Cohen, Trump, Brexit: two things we need to embrace to better live out democracy

I want to write about the events of last week. I want to speak about Trump’s election.  But, I also don’t. To write about any kind of politics or ideology or personal values can invite a violent s-storm, to put it bluntly.

Yet speak, we must. This election shows that more than anything. The overriding message this week has been this:

What are people thinking?

The problem is, a lot of people aren’t asking that as a genuine question. It’s an incredulous, critical, passive-aggressive, rhetorical question. At times followed up or preceded by insults.

So, what are we left with? Where do we go from here?

If we can’t discuss, engage, debate, and most importantly, listen with openness and respect. The answer is: further down a road we are now on. A road where people of different races, sexual orientations, and genders are afraid for their future. A road where people cannot have right-wing values without being labelled and insulted. A road where we are completely bowled-over by an election result because no one really knows what anyone else is thinking and why.

A creative genius passed away last week. His name is Leonard Cohen; a songwriter famously known for ‘Hallelujah’, covered by the likes of Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley. Many have been tweeting/posting his famous lyrics and their relevance, the most quoted lyrics being:

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” (from the song ‘Anthem’).

Maria Popova wrote an article on Brain Pickings following his death. It discusses Cohen’s interest in that part of the human condition that we will forever try to grasp; the interaction between and presence of both darkness and light, sorrow and redemption (I thoroughly recommend you read the article for yourself).

This week I visited Berlin. I can’t fully describe the effect of going there and seeing the visceral impact of two ideologies clashing head-on. The results of a physical and demonstrative line having been drawn between them as they tried to figure out how to co-exist, were still apparent. Popova writes:

“After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western world was ablaze with the euphoria of a blind faith that democracy was coming to the East. I was there — that’s not what happened. Cohen, too, saw things differently. Ever the enchanter of nuance, he foresaw the complexity and darkness that this reach for light would unravel, and he captured it in this iconic and astonishingly timely song.” -Maria Popova

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin

This song was titled ‘Democracy’ from his album The Future.

In it Cohen wrote lyrics starkly addressing what he deemed as being the experiment of democracy in America, but the most confrontational lyrics he took out. In her article, Popova quotes an interview by journalist Paul Zollo, with Cohen in 1991 regarding his songwriting process.

“When Zollo asks why he chose to take these verses out, Cohen responds:

I didn’t want to compromise the anthemic, hymn-like quality. I didn’t want it to get too punchy. I didn’t want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.

In these present days of outrage and confrontation, how much of even the most elegantly argued writing aims for “a revelation in the heart”? And what might our world look like if this is what we aimed for instead of belittling and badgering those we find at fault?”-Maria Popova

I have been overwhelmed by the belittling and badgering that has occurred and can recognise how little I want to engage with people like that. I want to walk away, get on with life and hope it all sorts itself out. Perhaps this can be the perspective of the many people who don’t even vote. They don’t want to dive headfirst into the s-storm.

I want to suggest that two key states of being are required for democracy to work in a peaceful and liberating way. This may seem simplistic or even naïve, but here it is anyway. It may also feel like deja-vu if you are a faithful follower of my blog…

  1. We need empathy.

We are understandably shocked that someone who has presented as a racist, bigot and misogynist could ever be elected. We embrace diversity and multiculturalism.

Yet those differences we want to honour and preserve can be the reason for contrasting political and ideological standpoints. Our backgrounds, values, and ideologies create different priorities, choices, and actions. Some of these differing priorities led several Americans to put a cross next to Trump’s name, many with intense reluctance and grief.

How much do we truly try to see things from another perspective?

From the liberals can come accusations pertaining to specific ideologies, presenting a rather limited view of the many things at stake. From the right-wingers who resent the mudslinging can come a defensive, passive-aggressive rhetoric that further alienates both sides.

It’s come to light very recently how much of the news on our Facebook feeds is not factual and also how Facebook streamlines your news to include mainly that which you want to hear. This is not empathy-inspiring. It encourages us to further consolidate our view without even hearing the voice of the other side. We can be fooled into thinking there is more support for our view and more evidence that we are right because that is all we are seeing and reading.

The true challenge comes with expressing disappointment and frustration in a way that doesn’t attack. It also comes with allowing disappointment and frustration to be expressed without going on the defensive.

  1. Vulnerability

Vulnerability enables us to connect, to freely be ourselves, and the two go hand-in-hand. If we can empathise we permit vulnerability and this is the place in which productive debate can occur.

Boy, how vulnerable do you have to be to admit you voted ‘leave’ in the EU referendum? Depends on who I’m with, you may say. Like-minded people are a safe bet but keep your mouth shut if you’re entrenched in a ‘remain’ gang and are outnumbered!

Being vulnerable and saying what we believe to be true and right allows discussion to ensue. Then we may see the cracks in our view and allow some light in. The reality is, there will often be cracks. They may not cause you to switch your vote, but there will always be more to understand and know about yourself and about others.

Being vulnerable may also involve admitting to knowing hardly anything at all. I am not a committed follower of politics. I could know more and am inspired to do so as a result of the surprising results of the US presidential election and the EU referendum.

In this day and age where we are inundated with voices and opinions and media outlets that aren’t as balanced as they say they are, it is all the more important to be open and to listen to the human beings we interact with on a day-to-day basis. However, not with the intention of making them see how dumb or wrong they are, but to listen to disappointment and grief, and to explain and engage with new ideas. Perhaps then reaching a place of agreeing to disagree, buying another pint and talking about something else with this person who should hopefully still be your friend.

I think it’s deeply wise and inspiring how Cohen wrote those extreme words, expressed them, but then decided it wasn’t how he wanted to engage with the issue. He wanted people to experience their own revelation. Who has a revelation of a different kind of truth by being labelled as a racist?

A revelation of the heart requires us to connect with people on a heart-to-heart level. It requires us to not discard different ideas and perspectives with finality.

In order to counteract the impact of Trump I want to speak love and affirmation for those potentially discriminated against. I want to speak out against racism, sexism, and any other –ism.

And despite, at times, feeling frustration and confusion regarding the choices of others, I want to respect, engage and be willing to see the cracks in who I am and what I believe.

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