Debra Allcock Tyler: The lessons to be learnt from 2016

Make the effort to listen to others' views, don't trust the information you're given, chuck those opinion polls in the bin; and make 2017 a year of compassion

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

Mabel, our beloved bulldog, died in 2016 aged 13. Somehow her death felt emblematic of that socially, economically, politically and personally traumatic year. So I'm well and truly glad to see the back of it!

But challenging times are opportunities to learn, and I learned a great deal. I was made acutely aware that our most fundamental political debates are not about evidence, or policy or economics, but about values. In 2016 the values most associated with the traditional right (independence, self-reliance, personal responsibility, sovereignty) were set against those more associated with the left (solidarity, community, cooperation and responsibility for others). All of these are perfectly decent values and most of us have them to varying degrees. But problems arose when both sides were strident, moralistic and patronising about the values they felt less aligned with, which resulted in unnecessarily exaggerated and polarised differences.

And that's when the dog bit (which Mabel never did), with shock election and referendum results and an increasingly fractured society.

I learned that the digital virtual world is profoundly affecting the way we think and behave. Old mechanisms of distributing information where others gathered the facts and interpreted and disseminated them to the masses no longer seem to work. On the surface, the internet seems to have liberated us from the control of information by others. In reality, the source just changed. Where before information was controlled by the media, politicians and academics, it's now controlled by giant global internet companies that can influence politics and allow any old conspiracy theorist to spread rumours, untruths and fantasies worldwide at the click of a mouse.

How many of us are conscious that the algorithms designed to tell us what we already know, like or are interested in are simply reinforcing our innate biases and prejudices? We rarely get to hear the contrary evidence. That's not healthy.

And I was reminded that asking people their opinions is largely useless, even if interesting. When you ask people what they think, you face the challenge of working out if it's really what they think, or what they think they ought to think, or what they think you think they ought to think. Aaaaargh! The opinion polls say, apparently, that people have lost trust and confidence in charities. Bullshit. The observable evidence doesn't back this up. The data shows that our wonderful fellow citizens are still volunteering and donating to charities in their millions.

For me, there are three lessons to take from 2016. First, listen more openly to opposing views. Second, don't trust information at face value: check the source and seek alternative viewpoints. Third, chuck those bloody opinion polls in the bin and make decisions on what people do rather than what they say. Let's claim 2017 as a year of hope, compassion, love and understanding. And it begins with my partner Andy and I welcoming our new dog into our home, a bassett hound called Arthur.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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