Politics and Values
David Hession, Head of Impact Measurement & Research at LIFT Ireland
Imagine that you are able to fly. Now, imagine that you are hovering over the middle of a road, perhaps 30 meters high, looking down below you. On opposite sides of the road there are two pedestrians walking towards each other – one is a young woman pushing a newborn baby in a pram, coming from one direction and the other an older man who used to work as an historian, from the opposite direction. As they almost pass each other there is an incident on the road. A cyclist swerves, crossing into the path of an oncoming vehicle, which itself veers across the road, mounting the pavement. Thankfully nobody was hurt.
When the gardai arrive they take statements: the young woman describes how the cyclist was wearing headphones and veered dangerously, heading straight in the direction of a poor young child who was on his own, looking terrified, on her side of the road. For his part the older pedestrian describes how the driver of the car seemed to be on a mobile phone, and when he swerved dangerously, he went up onto the pavement and was in real danger of causing catastrophic damage to a beautiful and important part of the only medieval wall left in the town.
Neither witness mentioned the cat that you had seen from your vantage point above, running out into the road in front of the cyclist causing him to swerve which then caused the car to veer to the right.
Both witnesses described what they saw as accurately as they could, but both of them saw the incident in a different way. Why was that? It is because when we are looking at anything, we see it not as it really is, but as it is to us. For both, their experience was coloured by their background and what they valued most. For the young woman the potential danger to a small child, for the older man the potential irreparable damage to an important piece of his town’s history. Both versions of the story were partly true but neither saw the whole picture.
I give you this story to make a point: None of us is objective. None of us has a monopoly on the truth. Each of us sees life through the lens of the things that we value. Quite frequently we make the mistake of presuming that what we value most is what everybody else should value most also.
In a famous piece of research, two psychologists looked at people who came from different political viewpoints. What they showed was that on average, people of a liberal disposition tended to value things like equality, fairness, care and protection most highly, while those of a conservative perspective tended to value things like loyalty, respect for authority and retaining integrity and purity.
What does this suggest to me? It suggests that when people disagree, it often is at least partly because they each are judging situations using a different set of lenses. There can be many ways of looking at the same issue; be careful in case a perspective that you think is fundamentally wrong is just coming at the issue from a different angle.
In politics we constantly see significantly different viewpoints regarding the same issue. People on one side say one thing, while on the other side they say something completely different. Each side tries to shout louder in the hope of persuading the other. Little respect is shown and there is little attempt at understanding. It is easy to see this as being evidence of a chasm of difference between the people involved. But in reality it is likely to be more about a difference in the way each group prioritises values. As a result, is it a fair question to ask, would we get less divisive politics if we could move peoples’ value sets closer together?
Could those of us who value stability and structure benefit from reflecting on the importance of empathy and understanding of difference? Could those of us who value care for the individual benefit from reflecting on the importance of stability and community?
Would all of us benefit from understanding that the way we see the world is not necessarily the only, or indeed, the best way? All of us, including those involved in politics – perhaps most importantly those involved in politics – should have a healthy need to maintain dose of skepticism regarding our own beliefs. As the writer Bertrand Russell said “the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts”.
Join us at the second event in The LIFT Better Leadership Forum will explore leadership in politics. Topics to be addressed include:
- What leadership skills do politicians really need?
- Can you be a ‘good’ leader while also being a ‘strong’ leader?
- Does party politics stymie individuals’ leadership capabilities?
- What can political parties and the wider political system do to promote ethical leadership?
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