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How to end Westminster’s tribal warfare

No, YOUR an idiot. Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

August 8, 2019   4 mins

Every summer, bookshops lay out stacks of blockbusters designed to be devoured in an afternoon and forgotten in a week. But at UnHerd we prefer books that leave a lasting impression. In this series of Summer Reads, our contributors recommend overlooked books that will engage and enrich you, not just distract you.


Recently, I sat through a lunch where four people had a searing argument with one another, despite agreeing on both the facts and the principles at stake. Each wanted to use those same facts and principles to prove themselves right, and their opponents wrong. The lunch was in Westminster of course, where professional arguers go to make a living.

But this mood of toxic intransigence has spread far beyond the dining rooms of SW1. The whole country’s political conversation is now characterised by extremism and outrage, pomposity and arrogance. So my prescription for your summer is to learn to let it go. We need to find a new way of talking to one another, with respect, compassion and humility. And there’s no better place to start than the works of Marshall Rosenberg, who created the concept of nonviolent communication.

First off: order the book online. If you see the book in its physical form, before you buy, I strongly expect you’ll walk away. I feel a powerful sense of dread when I see the cover of any of Rosenberg’s books, which are branded to look like the absolute worst kind of sanctimonious self-help guides. They sit alongside the Power of Now, the Miracle of Yes, the Tao of Toenails, and all sorts of other tedious tomes. They look at home next to a display of healing crystals and incense, as if they’re full of the sort of fake news wellbeing puffery peddled by Gwyneth Paltrow on her Goop website.

But give Marshall a chance. Give Marshall a chance, because he teaches us how to give each other a chance: how to use language not to oppress or subjugate, or prove our own superiority, but to genuinely communicate and engage.

When you follow the principles of Nonviolent Communication, you listen to and respect the words and feelings of your counterpart. You ask thoughtful questions, to unpack, clarify and understand your counterpart’s motivations and values. You don’t dismiss, attack, or resort to defensive whataboutery. As the author explains in his introduction:

“We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention. In any exchange, we come to hear our own deeper needs and those of others.”

I’m not going to give you a full primer here, not least because I’m still a novice myself. Until recently, one of my favourite books was Schopenhauer’s The Art of Always Being Right. It’s a tremendous read, entertaining and full of great tips for any aspiring political orator. Plus it has a natural appeal to me and my ego. Who doesn’t like being right after all?

But Schopenhauer’s book isn’t actually a lesson in being right. It’s a lesson in winning an argument in front of an audience: a kind of performative rightness that bears little relationship with what we might call objective truth. It could be, and perhaps is, the handbook of our current crop of political leaders, interested mostly in appealing to a group of people who are already on their side, with a succession of rhetorical tricks to make the other guys look ludicrous.

But that indulgence is causing our political discourse to disintegrate into tribal warfare, where none give credit to the other side even for good intentions, let alone the occasional good idea. We are caught in the language of outrage, where virtue is signalled to one’s own tribe by the violence with which we condemn our enemies and opponents, and whether we looked good while we did it.

Schopenhauer has seductive appeal, but it’s time to set his book and what it stands for aside. Schopenhauer is cake: delicious but dangerous in large quantities. Marshall Rosenberg, by contrast, is a kale smoothie. Hard to swallow, but curative of many ills.

We need to learn the art of listening to each other. The Right needs to understand that Jeremy Corbyn is not wrong about everything: there are real questions that the advocates of capitalism must answer, whether they’re about inequality, the environment or workers’ rights. But the Left needs to understand that Theresa May was not wrong about everything either: she was a champion for race and gender equality, she drove an ambitious industrial strategy, and she secured more than £20bn extra for the NHS.

And if liberals want to return to power, they will need to learn to listen to the worries and demands of those let down by the technocratic policymaking of the past 30 years. You don’t need to agree with everyone, or change your mind to accommodate every new opinion you come across. But you can be a leader who shows compassion: who listens deeply, and without prejudice, to understand those who disagree with you. In the end that’s the only way we will be able to build consensus.

So eat cake on your holiday. But when it comes to your poolside reading, indulge your soul with something more meaningful. If we all came back in September with just 10% more compassion for our political opponents, we might have a hope of that unity our new Prime Minister has promised us.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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