Reconciliation: 3. None of this is easy…

by | 13 Sep 2023

This three-part series ends with the most difficult problems to solve of all - the identity-based, culture war conflicts. There is no easy way to make these go away, but there is a way to make them less bad.

The full series: Part One | Part Two

Right, in parts one and two of this series on seeking peace and reconciliation across Scotland’s ideological battlelines I looked at what is frankly the low-hanging fruit. There is literally no reason we need a divided independence movement and it would be easy for us to change the tone of the constitutional debate if we wanted to. Now the tricky stuff: culture wars.

This is going to be hard. There are so many of them. They’re all different. They all have different players, different factors. They can be truly vicious. But they all have in them commonalities, and those factors sit very clearly on my ‘reconciliation factors’ group of trust, equity, honesty and empathy. Failures in each of these for various groups in society is what has provided the culture wars readily available fuel.

I’ve explained in more detail the way that culture wars are a response to the rise of identity politics, a political ideology that inevitably divides us and divides us. If there are three people left on the planet, you’ll still have the potential for three different identities. I’ve also tried to explain that the solution is to stop taking an individualistic route to public policy delivery which seeks to select ‘one of the boats’ and raise it up, rather than seeking to raise all the boats at once.

That needs a reorientation away from the identity politics agendas of hate crimes, re-education campaigns and changing institutional norms towards structural policies like housing, wages, transport and local democracy. It’s not that we don’t need to change attitudes, its that they change much more easily in a more equitable society.

That is the second point; it can never be said enough that hate feeds on alienation and alienation feeds on inequality and inequity. When a piece of academic work shows as conclusively as The Spirit Level that we have fewer fights and conflicts in more equal societies and 15 years later we’re still debating it rather than acting on it, we’re failing.

These are the biggest contributions that could be made to easing the culture war tensions. But these are structural policy responses, they’re not a peace and reconciliation move – though they very much make it easier.

This means we then need to look at the culture war areas of conflict individually (they’re different) but then seek change with the same tools (because the routes out of conflict are consistent). Spoiler alert; in the honesty, equity, trust, empathy deck we’re going to be leaning heavily on empathy with these.

So let me give you three examples to show how this could work. Let’s begin with alienated young men drifting towards Andrew Tate-style misogyny. We can of course shout ‘incels!’ at them and pen another Guardian article about how they’re the major problem in our society, or we could stop for a second and ask why they’re drifting in this direction.

If we were to show some empathy for them we would realise that everything they’re hearing is telling them that they’re not valued, that society sees them as a problem to be managed, that frankly no-one cares. Is this a legitimate feeling for them to have? If you were being truly empathetic you’d accept that, yes, our current social and political debate doesn’t dwell on them much other than where they’re viewed as the problem.

 ‘No retreat, no surrender’ is the most difficult thing to deal with in peace and reconciliation

And if you can keep your empathy flowing and ask if it makes sense to tell this group of young men that you don’t care about them because their white-male ancestors had it all their own way for 3,000 years, you’ll realise that it wouldn’t help them feeling less uncared about. It would certainly be hypocritical to tell them that it is a moral failing on their part to drift towards the only voice they hear telling them they’re not the problem.

How do we create peace and reconciliation so that boys don’t drift in that direction? Well, your empathy should lead you to realise that an early first step would be some honestly. What if public messaging was honest and say ‘look, we’ve neglected issues that are important to your life and sometimes perhaps we made it sound like we think you’re the problem. That’s on us and we’re sorry about it.’

And then you would want to look at social equity. If boys are straying in this direction because they don’t feel they have social equity, what would it look like if they did? It doesn’t have to be ‘the patriarchy’, it could just be (say) proper provision of sports clubs.

Folks, you know those stories of how boxing clubs changed lives? It is nothing to do with the boxing. It’s the community, the structure, the sense of value that achievement delivers. If we want to rebuild trust we need to get those empathy/equity/honesty factors in play. Or we deserve to lose kids to extremism.

Let me give a completely different example with completely different issues; the trans rights debate. This is about as tricky as it gets when it comes to reconciliation. There are now two strong identity-based ideologies and, at least at face value, neither leaves any space for the other. Either you believe women are born or you believe anyone can become a woman. It’s not about the merits of either case, it’s about the first-glance appearance that there is no possible resolution.

This is where a little empathy-heavy trust-building would be useful. The one thing we’ve not really structured into this debate is reasoned engagement. That isn’t something that ‘just happens’; you need to build opportunities and conditions for engagement. As far as I can tell, different sides in this debate have never been asked to be in one place with a process designed to help each side engage with empathy.

Because this is also about equity. Some woman feel that their social equity is being undermined by changes to regulations over which they had no say. Some trans people feel that they will never have social equity unless society is changed to give them that social equity. Put it like that and that is a much better place to start a conversation.

If you start just by asking people to explain what social equity they absolutely need to have to feel that they are a valued member of society and then what more would help, you can then try to work out how the maximum number of people can get the maximum amount of equity. It is possible – and that’s honestly about as good as it gets in difficult social negotiations.

This then throws up the most difficult part of the most difficult problem – ‘ultras’. Ultras exist everywhere. If you have ten people in a room who think the same thing, chances are one of them thinks it so, so hard that they will take up arms or go to jail in defence of that thing. ‘No retreat, no surrender’ is the most difficult thing to deal with in peace and reconciliation.

So then you have to make decisions. You can take ultras and begin a separate negotiation (bilateral) with them, seek to move them a little closer to accepting some kind of compromise. Or you can take an ultra position yourself – that this issue really is of such high principle that there can be no compromise. Or you can shift to an opt-in, opt-out process where, effectively, you isolate ultras and form a consensus without them.

Never pretend that not tackling these issues is easy – fixing them is hard, living with them as a permanent feature of our society is harder again

But with options two or three all you are doing is postponing your peace and reconciliation work. If you take a pro-ultra position, then after you impose your package of measures you need to reach out to those who lost and find some way to bring them back in with some equity of their own. If you isolate ultras in pursuit of a compromise, you will need to direct your reconciliation at them afterwards.

And let me gently point out that reconciling society to ultra positions is the hardest thing to do. Society is about compromise. It always has been and always will be. It is healthier to think in terms of ‘how much compromise?’ most of the time.

Not a neat solution, because there isn’t a neat solution to really difficult problems. But there can be a robust and effective process that has the best chance of arriving at a solution. Then again, most people accept there is merit on both sides of that argument. What if there isn’t? What if one side of the argument just seems, well, wrong?

That’s when you get into conspiracy theories and pseudo-fascism. You can’t really compromise with someone who believes the world is run by lizards, and you shouldn’t really compromise with actual fascism. So what do you do?

Empathy is the answer. First, in both cases, why are people taking these positions? They didn’t much for 60 years. Why now? If you don’t let yourself be drawn into ‘they’re irredeemable idiots or fundamentally bad people’ for a moment and you treat them as flawed humans first, you’ll almost certainly find a group of people who feel (often with reason) that their social equity is being taken from them in one way or another, except for a small number of them who will turn out to be ideologues who are exploiting them.

Negotiating this back into a less hostile form in society is really hard. The best bet is to engage in trust-building through a focus on people’s social equity. It doesn’t mean reward bad behaviour or accept or tolerate it, it means you should understand its roots. And before you start expecting change, what have you changed?

Often you’ll find that people who drift in this direction are coming from communities which are in serious social and economic decline. You can start a conversation with the whole community and hope that it reaches those who have become radicalised. But this isn’t just about prevention (there are good anti-radicalisation prevention methodologies), it’s about finding a space where we can disagree with civility.

And that is hard. The simple reality is that, somehow, to do that you have to build serious levels of trust. Yes, that involves equity, yes that involves empathy, yes that means greater honesty. But it is also going to mean taking a hard look at social and economic factors and saying ‘right, that’s not good enough, we need to change this’ – and mean it. Trust is about follow-through. Fast routes to trust are bad routes. It must be earned.

I think I better leave it there. I’m not going to manage to solve all these issues in a few sides of A4. Some of these might take a generation or more to reach a state of peace and reconciliation. None are as simple. There are much more complicated pictures in all of these examples. You can’t sort it from above. You have to become involved near to people. These are all people problems.

Please don’t email me in all the factors of features I’ve missed. I could give you 100 of them simply off the top of my head, based only on the case studies I’ve picked. I know how hard this can be. But – and this is all I have been trying to get across in these three articles – there is a massive difference between hard and impossible.

And never pretend that not tackling these issues is easy. Fixing them is hard; living with them as a permanent feature of our society is harder again. We cannot throw up our hands and just say ‘it’s all fucked, the world is going to hell in a handcart’ or we’ll make it true. We have to believe there is a route to peace.

There is, and centuries of practical experience offer five really helpful piece of knowledge that can help us when we try. The first is that it happens when brave leaders on either side are willing to take the first step in towards each other. The other four? The solution to social conflict is always honesty, equity, trust and empathy. If nothing else, that bit is simple.

The full series: Part One | Part Two

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