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Donald Trump’s election to the White House has led to an outburst of fear, anger, outrage, disgust and acrimony, but those feelings have also exposed one of the enduring fantasies of liberalism: that democracy is always defined by tolerance and compromise, the mutual exchange of pleasantries, and peaceful co-existence with other people. Many feel understandably uncomfortable or afraid because recent events have forced them to look into the eye of the tiger and they don’t like what they see—a landscape characterized by illiberal values like racism, sexism and anti-immigrant sentiment.
One way to deal with this discomfort is to push it aside, assuming that opinions we disagree with are simply a temporary product of economic insecurity and Trump’s populist appeal. But this is a mistake: it ignores the deeper roots of disaffection and the need to understand, listen and respond to the disconnection and alienation that always resurfaces in one form or another when it’s not properly addressed. Staying in safe and separate groups of like-minded thinkers cements this problem even further. However painful it may be, it’s time to get to grips with the fact that violence, as Tolstoy once wrote in a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.
In an article published in 2013, the anthropologist James Ferguson argued that even the most oppressive social system that values people’s contributions as human beings can be seen as more desirable than one that respects their rights on paper but not in practice. Even if this system reinforces patriarchy and other forms of oppression, many people are willing to pay that price in order to gain security and feel part of something larger—to feel that they belong and are valued. In other words, liberal values are not a priority for everyone, especially when they come at the price of disconnection from one’s own community or of greater economic uncertainty.
Capitalism and technological progress have undermined this sense of belonging for large numbers of people who are no longer required in the labour market and are increasingly seen as disposable. While liberal modernity has undoubtedly brought us many positives, especially in terms of rising life expectancy and falling infant mortality, it has also pushed many people further into isolation and loneliness because they feel they are no longer needed, creating a void which must be filled somehow—often through a desperate personal desire to consume more and thus fuel the system even further.
This is one the central paradoxes of liberalism: progress on individual liberty in many parts of the world has been admirable but we are also becoming increasingly alienated from one another: loneliness has become a modern day pandemic. A now-famous academic study on what makes people thrive followed 268 undergraduate men for 75 years. It concluded that happiness is love, and that love comes down to warm and empathetic connections—not the assertion of individual rights but the enjoyment of a sense of belonging with other people. As the writer Brené Brown puts it, “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Without it there is suffering.”
At the other end of the spectrum we see political correctness—the increasing suppression of those parts of ourselves that do not conform to dominant social norms in order to feel accepted. In both cases, we numb ourselves by withdrawing from the fray, or with cheap or expensive entertainment depending on our budget, or with alcohol or drugs or anything else we can consume, in order to escape the fact that we are less and less able to be true to ourselves. Inevitably, the result is more pain and suffering.
Whichever path we choose, we know that we are easily replaceable in today’s social order, and this fear suppresses our individuality still further. Yet it is only through embracing our personal truth that we can connect to each-other authentically. As the social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm concluded, only when we act from the centre of our existence—with all the good, the bad and the ugly that this entails—can we truly empathise with another human being and their suffering, not looking down at them from above or patronising them or telling them how they have to be in order to be worthy of our love. We should not accept racism or sexism or homophobia, but we can take an active interest in listening to and understanding the pain that lies at the root.
Silent withdrawal and indifference towards other human beings is never better than engagement, even if it causes anger, discomfort and perhaps even direct confrontation. In divided societies, these confrontations should be used as cues that can help us to navigate political conflicts emotionally. Although the phrase ‘post-truth politics’ has become a convenient catchphrase, the implication that people simply need more education in order to vote in a more responsible manner—or that only ‘objective’ facts represent the truth and that emotions have no place in the political realm—is unpersuasive.
When communication is driven exclusively by facts it can give rise to defensiveness, self-protection and emotional disconnection, thus becoming a status-oriented contest on who is right, who is more educated and who is better positioned socially. By contrast, empathetic conversations focus on seeing the common humanity between all the parties in conflict with each-other, acknowledging everyone’s emotions as valid and focusing on understanding the fears and concerns that shape each person’s views. As Nelson Mandela once explained, such strategies require great self-discipline and a focus on the future good of all of those involved. The keys to achieving these things lie in overcoming the need to assert one’s social status and to position oneself as superior vis-à-vis one’s interlocutor, and the willingness to focus on one’s own inner development in order to strengthen one’s humility and curiosity about the other.
Of course we could stay inside our own silos of mutual agreement—listening to self-reinforcing perspectives and opinions that make us feel comfortable against the growing unpleasantness of the world outside. But we can’t heal a torn social fabric in that way. In fact we might even make it worse. Like rocks in a stream, the sharp edges of our differences can only be softened when they collide with each other over time. How do we get out this prison of disconnection and embrace an honest interdependency between people who are likely to continue to disagree with each other, with all the depth and complexity entailed in this challenge?
As research repeatedly shows, creativity and love and all of the other things that make life worth living come from our ability to empathise with other people, to learn from their perspectives, and to see the world through their eyes. To co-create a better world we need one another in all our differences and not in spite of them, as threatening as that may seem at times like this. While existing political institutions do not encourage such forms of empathetic public engagement, there is great power in the day-to-day role-modeling, community leadership and bottom-up diffusion of these norms. Individual action is most potent when people are willing to put their whole person on the line and extend themselves emotionally to others.
Emmanuel Levinas, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, suggests that rather than focusing on the assertion of the individual we can assert the self through a relationship of responsibility towards the other. The focus should be on listening to people and having faith in their own ability to reach and act on their insights at their own pace. Since democracy itself is a form of dependency on the will of others, we need to work a lot harder to overcome our own narcissism and our belief that we know best—that ‘non-liberal’ people don’t deserve to be heard—if we want this interdependency to echo a love of all humanity. In fact we should show the least interest in our own opinions because we already know them, and because that will free us up to hear the opinions of other people. We may not like what we hear, but this will create a much firmer foundation for moving forward.