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by Chris Creegan
10 December 2019
Comment: We can make the 2020s a decade of listening

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Comment: We can make the 2020s a decade of listening

Amidst the cacophony of the general election, the decade’s end has not had much of a look in. I’m jittery because 2020 will see me enter the final year of my 50s – a moment which feels uncomfortably significant.

Doubtless, as the dust settles after 13 December, we will be met with a wave of reflection on ten years past and forecasting about the decade to come. You know the sort of thing – words that have become part of our lexicon or fallen into disuse; trends old and new.

Some of it is knowable enough. But not always. How many of us foresaw Trump and Brexit – or the rise of populism which spawned them?

In a Guardian Weekend series on the 2010s, John Harris explores that very theme. It makes for sobering reading. Unlike some commentators, Harris did see it coming. Because he listens.

Harris’ video journalism series, Anywhere but Westminster, is less about what politicians are telling people and more about what people are telling them. It’s a more reliable indicator than many a pundit can muster.

I’m sure we’ve all got a bucket list of things we might want the 2020s to be: the decade that delivers Brexit or Scottish independence; that sees us combat homelessness and poverty; that secures vital progress on climate change and human rights.

There will soon be a rash of predictions which confirm or confound our own. In one such list at the end of 2009, I recall reading that trans rights would be one of the 2010s’ tectonic plates. I was sceptical. How wrong I was.

But what will the 2020s bring? Or to put it another way, as the indefatigable Richard Holloway asked at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, what stories will we tell ourselves?

Kindness entered the policy phrasebook in the 2010s. Amen to that. As Holloway implored at the end of his lecture, whatever you do, don’t be cruel. But with right-wing populism rampant across the globe and too close for comfort at home, how might a kinder, less cruel decade be possible?

Tony Blair, in a recent interview with Reform Scotland’s director, Chris Deerin, suggested that populism would run out of steam soon enough. For all Blair can speak with greater authority than me on geopolitics, I fear he’s wrong.

Populism isn’t a passing fad, it’s a new era. And one of its many disfiguring features is that it doesn’t listen or encourage us to. It tells people what they want to hear. And in its refusal to listen, it foments division.

We can make the 2020s a decade of listening. In the emotional noise of the 2010s, it became a lost art. We got very good at talking. We took to Twitter and its ilk in ever greater numbers. We became a nation of opinion formers.

As someone who started blogging in 2012, I declare an interest. It’s not a bad thing, per se. But as we became more adept at telling, we became less good at listening, particularly to those we disagree with. And our voices became shriller than ever.

The picture isn’t entirely bleak. We’ve got marginally better at eliciting unheard voices and inched towards co-producing solutions.

But as social media’s echo chambers grew ever more toxic, we took to reacting before we’d listened at all. In a bid to rise above it, we sent open letters, often with closed minds. As politics became ever more fractured, we succumbed to the relentless pressure to take positions. Or be silenced. Nuance got squeezed.

We stopped listening nearly enough. I don’t just mean hearing. Semiotician Roland Barthes distinguished hearing, a physiological phenomenon, from listening, a psychological act. We are always hearing, often subconsciously. But we choose to listen. Or not.

Listening is what we do to understand and interpret. When we listen, we don’t merely wait for the other person to stop speaking – that seems an increasingly lost art, too – we respond to what they are saying.

It may not always be a means of agreeing, but because it’s about understanding each other, we might at least disagree well. After a decade riven by polarisation, we’ve surely got to get better at that.

When I was a councillor in Tower Hamlets 20 years ago, a place not short of fault lines, the thing I was most proud of was that residents felt I’d listened, even if I hadn’t always agreed with them or been able to do what they wanted.

There’s a growing school of thought that relationships as much as structures, policies or even cash are central to solving our biggest problems. Relationships need dialogue. That means listening.

Looking back in thin winter light can be melancholic. But artificial as it is, a new decade presents the possibility of renewal too, still obscured in the gloom. Think Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ at the turn of the 20th century – offering “some blessed Hope” of which the poet was unaware.

Listening isn’t a cure for all our ills, but it can make us more tolerant, courteous and trusting. It’s an indispensable building block to connection and belonging. It’s something we can all aspire to do better in the coming decade.

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