Can we ever really know what is going on in someone else’s head? Meh, there’s one way to piss someone off and that’s to say “I know exactly how you feel, the same exact thing happened to me.” Because, of course, there’s events but they have to be interpreted, and even the same person’s interpretations shift and re-shift over time* (see below for disclaimer).
Two examples from Australian political memoirs/essays of late (reading For The Thesis). One is from Nicholas Stuart‘s ‘Rudd’s Way- November 2007- June 2010’, which he started writing while Rudd was moving from hero to zero, and delivered to the publishers two hours before the surprise Gillard assassination.
The other is from Laura Tingle, who writes for the Australian Financial Review, and is a phenomen(oligic)ally good hack, along with Philip Coorey – also at the Fin, and Lenore Taylor – at the Grauniad). They dig up the stories, they have respect for the importance of history in policy debates. To not read all three regularly is to court ignorance of Australian political affairs.
First, from Stuart
This was part of Rudd’s approach to politics that perhaps originated from his study of China. The so-called Middle Kingdom has never been genuinely democratic. It size has always made it easier for the rulers in the centre to issue policy edicts and expect them to be obeyed throughout the country. Persuasion had rarely been a valued skill. Rudd attempted to impose a similar political style in Australia. On the positive side, this engaged him intensely in the debate, but he needed to be persuaded before anything could happen. Once he had been converted to a particular policy, it appeared to him to be axiomatic that everyone should simply accept that he’d weighed up all the evidence and made the correct decision. There was no room for dissidents and no need for argument.
(Stuart, 2010: 112)
FWIW, I think this may be overplaying the China thing a bit – even dictatorships have politics and ‘heaven is high and the Emperor is far away‘).
Then from Tingle.
We are products of our time, and our views of the world are formed accordingly. My professional career began with the 1980s and coincided with a dramatic new era in politics and policy debate. All that has happened in the following thirty-five years has shaped the way I see politics. Sometimes you realise with a rude shock that all the stuff you carry around every day in your head isnt in everyone else’s head.
This came home to me most powerfully in 2012, when I was doing interviews to discuss my first Quarterly Essay. Before we started the formal interview, a radio journalist warned: ‘Oh, by the way, don’t presume too much political memory in the audience.’ ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘what shouldn’t I presume they know?’ ‘Well, don’t presume they will know who Paul Keating is, or what he did.’ I concede this caused a sharp intake of breath on my part. Yes, it was a youngish audience, but a politically articulate one. How could they not know who Paul Keating was? He had been one of our prime ministers , for goodness sake. Then I thought again. There had been three prime ministers since Keating left office in 1996. Anyone aged under thirty would have no adult memory of government before John Howard. The views of these people are just as relevant as mine. But they will be shaped by a very different set of memories.
(Tingle, 2015: 83)
So, there’s a cognitive cost to inhabiting (or trying to inhabit) someone else’s cosmology, even for a short period. And given that most everyone is lazy as most of the time, and given that there are costs to your own credibility if you try to see things from the point of view of “the enemy”, then is it surprising that the seeing things “from another point of view” is as common as rocking-horse poo?
* Let’s not toooo relativistic about all this – after all, we manage to communicate, we manage to predict more or less what other people will do, at least within our cultural frames. We are not total mysteries, all the time, to ourselves and each other.
Stuart, N. 2010. Rudd’s Way: November 2007- June 2010. Melbourne: Scribe.
Tingle, L. 2015. Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How to Govern. Quarterly Essay, 60. Melbourne: Black Inc.