It was dark, at night, in heavy traffic. I could only just make out the shocking scene in front of me. I flipped up my visor and there, in the headlights, I saw a man beating another man badly. Without thinking, I pulled up on my motorcycle and quickly ran over to the assailant, arms outstretched and said, ‘Are you OK?’ He looked at me, puzzled, got back in his car and drove away. The other man, face covered in blood, thanked me…’You just saved my life.’
I felt puzzled too. I was astonished that I had approached the attacker with compassion and yet also noticed how it had diffused rather than inflamed the situation. DeBono calls this ‘lateral thinking’ – to do the counter-intuitive as a way of creating shift. It felt to me like God’s surprising wisdom. It was an important learning moment for me too. What can our actions inadvertently evoke in others? How far do we actually create what we experience?
Then I’m in Germany. I had been an anti-Nazi activist since I was 15 and here I was in the midst of a Christian social work project that aimed to influence neo-Nazi youth by reaching out to them. It ran against everything I felt and believed. Surely – we must oppose these people vehemently rather than open our arms to them?! And yet, over time, I learned important things about their psychology. Attacking would have stiffened their resolve and reinforced their beliefs.
Now to 9-11. Appalling scenes on TV and people crying out for revenge. I remember my first words: ‘We need to think very carefully before we respond. What reaction is Al Qaeda trying to provoke and what will that achieve for them?’ It was a complex situation and a controversial stance and yet, years later, the Middle East is in flames, Islamist extremism is spreading, the West lives in fear of terror and refugees are pouring across borders at unprecedented levels.
I think Gestalt psychology can offer critical insight here. Figure and ground: figure is what holds our attention, ground is the backdrop that provides the context yet lays out of awareness. So here we are in the EU with problems of rising nationalism. The far right parties hold our attention, provide a focus for our fear and scorn, yet the conditions that fuel their support, that drive people towards them, lay unexamined, out of consciousness, out of the spotlight.
Like a magician that tricks by misdirection, we can find our attention drawn to the person, the issue that lays immediately in front of our eyes and miss the vital background. It’s so tempting to go for it. We can feel justified in our actions, feel better about ourselves, yet how often do we compound the issue by what we do? How far are we creating the monsters that keep us awake at night? How can we spot the sleight of hand that deceives us so convincingly?
Someone just called me, ‘Nixit’. It made me smile. :) I had posted this piece (below) on Facebook as a direct and deliberate challenge to bitter vitriol, negative stereotyping and harsh demonising on social media of people who voted ‘Leave’ in the UK-EU referendum last week.
I feel a bit nervous because, with frayed tempers running high this weekend, it’s very hard to speak and be heard. I can say, however, that everyone I know who voted ‘Remain’ did so with sincere beliefs and honourable intentions. I hope some will feel able to hear me. I hope I will hear too.
I voted Leave.
‘Leave voters are inward-looking.’
OK. I’ve been to France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria, Italy, Albania, Yugoslavia, Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, West Bank, Uganda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Canada, United States. You?
‘Leave voters are ignorant and uneducated.’
OK. I have a first degree with honours, a postgraduate diploma with distinction, a masters degree with distinction. I’m a fellow of a UK professional Institute, have had over 100 articles published in journals and have spoken at various UK and international conferences. You?
‘Leave voters are selfish.’
OK. I’m not Mother Teresa. However, I’ve worked my entire adult life with charities and international NGOs in countries including UK, Germany, Albania, Lebanon, West Bank, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Canada, United States. I’ve been a lifelong supporter of numerous organisations including Amnesty International and Greenpeace. You?
‘Leave voters are right wing, xenophobic racists.’
OK. I’ve been a lifelong leftist, worked in political/human rights for Latino people in El Salvador/Central America, worked in a Palestinian hospital for Muslim children with disabilities, worked in anti-Nazi projects in Germany, taught English to Vietnamese refugees, taught East European people, worked with African people from vulnerable contexts and people from almost every country in Asia. You?
‘Leave voters are nationalistic fascists.’
I’m pro-European and pro-International; pro-refugee and pro-migration; pro-democracy and pro-human rights. Until 2 years ago, I was passionately pro-EU. I voted Leave because, among other things, I feel desperately concerned about rising nationalism across the EU and beyond which is, in my view, fuelled by EU policies and behaviour.
A lot of good people disagree with me and voted Remain. Respect.
A lot of good people voted Leave too.
We may have more in common than we know. That is my hope.
Gone are the days when we could think of ourselves, our teams and our organisations in splendid isolation. We now discover, abruptly at times, that everything is interconnected, everything is interdependent. We see impacts of global markets on domestic markets and vice versa. We see impacts of national and international policy on local people. We see sudden, unexpected changes that come out of nowhere, traceable only in retrospect, that dramatically shape our lives and work.
In the third sector where I’ve spent most of my professional life, we used to think of, say, human rights, international development and environmental issues as completely separate. We now see them as integrally related. Make a change in one area and it impacts on people and communities in another area - or in another part of the world. We can’t always see the connections but we can certainly feel them. This makes the world more complex, less predictable, less certain.
A pervasive atmosphere of complexity and uncertainty can evoke personal, social, economic and political anxiety. Leaders and ideologies are emerging across the globe that offer simplistic solutions, often at the extremes, that create a comforting illusion. They may help us sleep more peacefully, live more purposefully. Yet they ignore, dismiss or suppress aspects of reality that don’t fit their simple narrative. To break free from this, we must learn to surface and live with uncomfortable truths.
A stark example: witness the rhetoric in the UK and other Western nations this year in the face of unplanned, large-scale migration into Europe. Social media is filled with heated debate. ‘They’re all helpless refugees – rescue them!’ vs ‘They’re all terrorist sympathisers – reject them!’ It poses an either-or, black-white choice. To say, ‘It’s complicated. It calls for a sophisticated response’ sounds like a cop out, a refusal to take sides, a stance devoid of passion, a betrayal of a cause.
So we find ourselves facing an existential crisis, created and fuelled in part by a perfect storm of influences. These include: spread of Islamic extremism, growth in right/left wing nationalism, intolerant illiberal liberalism, gross economic inequality, unprecedented global awareness via the internet, powerful social media, more failed states, huge displacement of people, alarming climate change. It can feel perplexing, confusing, debilitating. How to take a stance in the midst of all this?
Adrian Spurrell (Synapse Solutions), my professional mentor, has been a persistent voice of challenge and support this year. ‘We can be driven by fear or by hope. Choose hope.’ It reminds me of hope in the Christian gospel too – a faith I experience as real – when we affirm the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a mysterious faith that holds onto hope, is held onto by hope, often in the midst of hope-lessness. May we know peace and hope this Christmas time and the courage to stand in 2016.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.