I often think it comical

How nature often does contrive

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into this world alive

Is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative. 

I thought it best to leave out the fal-lal-la’s from WSGilbert’s lyrics, but it’s just that party conference season always has me singing Private Willis’s words from Iolanthe.  And for Liberal and Conservative, please feel free to read Left and Right, Democrat and Republican, Pro and Con, or even City and United.  The fact is that we seem to often find ourselves on one side or other of a real or imaginary Berlin Wall.  But what has been fascinating me recently is less how came to find ourselves in these positions and more about what it means for communication.  You see, it is now becoming increasingly clear that groups of people are simply talking to themselves.

In a recent book, US behavioural psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote about how it is that good people are often divided by politics and religion.  In The Righteous Mind he demonstrates firstly that humans are hard-wired to merge into groups.  The tribal instinct, which is prevalent in many species, seems to lead humans to be part of large, selective groups. Secondly, his moral foundations thinking says that all cultures and societies create values built on a series of six foundations, with people from the traditional left and right spectrum placing different values on each of the six.  Finally, he underlines the findings of many experimental psychologist who demonstrate that humans intuit first and rationalise second.  All of this has profound implications for communicators and politicians.

To start with we tend to associate with a tribe or team that shares our values and any new communication from whatever source will merely strength our existing position. Our intuitive self has already decided our position and rational facts are post-rationalised to affirm the conclusions that we’ve already come to.  This means that political parties are merely talking to themselves and people who belong to other “teams” are merely sticking their fingers in their ears and singing fa-lal-la. For instance, when was the last time you heard a politician say of a rival position, “what a jolly good idea.  I think we should adopt that policy forthwith.”

Decades ago, when I was a young student studying politics I remember writing a critique of Tony Benn’s Arguments for Socialism.  I seem to remember it being well-throughout and critical.  What I remember most, however, was my Mother saying that she didn’t like Tony Benn because he had funny eyes.  Two very different ways of coming to the same conclusion, but I recall thinking that that’s what most people do: they have an emotional response first and rarely let the facts get in the way.  Facts tend to be for reinforcing positions and less for changing minds.

The US Presidential campaign is a good example of these issues.  There is some evidence that the binary divide between Republicans and Democrats runs extremely deep, so deeply, in fact, that people in these two camps actually seem to inhabit different versions of America, living in different parts of town, eating in different places, shopping in different shops, and watching and reading different media. It seems that in many areas political discourse has ceased to fashion.  It is merely tribes talking to each other and dismissing their rivals on emotional grounds. There is less of an engagement in debate and more of an exchange in vitriol.

So how can the level of engagement increase?  Haidt says that what needs to happen is first to recognise the validity of the other persons position.  Rather than merely trying to persuade them that they are wrong, first try to understand their values and attitudes.  Real dialogue comes from holding multiple perspectives and creating a shared bond.  This is as true for business leaders as it is for politicians.

Then again, perhaps the reason that so many people take comfort from an emotional identification with a particular party or team is that is negates the need to set out what they truly believe.  Here’s WSGilbert again, this time from HMS Pinafore: “I always voted at my party’s call, and I never thought of thinking for myself at all.” After all, it’s much simpler that way.