In Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union speech to Congress he called for unity whilst simultaneously trashing the Democrats on everything from border walls to Russian intervention in American elections. Something similar is happening on this side of the Atlantic with Brexit, where calls for national consensus are accompanied by a steadfast refusal to allow any of the discussion and flexibility required to reach it. Many of us feel deeply uncomfortable in polities that spew so much hypocrisy, vitriol and hate.
I’ve got a fair amount of experience trying to reach out to people I disagree with, or even fear a little, by running something called the Echo Chamber Club over the last few years. Every week I researched the news and opinion articles that people like me were probably consuming, and then disseminated counterpoints that I thought subscribers would find challenging. As a result of this experience I now frame the debate around polarisation in the following way: “how can we be different but still get along?” How can we respect what’s incommensurable about our views and values without resorting to violence and oppression?
My aim is not to create consensus, since I think it’s a good thing to have diversity in ideas. Instead, I look to ensure that we feel more comfortable in working alongside those with different opinions – or at least in talking and listening to them in a search for common ground. If we can’t even do that, then permanent division is inevitable, and with it the ever present danger of a low-grade civil war. How can we transform our democracies and daily practices to avoid this damaging outcome?
Since it’s easier to answer this question in a particular context let’s take a few concrete examples. First, the ongoing conflict between someone who’s opposed to abortion - a pro-lifer - and someone who believes that women have the right to abortion, a pro-choicer.
I am firmly in the pro-choice camp, and I’ve found it hard to understand how anyone can call themselves both pro-life and a feminist. But it turns out that some women do exactly that, so I chose to investigate the other side’s mission and claims.
One group, the New Wave Feminists, base their arguments on pacifism. They are against war, the death penalty and torture, so they feel it would be a contradiction for them to be in favour of abortion. Their aim is to create a society where no woman would feel the need to have one. They write: “Look, we don't work to make abortion illegal. We work to make it unthinkable and unnecessary. And we do that by getting to the root of the need for it.”
Feminists for Life is a similar group whose slogan is “Women Deserve Better.” They seek to eliminate the reasons that drive women to abortion by advocating “practical resources and holistic support which address the unmet needs of pregnant women, parents and birthparents.” This group seems a little more extreme because they implicitly state that abortion should be illegal, though they also write that women themselves should not be prosecuted for seeking one. And, they say, “We should criminalize anyone who withholds child support, fires a woman from her job because she is pregnant, refuses to accommodate her pregnancy, expels her from school, or threatens violence - any act that forces her to choose between sacrificing her child and sacrificing her education, career plans, or safety from violence.”
When I look at these two groups, I realise that we have some things in common. I would also like to make motherhood a more economically and psychologically comfortable position for those who choose it. I don’t want to stigmatise it, and I recognise that women have abortions for many complicated reasons, but I can see we have a common goal.
So I have a choice. I can choose to view these women as feminists through their own description of their identity, or I can reject their view of the world and claim that I know better. Through one lens I see only conflict, and through the other, I can see a potential way forward. One mindset helps us to work together and the other does not.
Let’s look at a different example with similar implications. Claudia Sternberg, Kira Gartzou-Katsouyanni and Kalypso Nicolaïdis have written a fantastic book on “The Greco-German Affair in the Euro Crisis,” which examines a wide range of journalistic pieces written in Germany and Greece as the latter looked bankruptcy in the eye.
They found many points of view from both countries. Some journalists attempted to understand each other, and often learned something about themselves in the process. Yes, there was stereotyping: some Germans wrote editorials lambasting the Greeks for being ‘extravagant’ and ‘lazy,’ while some Greeks portrayed the German’s as ‘cruel’ and ‘stingy.’ And, of course, there were plenty of references to how Germany behaved during two World Wars.
However, at least some of the journalists on each side reached out to try to understand the perspectives of the other by describing them in ways they might actually recognise. This led to the admission that both countries were interdependent because they shared the same currency. Because they had to work together to avoid the Euro’s collapse, they had to respect people who lived in other countries and value their concerns. As the authors concluded, “if many journalists or politicians chose to resort to offensive and stereotypical depictions of the Other during the crisis, this was not for a lack of alternative discursive options.”
What lessons can be learned from these examples? For me the most important is the principle of ‘mutual recognition’ in guiding processes of negotiation between conflicting groups with confidence, respect and esteem.
First, confidence: to understand others you must understand yourself - meaning that you must be confident that your own emotions, values and contributions to society are valid. What’s more, you must feel confident in your ability to enact change, and recognise that your actions have consequences. In this way, you recognise yourself as a morally responsible human being.
Second, respect: when you are confident you can take a look at others, recognising that they too have valid emotions, values and contributions to society. They are also responsible human beings and deserve equal recognition for being so. We are all entitled to rights that respect our humanity.
Third, esteem: through respect we understand that all people have equal rights. Adding esteem into the equation extends those rights to the equal expression of our differences. In the modern world we need an abundance of difference to uphold complex societies, so we should hold difference in esteem.
So far so good, but there are some obvious objections to this framing. The first concerns presumptions of equality where power is asymmetrical. In the case of Germany and Greece, for example, Germany was in a much more powerful position, so how could recognition be ‘mutual?’
The answer is that, although recognition requires input from all sides, it takes more commitment from the stronger party, because it is much easier for them to dismiss the concerns of the weak. The continued denial of recognition from those in power can only lead to instability. Groups have to go through a difficult and respectful process to find genuine common ground, as opposed to an artificial consensus.
Secondly, why should we ‘recognise’ misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views as valid? The theory of mutual recognition helps us turn this question on its head. Those with these views don’t respect the humanity and identities of others; instead they deny recognition to women, people of colour, Jews and immigrants. The frame I’m presenting provides a way of understanding and communicating why these attitudes are so damaging and how we might combat them, since we can simultaneously expose racism and misogyny and look to understand other aspects of the identities of such groups which are not bigoted or xenophobic.
Theories like this can help us to address division and polarisation, because without them we can’t understand where the problem comes from or how to handle it in terms other than opposition. So, for example, in my pro-choice/pro-life example this is how I re-framed seemingly-irreconcilable positions: when I approached the pro-life feminists I was already confident in my own identity as a feminist, but I also took steps to recognise them by understanding their own ideas on their own terms. I understood their interpretation of feminist values and respected them as feminists. Through this examination, I returned to reflect on my own ideology and recognised where there were similarities, and equally importantly, where I had to stand my ground if we were to ever have a future negotiation. This is the process of mutual recognition: try and find some commonalities and see if you can negotiate around the differences.
I try to follow the same process in the rest of my personal life and work. It takes a long time, and it can be very hard. A disagreement never lasts for half an hour. Instead it’s a process that takes days if not weeks. There are no quick fixes when it comes to conflict, but having a structure can help. Practicing confidence, respect and esteem provides a useful way to build bridges in divided communities. I hope you’ll try it.
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