They say we live in a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. How true that seems. One tragedy of the Salmond hearings was how little scope there seemed to be for recognition of nuance, paradox and doubt. As so often in politics, issues were viewed through the polarising prism of them and us, black and white, binary decision-making. As was once said: “the contemporary mind has almost no training in how to think paradoxically, being stuck with dualist thought and locked into making seemingly clever distinctions, while devoid of wisdom.” How true that seems.
Experience tells us that there are often two (or indeed many) sides to a story. Shades of grey exist everywhere. That’s hard to acknowledge if we crave simplicity, decisiveness and to show that A is right and B is wrong. But two people can see and hear the same events in very different ways. We don’t see things as they are but as we are. Perception becomes reality. It’s the way we’re wired. That reality doesn’t make someone a bad person. Indeed, diversity is what makes us so interesting as a species.
To understand another side, we must challenge our assumptions, put ourselves in the shoes of others. Again, that’s hard work, energy-consuming and takes a real effort of will. It requires empathy and imagination.
It’s also difficult because of the unconscious biases under which we all labour, leading us to hasty misjudgements and inept conclusions. They may blind us. However, the exponential growth in understanding the way human brains work gives us insight into why we behave as we do – and why others act and react as they do. Let’s hope that future inquiries will recognise the impact of unconscious bias, both on those who decide and on those who tell their stories.
One such bias arises when we are attracted to explanations that seem to exonerate us, perhaps portraying us as innocent victims, when others question our actions. Under the mask of apparently righteous indignation may lie another reality altogether: shame and fear of being judged and found wanting. Never under-estimate how far the instinct to save face will drive people. And don’t forget confirmation bias, leading to propositions being put which merely reinforce preconceived views and deny the complexity of events.
In future, more insightful inquiries might elicit multiple explanations and deeper understanding on all sides. Perhaps these will not provide political fodder of the ideological sort. But, ironically, by focusing less on the promotion of partisan interests, and more on genuine exploration, greater accountability and responsibility might be achieved, while providing real learning for the future. A challenge for the next Parliament.
For Scotland to succeed as a progressive, compassionate society, we must cultivate more thoughtful ways to address our difficult issues. We need courage and humility to change the conversation, promoting understanding rather than condemnation. This will be hard work, a kind of collective re-wiring. However, there is no other way. In the long run, there is no us and them, only us.
John Sturrock, April 2021
A version of this blog was published in The Times on 6 April 2021