In tackling polarisation and anger, understanding our opponents is vital. It’s also extremely hard. - RSA

In tackling polarisation and anger, understanding our opponents is vital. It’s also extremely hard.

Blog 2 Comments

  • Leadership
  • Philosophy

In my last post I asked how moderates might respond to the evidence of extensive and destructive political alienation in societies like ours.

One aspect would be a different style of politics. Here I explain how very different it would have to be.

Let’s agree what we don’t agree about

Peacekeepers and mediators have techniques to deal with situations of heightened antagonism and mutual distrust. One of the most important is to encourage those unable or unwilling to find common ground to at least agree what it is they disagree about.

Whatever the original grievance, anger is exacerbated by the sense that our views or interests are being disrespected or misrepresented. For opponents to appreciate that their antagonist not only sincerely believes in their position but believes it to be virtuous is an exacting but vital stage in the process of reconciliation.

Not only do most politicians fail to grapple with this challenge they positively choose to do the opposite; deliberately misrepresenting their opponents and disparaging their motives.

In the wake of the current row over the language being used by the Prime Minister and others, many are urging moderation. Perhaps, for a while, some politicians will respond. But this is not primarily a matter of personal predispositions. Exacerbating conflict has become intrinsic to politics.

Every party spends a great deal of time and money working with pollsters to find the best way of caricaturing their opponents regardless of whether these representations reflect actual beliefs or motives. In the face of polarisation, well-intentioned people seek to transcend divisions; in politics, operatives are taught the art of finding and exploiting dividing lines.

This problem though goes deeper.

We need more reason and less rhetoric in politics

The art of rhetoric lies at the heart of the modern art of politics but goes back to at least to the Greeks and Romans. It involves persuading people to support one position less by that position’s strengths than by exposing the inadequacy of the opposing position.

This is the valued skill of the debating society and the barristers’ chambers. There is a big difference between discourse and debate but in the public schools many of our leaders attended it was the latter skill that was taught and prized.

In some contexts, making a one-sided case can be legitimate and even essential. Indeed, given the pervasiveness of marketing in a consumer society, millions of us are in the persuasion business. But it is worth noting how different rhetoric is from reason.

From primary school to university if any student were to write an essay on a historical or contemporary conflict in which they appeared to misunderstand, much less deliberately misrepresent, the views of one side they would be rightly marked down. Appreciating only one side of an argument is a barrier to truth or insight.

Let’s go wider still. Why does rhetoric work?

  • Partly, it makes life easier. It is less effort to assume our opponents are wrong than to doubt our own opinions.
  • Partly it fits the predisposition, instilled into us from our first nursery stories, for a Manichean worldview of good and evil.
  • It’s also human nature.

The purpose in rhetoric of encouraging us to question the motives of our opponents, appeals to what psychologists call ‘fundamental attribution bias’.

This defined pithily on one psychology website as “the tendency for people to over-emphasise dispositional, or personality-based explanations for behaviours observed in others while under-emphasising situational explanations”. In other words, thinking people hold a belief because of who they are, not what they experience or what they know.

A different type of political debate is possible

Our dangerous levels of destructive anger and alienation create an ethical imperative for politicians to eschew the temptation to portray opponents as stupid or evil. But it seems this would not only mean unilaterally laying aside the current weapons of politics but rejecting the noble art of rhetoric, defying our favourite narrative form and refusing the deeply human desire for intellectual ease and emotional comfort.

But it is possible. I have been a sympathetic observer of Caroline Lucas since hearing a speech she gave to a small festival I attended a few years ago. Over about thirty minutes she outlined the views of the Greens and why she questioned the stance of the other parties. Although she was critical of her opponents, at no time did she resort to caricature. Instead, her speech explored the genuinely held beliefs and long-standing interests of her opponents and why, in her view, these stood in the way of them responding to the scale of the climate emergency. Whether or not the reasons for Lucas’s style were ethical or tactical, the absence of rhetoric was without doubt the source of her cogency.

To tackle polarisation, alienation and rage, we need to try to truly understand those we disagree with. But like all worthwhile disciplines, it’s something we’re going to have to work at.

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • V. Good. All probs listed accurate, most on either side would probably totally agree. But then… they’d also then agree that the other guys are operating this way towards them, but never themselves in retaliation. It’s tough.

    Most of this speaks to mentality rather than behaviour though, and whilst that’s obviously crucial, it’s already been an issue a long time. The mentality thing. What’s more recent is the behaviour thing which is just shocking to watch. It’s not just assuming sinister motives for people you disagree with, or deliberately pretending to misunderstand their point so it’s easier to argue back. It’s now become acceptable to simply call your opponent a lowlife (or usually something worse) and win the day with no follow up. It’s not only an effective thing to do, but actually seen as some kind of super clever thing to do, and your own people will pat you on the back for it. If we really did have the high brow Roman Senate rhetoric style running the show like you describe, the situation might not be as bad. At least those guys back then were pretty good at what they did.

    Even publically calling somebody a liar. Anybody else remember a time when you just couldn’t do that so easily? This era we’re living through with a corroded political class now cannibalising itself – it tracks fairly consistently with the decline of the Italian American Mafia decades ago, actually pretty fascinating stuff if you have a plane journey to burn through. Back in the day those old school gangsters were very discreet about their business and in handling grievance or negotiating between rival crime families. There was a kind of gentlemanly code, where if you were at a sit down with others and you knew somebody was lying, you couldn’t just call them a liar. If you did, you then lost the argument.

    Because you needlessly lowered the tone and publically disgraced someone. Instead, the old timers had a delicate way of asking different questions, proposing different business deals where the other person was put in a position where he’d have to admit the truth of his own accord. Or instead you let the liar have their way in the negotiation by giving them their valuable objective in the short term in exchange for you securing something different from them in the long term. Things like that. Old timer politicians used to have a similar ethos or etiquette, and the whole thing was a lot more restrained in terms of how aggressive your manner could be. And in the criminal version of this, it let to a lot less violence and bloodshed than there otherwise would have been. 

    Today? All of that’s gone, both in the criminal and political world. Doubtful it’s some temporary blip that will pass.

  • I really agree with your perspective on this Matthew. My own experience and those of those of others working on post-conflict resolution is that being able to listen with care to those who you profoundly disagree with is the starting point to finding ways of reducing tensions and slowly rebuilding trust. 

    I went to a great talk at the RSA some years ago by Adam Kahane on this subject - see -  and I recommend his book 'Collaborating with the Enemy' to anyone interested in working in situations of organisational or political conflict.

Related articles