Kenneth Cloke: Talking constructively is the only way forward

Vaclav Havel's words about civility in politics still ring true today
Vaclav Havel's words about civility in politics still ring true today
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Genuine politics – politics worthy of the name, and the only politics I am willing to devote myself to – is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community, and serving those who will come after us… There is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly.

We have all watched political conversations degenerate into angry quarrels, pointless personal attacks and antagonistic power contests. We have all seen people sink into screaming matches, shaming and blaming, and personal viciousness, often over the loftiest ideas, deepest passions and most profound political principles.

Internationally-renowned mediator Kenneth Cloke

Internationally-renowned mediator Kenneth Cloke

We all know these tirades can easily descend into senseless violence and appalling acts of brutality and we have all participated in these arguments, fanned the flames, or stood passively by and done nothing.

Yet political conversations matter; they concern our future, our values and integrity, our ethics and morality, our beliefs and behaviours, not only as individuals and nation states, but as human beings responsible for the world our grandchildren, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit.

Successful political decision-making requires not silence or pointless rage, but dialogue; not apathy or aggression, but collaborative negotiation; not passivity or accommodation, but courageous, constructive, creative contention. Silence in the face of critical issues signifies not merely the absence of speech, but the loss of learning and integrity, and therefore of self, of values, of citizenship, of democracy, of community, of humanity.

Whatever our justifications for treating each other as enemies or remaining silent when political ideas are discussed, our ability to address the highly complex, increasingly challenging issues that characterise modern political life is no longer optional. As our world shrinks, these issues impact us in increasingly significant ways, allowing distant social, economic and political decisions, environmental choices, and technological changes to acutely affect our lives.

Indeed, it is conceivable that in the absence of improved communications, and the development of more advanced dialogue, negotiation and conflict resolution skills, it will become impossible for us to survive, not only as a democracy, but as a species.

Political issues have become so costly, destructive and global that there is really no alternative than for us than to learn how to talk about these issues constructively and work together across our political differences to solve them.

Fortunately, recent innovations in communication, dialogue, negotiation and conflict resolution techniques such as mediation reveal powerful and effective ways of developing the skills we need for democracy to succeed.

To succeed in political dialogue, as in all of conflict resolution, it is necessary for us to surrender the idea that there is a single all-encompassing political truth, which is ours, and recognise instead that every political argument is an effort to establish the truth and validity, even the value and importance, of a particular personal or social experience, and at a deep level, it is not necessary to deny one in order to affirm the other.

Politics, despite its linguistic assumptions and orientation to power, need not be a zero-sum game in which one side is completely right and all the others are completely wrong, but can instead become an effort to learn from, acknowledge, investigate and integrate multiple, diverse, contradictory interests and truths in the course of formulating a common policy and direction.

The same applies, of course, to all disputes and conflicts.

Internationally-renowned mediator Kenneth Cloke appears with John Sturrock at The Story Telling Centre on Friday 29 September. Details: