Robin McAlpine – 23rd December 2021
As we head off into the warm, firelit glow of another heavily disrupted Christmas at the end of another year marked by a lot of ill feeling locally, nationally and globally, it might be that people approach 2022 with more trepidation than hope.
The antidote to this (according to the self-help mantras of social media) is to ‘be kind’. This, unfortunately, is a hopelessly non-specific recommendation. What does such a thing actually mean in practice? Still be pissed off but do it passive aggressively? Hold back legitimate criticism? Pretend to agree ‘for the sake of peace and quiet’?
What we really need is a handy guide to how exactly to be kind to each other in practice. Luckily such a guide is available, captured in one sentence by the late miners’ leader Mick McGahey. He described the trick to negotiation as being (paraphrased from memory):
“To give the other side the roughest ride of their lives but always make sure they have the bus fare home”
This is a quite wonderful piece of advice which we would all do well to listen to. What it says may sound simple but it is profound. It says ‘fight to win but never humiliate’. You can give people a really hard time in a negotiation but if you dump them, defeated and bitter with no route back to their own self respect, everyone loses.
That ‘bus fare home’ counts for so, so much. When we engage with others in society we, as social animals, need certain things. Yes those include material things (food, shelter, sufficiency), but in reality we need much more than that. More than anything humans need some dignity and a feeling of being respected.
In fact there is not much worse for humans than to face contempt and disrespect, humiliation and embarrassment. The reptilian part of our brains may be hard-wired to acquire advantage, but the human bit drives us to be a part of something bigger – it drives us to seek to be valued in our society and our community.
Sadly this has become an age which seems to seek out humiliation as the first tool of argument. Social media is dominated by shame and shaming. If you are on the wrong end of a ‘Twitter storm’ it can strip you of all of your sense of self respect and dignity. That is a genuinely horrible feeling.
At times it feels like no-one is content to win any more, it has to be total, crushing, absolute victory. In the modern world it sometimes feels like we haven’t won until our opponent is destroyed permanently. That was a mindset that used to be associated with the belligerent right of the political spectrum (One Nation Conservativism was the explicit rejection of this attitude) but it has spread.
In fact no-one is more certain about the need to destroy the opposition than those who see the world through an identity politics lens. And within the independence movement the concept of ‘finishing people off’ is hardly alien. Who in politics isn’t scouring the social media of their opponents to find that one killer ‘gotcha’ that will bring their career to and end?
The rush we get from crushing someone is about pure power and positive self-perception. But it is fleeting and empty. The pain we feel from being crushed is about humiliation and lost pride. It is anything but fleeting – often we can carry that resentment with us to the grave, remembering the name of everyone who wronged us.
To understand the damage that this does, think about it in aggregate. If everyone needs to lash out at someone to feel briefly good about themselves but everyone on the other end of the lashing remembers it forever, what is the cumulative effect?
What is so important about the McGahey quote is how it is rooted in an understanding that there can never be total victory. People do not disappear, they endure one way or the other. You can do as much damage to them as you like but the chances are you’ll bump into them again. What then?
For a negotiator, it is unlikely that you will win a negotiation and then never have to negotiate with the same people again. If they remember the experience of you winning as being really horrible for them, they will put double the effort in to not letting you win next time, even at the expense of wins for themselves.
What McGahey is saying is that if you offer them a comfortable, effective route back from the humiliation of defeat to a home point where they can retain their dignity, they will remember the whole experience quite differently. And so your next engagement with them can be positive and constructive even if you have just beaten them hands-down.
‘Being kind’ does not mean that you don’t fight for what you believe, nor that you don’t fight hard. It certainly doesn’t mean being ambivalent about whether you succeed or not. It means that you are resolute and gracious in defeat and generous and magnanimous in victory, but it means more than that. It means that you need to care about what the other side needs and not just what you need.
It means just checking in at the end to make sure the other side is OK – and if they’re not OK it’s about doing what it takes to make it OK for them. It’s about leaving a legacy of goodwill not animosity. It is surprisingly easy to get right when you think about it in these terms.
I don’t want 2022 to become a bland, pointless year. The challenges facing the world are enormous, the challenges facing Scotland no less significant. We will have to fight to get the right solutions to those challenges.
But I hope that we can start to learn that there is more than one way to fight a fight. You don’t need to humiliate or destroy, you can be tough without losing compassion. You just have to stop and think about someone other than yourself for a second or two.
That is what I really hope for 2022. I hope that we can be resolute in what we believe but that we can make sure that everyone has, if not what they want, then at the very least what they need. Everyone needs the bus fare home; if you’ve got it in your pocket and you don’t share it with someone who needs it, you’re the problem.
That generosity of spirit isn’t weakness but strength. It is the strength which will help us to change the world if we can tap into it.
And until then, just focus on having the best Festive Season you can possibly have and grasp happiness wherever you find it. There is much to do in the year in front of us so rest and be merry and get ready to start again – we all need to try to be better people for what is ahead.