3. Facing up

Montage of Daily Mail front pages on migration

A POLITICS OF hope (3):

Hello again friends, thanks for visiting. As part of a series on a politics of hope, here’s the first of a pair of posts on politics and thoughtfulness. It’s an 8-minute read / 12-minute listen.

I’ve recorded an audio of this post – here if you prefer to listen…

One time at school when we were stuck inside at break, a mate came over waving a letter he wanted to read us. He’d been jilted by his girlfriend and now, in pain but with a smile, he wanted us to laugh at what she’d written him. She came up to me afterwards in the yard: ‘Thank you for stopping him.’

The memory stands out as the only time I remember standing up for someone as a child. Most of the time I stood by, drifting with the daily slew of juvenile put-downs. I didn’t mean to be mean, but I’d laugh along with a bully if their line was witty enough – we all would, it was our norm.

A few years later, I’m campaigning with the Quakers against Britain’s rush to join the US in its doomed invasion of Iraq. I remember the frustration as we watched parliament and the media swing behind the war, a ‘new American century’ stumble forward, the arms companies cash in, the bombs fall. The US president read his stilted victory speech from the autocue.

‘He can’t even talk properly,’ I told my friends in the pub. I’m still grateful to the one friend who asked me whether it fitted a peace activist to laugh at someone struggling with language. Fumbling with words had made George W Bush a global laughingstock, but the issue was his disturbing indifference to the harm he presided over. Focus on that.

The reaction to last month’s social media set-to between Greta Thunberg and Andrew Tate has brought all this back to mind. In case you missed it: the kickboxer taunts the climate activist with a picture of himself fuelling one of his supercars. She says he has a small penis. He says no, that’s her.

Open season follows. Thousands howl at Tate’s witless riposte. (Yes, Greta does have a small penis, tweets a radio comedian at Tate – yours, in a jar on her desk.) Thousands more sneer at Thunberg’s playground put-down. The TV anchor Julia Hartley-Brewer wins a shower of hearts by declaring she would always choose Tate’s life over Thunberg’s ‘half-educated, autistic’ one.

The sound and fury dial up to 11. Until tomorrow, when some other pile-on is taking all comers and round we go again. All the embattled frustration presses over and over for a release that never quite comes.

Fidelity, regard, intention

Care is obviously missing, but so too is another sibling in the family of hope: thoughtfulness. I don’t mean being good at thinking, still less being clever, but a quality of character and culture.

If I think of people who most inspire me as thoughtful, everyday gestures of quiet passion come to mind: passion rounded by openness. I recall receiving this or that unusually well-chosen gift, perhaps for a birthday, or the attentive listener in a conversation, just as much of a gift.

The Czech word for thoughtful, promyšlený, carries more of this meaning than the English, having a root sense of something like ‘one who tends towards’.

If I ease apart the qualities of thoughtful people, I think I settle on three. I admire their keen fidelity to facts and reason, though without craving certainty. But there’s more to them than how they think. I also appreciate their regard for others, a critical empathy that leaves them more cautious than most to condemn. And these commitments appear to spring from another at the heart of it: the intention to think and act as if all the lives touched by any given moment matter.

These qualities, essential to all our relationships, seem equally fundamental to a genuinely democratic politics, even to society itself. And yet online, in parliament, in the press, our dominant political culture treats them with hostility. It rewards those who glide over facts and reason but remain attached to their certainties all the same. It treats difference with more condemnation than curiosity, algorithmically incentivising us to engorge our status by diminishing others.

Obviously, any culture that reckons it can do without thoughtfulness is heading for trouble. It will become inattentive, not least to itself. It will push care aside and soon even conversation will lie beyond reach. As Julia Hartley-Brewer’s employer Rupert Murdoch well knows, you can lead an unthoughtful culture by the nose just about anywhere – except to thoughtfulness. How dangerous this is. A society withered of attentiveness is destined for fascism.

Clearly, that threat must be faced in the battle of ideas, but without thoughtfulness ideas turn quickly to a tyranny of their own. Imagine that our own ideas for how society should work won over, as if by magic. We would then, in a sense, possess the world – the secret desire of politician and activist alike – but we wouldn’t be an inch more thoughtful. With the self-assured certainty of a Soviet apparatchik, we’d tell all that the world was exactly as it should be. How long before we’d start locking people up for failing to see as clearly as we do?


Slow though I’ve been as an activist to learn, I think a hopeful culture would be wary of believing the future needs our fixes, our blueprints for a better life. It would sooner trust the open query, which foregoes the need to be right and instead reveals what matters. Hope welcomes the thoughtfully mistaken word over the brashly correct one, because only the first can be counted on in the long run.

Imagine BBC Question Time, which styles itself as serious political conversation, were the panellists chosen for their thoughtfulness rather than, as often, their appetite to scandalise. Imagine them sharing their open queries, airing their passion for what, in each question, really matters, and listening with intent. The result would be a measure less entertaining, I suspect, and by the same measure more engaging.

The same principles can recast the practice of activism, too. When truthfulness rests less on possessing the answers than on a passional openness to the questions, then the meaning of speaking truth to power pivots. Even to wonder who’s speaking whose truth to whose power and why – and who’s listening – is to be urged away from the safe surety of knowing best. It invites instead a newly uneasy, though abidingly passionate relationship with the world and its ‘power’.

Tend towards

Doubtless, thoughtfulness always falls early in the melee of political battle. Right now, it seems especially imperilled. If you change your mind, you’ve made an embarrassing U-turn. If you see both sides of an argument, you’re incapable of leadership. If you say the wrong thing, you’re laughed at. Thoughtfulness is punished, that’s our norm.

Many others have said the same, often blaming the rise of fake news and its miasma of misinformation, but I doubt this is the cause. Being thoughtful means caring about the facts, but it doesn’t depend on this. A thoughtful person without the facts is still thoughtful, unlike someone invested in their own certainty. Fake news isn’t the cause of an unthoughtful culture, merely the sewage it swills downstream.

I suspect our crisis of thoughtfulness comes down instead to our societies coming under mounting strain. As our social fabric is stretched taut, so are we. Everyone I know has said they feel it, as do I, in mind, heart, and spirit. Factor this in, and it may be that our collective appetite for petty vindictiveness and apparently sure-footed indignation is less wanton indulgence than honest frustration and the pain that underlies it – missteps in our many a faltering effort to get by.

Either way, I feel that these times of building tension are landing us in the crucible of a dilemma so essential to life that our future may hang on which way we turn, and the decisive factor may well be how thoughtful we’re willing to be. The dilemma is this –

Faced with a febrile world, the first instinct is to recoil, turn away, draw the circle of care inwards. Reacting under siege, barely able to care for ourselves, it no longer seems affordable to face the neighbour whose name we don’t know. It’s fight or flight. Lash out with that screaming headline or ingenious jibe, join the politics of the pile-on – or hide away, shrink back, switch off. Do whatever it takes to stave the world off.

Or we can try to ‘tend towards’ the world and face it as it is. I don’t think thoughtfulness asks any more or demands any less. It doesn’t insist we understand our situation or know what to do; it invites us to turn towards it, that’s all. We’re unlikely to survive a turn to thoughtfulness unchanged – whatever comfortable, tidy faith we’ve been relying on may need to fall away. But survive we will; it may be the only way we can.


Thanks to Sunniva Taylor for her thoughts on an earlier draft, and to Liz Gerard for permission to use her montage of Daily Mail front pages.

Thanks for reading

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Audiobook. And finally, an audio version of my book Hope’s work, read by me, should be out in spring. If you’d like to know when, just subscribe to this blog and I’ll send a message.



‘To hope’, from Old English hopian, to trust, to hold faith. Origin unknown, poss from hoffen, to hop, to leap.