Why feelings matter
So here I am, eschewing the book-writing thing for a while to focus on politics - mostly because as valid as its messages are, The Silver Moon Storybook isn't going to change the world, and the world badly needs changing right now.
In an unexpected twist, I'm putting myself forward for selection to the Scottish Green Party regional list for Lothian, for the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. In the recent podcast I made with Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Greens I talked a bit about my reasons for standing, what led me to the decision to go into politics, and why I think people (especially women) need to get involved. If you're interested in a bit of background, it's definitely worth a listen.
But today's blog is about feelings and emotions, and why they're important in politics. This is an area I've had a particular interest in for some time; I have a bit of a gift (although sometimes it feels like a curse) for noticing how interpersonal behaviours work and how they play out on a larger scale in society; and the more I notice this the more I understand that the key to making progress in the UK's current impasse (I use the word "impasse" because I'm trying to cut down on my swearing since I decided to enter pubic service...) is going to be emotional rather than rational in nature.
It's absolutely true that we have gone "post-facts" in the UK. We are making political decisions mainly out of emotion - and that emotion is fear. Some of these fears are entirely rational; food bank use is at an all-time high and nearly 33% of our children live in poverty. It's totally reasonable to feel afraid when you're struggling to make ends meet.
Other fears are not quite so rational - fear of immigration, which flies in the face of evidence which shows that immigrants generally make a net contribution to the economy (where that economy is managed well enough not to be running a giant deficit). I always try to assume best intentions, but it's very difficult not to believe that this fear was deliberately, cynically whipped up by people who stood to benefit personally from "othering" chunks of the population.*
We have constitutional fear - in Scotland the fear of losing our place in Britain, the fear of not losing our place in Britain; across the UK the same diametrically opposed fears apply to our relationship with the EU. We are a thoroughly divided, anxious people, and it's our fears that are keeping us in that state. This is why feelings are important, and why I believe we all need to start paying more attention to emotions when it comes to politics.
Fearful, insecure people tend to project their own shortcomings onto other people, and often find it hard to admit when they are wrong. In a culture of attack and opposition, folk are generally going to be pretty fearful - check out a session of PMQs or FMQs if you want to see the combative culture in our politics in action. Attack / counter-attack / attack / counter-attack - it's a never-ending cycle of blame, defensiveness and deflection, is it really surprising that we're getting nowhere?
As politicians, we need to start being a bit braver and moving ourselves out of fear. We desperately need to foster the skills of empathy, compassion and collaboration in parliament; we simply don't have time to continue indulging in the kind of tit-for-tat oppositional politics that prevents us from making progress. All constitutional issues aside, the planet we live on continues to burn...
Finding empathy for people you disagree with is a tricky skill to learn, but it's absolutely possible - this is something we all need to start practicing. As soon as empathy comes, "othering" is reduced and trust starts to develop; on the back of trust we can build respectful negotiation and ultimately compromise. And in the current polarised political environment, compromise is our only way out of the chaos.
So my challenge for anybody reading is this - can you practice finding empathy for someone you profoundly disagree with? Can you try to imagine the world as seen through their eyes, and feel what they feel?
If you're voted pro-independence for Scotland in the first Indyref, can you imagine how it feels to feel strongly British and face losing the country that you belong to? (Hint - you know this already, you experienced it on 19th September 2014...)
If you loathe the Tories, can you stop for a moment and consider how many of them will have been abandoned at 8 years old to boarding schools? We all take satisfaction on the Left in pointing out that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump behave like obnoxious little boys in grown-up suits and ties, but do we stop to consider the horrible truth that psychologically that's exactly what they are, and that's the result of massive trauma and abandonment?
If you're sick of the pro-Brexit population of the UK, can you imagine how it feels to be derided and mocked for your honestly-held beliefs, and forced to face the possibility that the *one time* the government actually seemed committed to carrying out something you voted for, roughly half the country called you stupid and racist, and tried to overturn that decision?
It doesn't even matter that pro-union, pro-Tory and pro-Brexit views are in direct opposition to my own opinions; if I can understand how they came to be, and why personal pain and struggle may play a huge part in some of them, I am prepared to treat the people who hold them with compassion and respect even as I vehemently disagree with them. I have developed a pretty good understanding of my own psychological blind spots in the last few years, and look back on a good few of my honestly held past beliefs with a gigantic cringe; if I can forgive myself for idiotic stuff I didn't "get" when I was younger, then I can certainly dig up some respect for people who disagree with me now.
On that note, my sister in law recently asked me if I planned to do a social media purge, to delete any stuff from my past that doesn't align with my current beliefs. I said no, because anything I said in the past that I would cringe at today, is simply evidence that I am committed to learning and growing. I'm not going to go all Ministry of Truth and try to rewrite the past; if I'm challenged on something silly I said before I knew any better, I will just have to own it and talk about how I came to change my beliefs.
And this is why feelings matter; if we can grow a generation of politicians who are personally secure enough not to live in constant fear of criticism and mistakes, we will naturally start moving away from the combative, oppositional model of politics. If we can learn to manage our own emotions, become familiar with our own blind spots and where we could do with a bit of development personally, we will be capable of putting our own stuff to the side and focus on what needs to be done. It may feel distressing to live in a post-facts, emotionally-driven society, but railing against that and complaining won't solve anything, only learning to live in it and work with emotions rather than fighting them will get us anywhere.
So that's why I'm standing. I'm no stranger to making huge thumping mistakes (ask any of my pals about Squirrelgate if you need confirmation of this), and I'm not afraid to be criticised, challenged or disagreed with. If I can keep my eyes on the prize and negotiate my way out of a perpetual hunger loop** with my 6 year old without taking anything personally, I can't honestly imagine being provoked too seriously by a policy disagreement between grown-ups.
What I'm really excited about is the openness I have noticed in the Scottish Green Party to the concept of emotional intelligence being important in politics. As part of the SGP Women's Network, I recently worked on the #SGPWNHeroes campaign, which was all about learning to share and celebrate our less rational strengths and skills - the kind of stuff that's true, valuable and helpful, but is really difficult to pin down into CV-friendly language. I urge you to have a look through the Twitter thread, and think about how very different a country run by a bunch of people who feel secure enough to actually do politics differently would be.
Thanks for visiting; please feel free to leave a comment or ask me any questions.
* Totally aware here that I am "othering" people like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. the more I learn about the damage that childhood trauma does, the more I suspect that many folk *genuinely don't realise* the damage they do, and would be genuinely baffled, angry and hurt at the accusations of self-interest, racism and malevolence. They may entirely lack the self-awareness necessary to ask themselves "are we the baddies?"
** For the uninitiated, the perpetual hunger loop goes something like this:
Child: I'm huuuuungry!
Adult: Ok, what would you like to eat?
Child: I don't knoooooooow!
Adult: *suggests several foods known to be favoured by child*
Adult: Well, what do you want to eat then?
Child: I DON'T KNOOOOOOW!
Adult: Well, let me know when you decide.
Child: BUT I'M HUUUUUNGRY!!
Repeat, increasing volume by 1.5 with each cycle. Eventually someone will lose their shit entirely - not necessarily the child. *pops £1 in the public service swear jar*