• Liking People Matters

    We have become accustomed to seeing – on our television screens every day and in the public prints as well – the political battle played out as though that is exactly what it is – a battle. In that battle, the leading figures shape up to each other as though they are deadly enemies, ever ready to respond to their opponents with a hostile riposte or a condemnatory put-down – and hardly ever letting pass an opportunity to score a quick jab or sneaky uppercut.

    The leading exponent of this style of politics is, of course, Donald Trump. His daily tweets are an object lesson in showing hostility towards and denigrating those with whom he disagrees or who dare to disagree with him.

    It is a style that, he calculates, plays well with his supporters – those he calls his “base”. He seems not to bother courting those holding different views who are, it seems, beyond the pale and irredeemably a lost cause. Time alone will tell whether his calculation is correct.

    In this country, however, it is less clear that such an approach commends itself to the voters. On the contrary, we seem to warm towards political leaders who seem actually to like their fellow-citizens – think Jacinda Ardern or John Key.

    In making that judgment, we are surely right. It must surely be a cardinal requirement of anyone claiming the privilege of leading our people that the claimant should actually like those whose interests are at stake and whom he or she purports to represent.

    Liking people is the first and essential step towards understanding them; and that in turn leads to being able to put yourself in their shoes and ultimately to showing them kindness and compassion as they face life’s challenges. And that is as true for those with whom we disagree as it is for those with whom we agree.

    This may seem to some to be drawing quite a long bow. We wouldn’t bother, you might say, with the messy and difficult business of politics if we didn’t have to find a peaceful means of resolving the difficult problems created by the need to allocate scarce resources and to ensure that everyone gets a fair share in what is, in the end, undeniably a social and cooperative enterprise.

    Because politics is for those reasons inherently about resolving conflict between competing interests, it is inevitable, it might be said, that politicians find themselves at odds with each other (and with each other’s supporters) and therefore use sharp weapons when they fight such battles. We should not be surprised, it is argued, if politics then becomes a business in which the aggressive and one-eyed, those who can’t see another’s point of view, are led to think that they excel and that their aggression is what is needed.

    It is then all too easy to conclude that strength in political leadership requires a sharp tongue and unremitting nastiness.

    But we need not accept that view of politics. Yes, the disagreements may be sharp and the stakes high – but we are entitled to expect the contenders to show not only that they are human but are good at being human. Humanity – being good at being human – means seeing the other person’s point of view and accepting that differences of opinion may be significant but are not necessarily destructive of society’s broad consensus on what it means to behave in a civilised way.

    We could do, in other words, with more kindness in politics. Our leaders have the chance to set an example for us all to follow and a lesson for us all to learn – that we don’t have to agree with our fellow-citizens on every issue as a pre-condition to treating them well, and showing them understanding and, above all, respect.

    If that example is set by our leaders, we might then find that there is more kindness, more compassion, more tolerance in our society as a whole, so that we all gain the benefit of living in a better and more cohesive and more harmonious country. And what an example that would set for the rest of the world – including, perhaps, even Donald Trump.

    Bryan Gould
    8 December 2019