that are stirred up in oneself and others by an awareness of different perspectives, and being able to do so for long enough to negotiate a way to live and work together.
The language that Short uses indicates that the political system within which she operates is anything but dialogic. It is one that encourages politicians to occupy entrenched positions, to refuse to tolerate uncertainty and to divide the world into goodies and baddies who need to be shamed or blamed. There is little indication that the current government position has evolved out of any deep exploration of the various possibilities on offer. It has been suggested, indeed, that Tony Blair was so keen to put his body through the torture of flying around the world to talk to presidents and sheikhs because it thus enabled him to escape the emotional challenge of engaging with the perspectives of his cabinet. He talks, said one Downing Street insider, to a lot of people individually, and very briefly.
In the UK at least, this general reluctance to engage fully with the situation one finds oneself in probably dates back to the intractable labour disputes of the 1970s. The result is an attitude among our leaders that makes positive change even more difficult to achieve, because there is a persistent implication that it is the responsibility of others to shift, not oneself; and that people must listen to you without there being a corresponding responsibility on you to hear what their perspective might be. At the heart of this approach is a lack of empathy.
For years now, UK governments have treated declining academic achievement, rising criminality or deterioration in public services as problems for which particular groups need to carry responsibility be they incompetent teachers, inadequate single parents or obstreperous workers. Their model of change involves chiding, challenging and shaming these groups into doing a better job. What gets ignored in the process is the reality that such tactics breed the sort of resentment, demoralisation and defiant compliance that makes these targets impossible to achieve.
The dialogic attitude
This is the danger in Shorts rhetoric and that of her colleagues. They want to be seen as acting decisively in the way they manage an anxiety-inducing situation. This leads them to dismiss the concerns of those more sensitive to the social and emotional dynamics in the Middle East. In cutting themselves off from vital information about the complexities of the current nightmare, they run the risk of making a bad situation much worse. History may tell us that Pol Pot would never have been able to implement a programme of mass murder if B52s had not carpeted Cambodia with bombs, or that Americas training of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan helped create the Taliban. But our political system does not allow the level of thinking that will save us from similar apocalypses.
To show us how far we are from thinking sensibly about international affairs, Henry Kissinger has already dismissed the approach to foreign policy adopted by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as being like a psychotherapeutic exercise. The implication is that it really would be better for diplomats not to try and understand those they are struggling to control. The frightening reality is that the US is likely to spend trillions of dollars on a war against terrorism when it has not yet developed a convincing psychological model of what would persuade terrorists (and the many millions who support them) away from the belief that perpetrating murderous carnage is the way to achieve a better world.
Perhaps the deepest fear is that opening up a dialogue with the enemy will show us how much we have in common with them. Hawks and terrorists, after all, share the same fantasy about the power of bombs to transform their wishes into hopes. Both are grappling to find their own solutions to very similar problems inherent in the global socio-economic realities of our time. Behind the cloudiness thrown up by cultural and religious difference, they share some common values that potentially provide a basis for the emergence of mutual understanding. And both are reluctant to engage fully with the thoughts, feelings and values of each other, probably because they are not capable of tolerating the anger and anxiety this may throw up along the way.
You will have read a lot of calls in recent weeks for reasonable Muslims to engage in dialogue with the Christian and Hebraic West about how we can find a way out of the current impasse. If, though, we want to overcome peoples wariness about the value of such an engagement, we need to start with ourselves to embed a dialogic attitude in our homes, schools, workplaces and policy-making institutions. Such a dialogue can only spring from an attitude that allows the emotions people are experiencing to find expression and to influence the future development of our institutions. Only through such dialogue can we develop the wisdom we need if we are to make a significant contribution to the management of conflicts around the world.