What If Politics Does Change The World – But For The Worst?

12477531 - raging kids - children shouting to each other, isolatedI’m sat in a political meeting. I’ve been there for 3 hours already. Like most people present, I’ve not spoken. The few who have spoken ensured that they took their time. Why say something with 5 words that one can say with 55?

Someone has just announced that we are about to hear the Treasurer’s Report. Half the people in the room don’t seem to like the other half. The feeling appears to be mutual. It is a beautiful sunny evening outside. “What the hell am I doing here?” I ask myself. I get up and leave.

It’s my own fault. I’ve been here before. I joined a political party when I was 16. There was no Internet sign up page with instant response back then. Membership applications went through a series of committees before a new person was accepted.

I’d knock at the local councillor’s front door twice a week. “Am I a member yet?”

Eventually, I was. It took months. I should have taken that as a warning.

I had vivid mental images of what to expect when I got to my first meeting. I envisaged crowded halls, impassioned debate, rallying speeches. I couldn’t wait.

When I got to my first meeting, it was 8 men in a community centre side room, talking about paving stones.

Still, I stuck it out. Within the first year I was the branch secretary, despite my youth. I was a delegate to the constituency party. These meetings were bigger, but just as dull.

Then the politics took over. Not, I hasten to add, the politics that might matter. Not the battle of ideas or the sharing of potential solutions. But the all too human splitting into camps. Naturally, I was on one half of the split.

These meetings were unpleasant. Our side tried to beat their side. Their side tried to beat ours. It was an unhealthy environment to spend one’s time.

Not because anything especially awful happened. Just the whole process of ongoing conflict. The divide that decided who liked who. So I spent much of my time with people who I wasn’t fond of, and who didn’t much like me in return.

At least the drama distracted from the tedium. Meetings are tedious. I’d long buried my naive visions of vibrant discussions. These could have been meetings of any organisation in the land. Women’s Institute, Park Preservation Society, you name it. They were just business meetings. Chairman’s report. Secretary’s report. Treasurer’s report. Councillor’s Report. We would sit there and be reported to. Unless, of course, one was lucky enough to be doing the reporting. Then you could invent something to say especially for the meeting, and take forever to say it.

I ended up leaving party membership when I was 25. I rejoined recently. I found that the meetings haven’t changed. They are still tedious. They still take forever. They are still not conducive to psychological well being.

One meeting in, and I am considering why I decided to be a member of a political party. More than that, I am questioning politics in a wider sense.

What is the point of me being a member? If I don’t go to meetings, then I have no say. If I do go to meetings, then I have to sacrifice hours of my life to something that is soul sucking. Besides, if I only go to meetings and skip the expected door knocking, I get sneered at. This happened at the meeting I attended. A senior councillor stood up and made the point that he expects to see us new members on the door step. It was not said with any welcoming tone. It’s all or nothing. They want your money, your soul, your time, and your energy. Even then, half the room won’t want you to be there if you hold the “wrong” views.

Friends advised me on my disillusion in two ways. The first piece of advice was that if I hate meetings, then I need to attend more of them. It’s all about organising so you control the meetings. So if I go to this extra meeting, then my side will be more organised and so will win the votes. The prospect of more meetings doesn’t appeal.

The second bit of advice was that going to meetings is important because this is how we change the world. We organise, meeting by meeting, branch by branch. It’s slow. It’s tedious. But that’s how we get the world we want.

The problem is, I don’t buy it.

Who says that this is how we get a better world?

I tried to think of when this model had delivered fundamental change. I struggled. The best I could come up with was the Labour Government of 1945. They delivered social health care and the protection of a welfare state.

But was that delivered on the backs of endless, tedious meetings? Britain had been at war for the 6 years previous. The people who voted for that Labour Government were returning soldiers. They hadn’t been at local Labour Party meetings debating the state of the paving stones.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that 1945 was indeed built from these tedious, supposedly necessary meetings. Fine. That shows that this method has changed the world once in over 70 years. That’s not a great strike rate. Besides, it doesn’t show that this is the only, or even the best, way of doing it.

For the past 70 years, well intentioned people (and some self serving ones) have been attending decades of political meetings. And achieving what exactly?

Most of those meetings will have had no consequence outside of itself. Many will have resulted in ideas being voted down inside the meeting. If those ideas ever reached the electorate, the public would vote them down half the time. Even when those ideas produce an election win, many don’t get implemented when it comes to the crunch.

Read the diaries of former Cabinet Ministers and you will see that, even in their exalted offices of state, they complain that they have barely any power. A life time climbing the greasy pole so that one day they will finally have the power to do things. Only to find that when they get there, they can get nothing done.

There’s an opportunity cost to all this. The meeting I first spoke about had fifty people in attendance. That’s over 150 hours of human time. What did we achieve? Nothing. Imagine if we had put those 150 hours to a different use? Imagine if everyone had decided to snub the meeting and do something else instead? Even if that was to enjoy the summer evening with our families, enriching each other’s lives. That would have made the world better. Or volunteering for a charity. Or creating something beautiful.

There are so many other options. It’s hard to imagine spending those 150 hours as pointlessly as attending that meeting.

Perhaps all this is based on a false idea – that political change is what impacts our world. But is it? Think of the things that have shaped our world beyond recognition. Are they really the result of committee rooms?

Fire, the wheel, the plough, vaccinations, anti-biotics, the contraceptive pill, electricity, the micro chip, flight, the printing press, DNA structure, the assembly line, The Internet, Google, artificial intelligence.

The big changes in human history resulted from innovation, discovery, knowledge and technological advances. Politics was left scrabbling to catch up to the changes happening independently of it.

So why the focus on politics for those of us who want to change the world?

If you want to change the world, maybe it would be best to focus on innovation instead. Find a problem and work on the solution. Innovate, learn, problem solve. Perhaps set up a business that will add genuine value to people’s lives.

And if those things are too big, do those things that ensure you are the biggest and brightest you can be. Your light will spread goodness to those who come into contact with it.

And the simplest thing of all? Be nice to other people. Do that every day and you’re changing the world in a small yet meaningful way.

Politics doesn’t promote being nice to each other. Politics makes enemies of people. It’s a game of heroes and villains. Unsurprisingly, we cast ourself in the role of hero. As anyone who has ever seen a cowboy film knows, there are few limits on what is acceptable to do to a villain.

It becomes fun to aggravate the other side. There is no reaching out to empathise with their concern. Instead, one-upmanship prevails. Political jousting spreads anger rather than understanding. Getting one over on the other side is an accepted part of the game.

But does that build bridges or build walls? Does that foster humanity or does it dehumanise?

I use the term “game” on purpose. There have been many studies about game playing. It turns out that game playing has positive effects. It even makes us nicer people. Except in one circumstance only.

As author and game designer Jane McGonigal writes: “Negative social impacts seem to occur consistently under only one condition of game play – aggressive, competitive game play against strangers online.”

Doesn’t that describe politics in a nutshell? Especially if we see “online” as more generally meaning “at a distance.”

McGonigal’s evaluation of the research is clear. The game of politics makes us less likable people and reduces our empathy for others.

Is this how we create a better world? Through a process that creates negative social impacts? Through division rather than harmony? Through the conquest and the vanquishing of foes? By lowering the amount of empathy in the world?

I believe this conflict and mutual dehumanisation to be psychologically damaging. To be on constant “war alert” is not a healthy way to spend one’s time.

The conflict isn’t just with the other side either. Those in the same party hate each other at least as much. We begin by disliking the opposition. Then we join a party, only to find new factions of people to dislike. Before long, it can feel like we are hating almost everyone.

Much of this hatred is because someone sees the world differently than we do. The political battle of one-upmanship tends to entrench belief rather than challenge it.

This is problematic for many reasons. First, people become certain, where doubt would be more helpful. Second, authentic problem solving is risky so there is minimal learning. Third, people become dishonest. It’s rare to hear a politician say “I don’t know.” Yet most issues are so complex, that not knowing must be a common phenomenon.

But it’s a bigger issue than intellectual rigidity. Attachment to belief is a dangerous thing. People can become so attached to belief that it outranks human life itself. People kill and die for their beliefs, whether they be religious or political. They would rather the belief survive than an actual human being.

Politics is a goal oriented activity. We want our leader to get elected. We want this policy passed. We want that change to happen. All potentially laudable, but there is a problem with goal focused activities. The process itself gets overlooked.

Think of the office worker aiming for promotion but hating her life. The ends justify the means, we think. We lose sight of the importance of the journey. Anything goes, so long as we reach the destination. Not that we always do.

In politics, this can lead to all kinds of abuses and dishonesty. The political skulduggery that goes too far. Cover ups for the good of the Party. Politicians lying about their own views to create an impression of unity. Ordinary people used as disposable pawns in a bigger game. At its worst, the ends justifying the means can lead to violence and killing. I spoke with a historian this week. He was recalling a political struggle where the position was to “bomb and shoot their way to freedom.” The violence only deepened mutual hatreds. The cycle of violence intensified to and fro. It’s what can happen when all eyes are only on the prize.

I have been politically minded since before I was a teenager. I have long held an awareness of injustice in the world. I am not against having values, or practicing them.

So far in my life, I have taken the view that politics was the way to follow those values. I now wonder if politics is the obstacle to practicing them, rather than the vehicle.

I want to hear someone’s concerns and empathise, even when I don’t agree. I want to doubt myself. I want to spend my time doing things I consider useful, even if that is just walking along the river with people who nourish me. I want to steer clear of moribund committee rooms. I want to avoid being sucked into the pettiness of political warfare. I want to steer clear of labels and insults. I want to breed harmony rather than fury.

Life is short. Time is precious. How we spend it is important. The effect on our own psychology and empathy needs to be weighed up.

I doubt the value of politics. I find it psychologically damaging to be part of the game. The results don’t justify the time spent on it, especially when the time is spent so unpleasantly. It is a conflict sport which brings out the worst in us. I value environments where I am encouraged to see the best in people. We either see another person’s humanity, or we strip them of it. There is no third way.

An old man once told me that one’s values are like the shell of a tortoise. “Wherever you go, whatever you do” he said, “you will carry them with you.”

I do still want to contribute to a better world. But there are more effective ways to do it. Gandhi said to be the change we want to see in the world. I agree. Politics, and the conflict mindset it encourages, seems to be the opposite of that.

I want the fire within me to be a beacon. Not a weapon.

Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice

6 thoughts on “What If Politics Does Change The World – But For The Worst?”

  1. I agree with your views on the negative results of being involved in politics. It is, after all, a slowed-down manifestation of violence, of people striving to get their own way, seeking to protect their own world-view. Politics takes up all the space with its self-important posturing and clanking bureaucracy, sapping creativity, wasting precious time and thriving on divisiveness. The individual can only redress the balance by taking some kind of control of their own mind space – which is potentially immense – in the interests of creativity and human-level interaction, as you have suggested.

    1. Hi Sandra

      I agree with you. I like the description of politics as “slowed down violence.”

      Interestingly, I just began watching a fly on the wall documentary about Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign. It served to underline the pointlessness of it all.

      I do find it immensely difficult to pull clear of it somehow though.


  2. Pingback: Political Crisis: Are You Hating Half Of Humanity Right Now? |

  3. It’s as if Brexit triggered one of those Wild West saloon fights where everyone beats the crap out of everyone else. Meanwhile, a sinister stranger steals off with the bar takings. My point is, while we are all pre-occupied with this fighting with strangers, what is actually happening in the shadowy hinterland? We need to be vigilant and anything that helps – like taking deep breaths – has my vote.

  4. Whilst I agree with your view of politics in the sense of small ‘p’, the worrying possibility is that the ‘old guard’ who know how to use this sort of politics are ruling the roost, and however much innovation and drive exists elsewhere, the system is squeezing the life out of it. So we are now in a situation where we need this sort of politics to change, and in order to change it, those who want change have to be involved in it. And those for whom it is their only sense of power are not willing to relinquish their grasp on the steering wheel, so they use the ingrained tedium of the system to stop change.
    And no, I don’t have any answers, well, I have a couple of ideas, but doubt they are answers really; we need Mairi Blacks in all parties; and we need people to realise that people matter and money doesn’t. Beyond that – not the foggiest.

    1. Hi Carole

      Thanks for your comment. Very thought provoking. I’d certainly love to see a different kind of politics. At the same time, I wonder whether the dull confines of business meetings is the way to get it. I feel your dilemma too, and would love to hear some of those ideas. I think you nailed it on the head when you say that contributing to the lives of people is the most important thing. I always feel I do that best when not inside the system.

      Thanks again for getting in touch. I’d love to hear some more.


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