Wrestling political phantoms to the ground

Politics should be devised to ensure basic human needs, such as dignity and legitimacy, are met in society.

Nations and groups are hankering for dignity, meaning and status, writes Bell [EPA]
Nations and groups are hankering for dignity, meaning and status, writes Bell [EPA]

In the Pacific, China, a rising power with pride in an ancient civilisation and current economic might, seeks legitimacy. It has historical claims on islands near its shores that are disputed by its neighbours. China’s self-image, its need for status and legitimacy, and the way it understands itself as “strong” or “weak”, will depend on how it and others manage these needs.

Young men from across the world, fuelled by heady imagery and religious glory percolate to Iraq and Syria, the places of the origins of civilisation, to recreate the Islamic Caliphate. In so doing, they are committing acts of great barbarism and devastating outsiders to their faith, but their propellant is the need for empowerment and meaning that are likely lacking in the grim suburbs of Britain or Chechnya.

World leaders vie for attention through the worldwide lens of the media. They gesticulate, make claims and even lie in order to maintain that focus on them; “out of sight, out of mind” is their greatest fear. We elect leaders who have a high propensity for attention seeking. It’s what makes them succeed in our ill systems, yet it’s what also makes their behaviour both odd and deleterious to the welfare of citizens. The power of attention seeking pervades the holy grail of politics.

Dignity before interest

In January 2013, an article in the New York Times explained that Iranians differentiate between two terms, “maslahat”, and “aberu”, the former meaning interest and the latter “saving face” or dignity. The authors made it clear that Iran will never put maslahat before aberu – interest before dignity.

All of these are examples of how basic emotional needs propel political behaviour, even if they are presented in the garb of ideology or demands for justice or glory. As a plant withers when it receives neither water nor sunlight, human beings need water and food, but they equally have emotional needs such as the drivers above.

When deprived of these critical needs, the human does not just fall like the leaf, dilapidated to the earth. Mobile and empowered by imagination, he or she may lash out, and make all others around miserable. In China, Russia, Israel-Palestine, or among wild-eyed Jihadists, we see nations and groups hankering for dignity, meaning and status. The corollary is also true, if humans have these needs met, they are satisfied, and can thrive.

In China, Russia, Israel-Palestine, or among wild-eyed Jihadists, we see nations and groups hankering for dignity, meaning and status. The corollary is also true, if humans have these needs met, they are satisfied, and can thrive.

This basic, but rather crucial, idea has been put forward by Ivan Tyrrell and Joe Griffin, the founders of a paradigm called “Human Givens”, a framework for understanding the way that individuals and society work. They have used that idea to improve psychotherapy in the UK and elsewhere, but it is also essential for more effective politics. New ideas are often rejected, until their value and utility become clear.

The nature of our politics seems timeworn, almost god-given. A great majority of people are convinced that they are only for the cynical pursuit of interest, or the machinations of the powerful at the expense of the weak. Whether in a democracy, tyranny or in international relations, we accept that the pursuit of power is the very nature of politics – for this is what they have mostly been. Waves of utopian and idealistic politics have come and gone, yet the wars and suffering continue.

Today, the sense that our politics and diplomacy are insufficient is stronger than ever. Faced simultaneously with environmental challenges, clashes between groups, overconsumption, distracting technologies and that “Sword of Damocles”, weapons of mass destruction, there is a sense of rising chaos, and an apparent inability to do anything about it. A cacophony in the media helps little to sort the wheat from the chaff, yet many sense it is time for new parameters.

Diplomatic guesswork

A more reliable base for politics is required than the lottery of elections, diplomatic guesswork, or personality-driven authoritarianism on offer. The Human Givens paradigm is well worth investigating as a baseline. It’s difficult to argue with the list of universal emotional needs that Tyrrell and Griffin present as critical for our well-being: attention, status, security, meaning, legitimacy, autonomy. These needs underlie and drive many of our political games and pursuits; they are the hidden phantoms behind ideologies and demands. Unaddressed, these motives become inflamed and our politics, difficult and intractable; if attended to properly, these living factors may greatly facilitate resolution.

“Properly” is a key consideration, for these needs can be manipulated and be captive to greed, e.g. the leaders’ attention mania. Twisted by the dynamics and language of power and ideology, basic needs can be propelled into the stratosphere of illusion. Needs exist in context, they have limits and can be articulated concretely; fantasies and greed are at the expense of others, blind to context, and can remain dangerously open-ended.

China’s claims and its need for legitimacy will also require examining its neighbours’ needs. Leaders’ need for attention have to be limited to getting the job done, not self-glorification. In the Arab world, the youth that triggered the revolutions were after dignity and autonomy, as well as employment. But, their demands will also have to be balanced against stability and patient political evolution. Similarly, Israelis who seek security without satisfying Palestinians’ needs for dignity and legitimacy may find their project futile. These needs cannot be pursued willy-nilly and without limits. The good news is that when we become aware of our needs, it’s a small step to recognise them in others.

Is there any evidence of these ideas working? As the authors of the article on Iran predicted, the breakthrough in US-Iranian nuclear negotiations in November 2013 came about partly because the US effectively recognised Iran’s right to enrich uranium, a demand for international legitimacy, and a basic “Human Given”. Agreeing to the details in the talks remains difficult, but they are proceeding on a proper foundation.

More common ground

At the end of the day, politics involve individuals, with all their foibles, making and responding to decisions. No matter what political structures we develop, our basic selves are driving the day. Our motivations decide whether rights are respected, or institutions are used for good or ill.

Getting a solid grasp on these motivations necessitates a clear paradigm such as Human Givens. Incorporating these ideas explicitly in our politics may also provide more common ground than the current lottery of political interests. Indeed, politics should be devised to ensure these needs are met in society.

The scale and complexity of cooperation required today, including in preparing for future global catastrophes, will not occur through traditional politics – they are already failing. It may well be time to introduce a new reference into a turbulent world. Chinese, Americans, and many others can then begin to realise that they have something in common: a universal set of human needs that could help make sense of their own demands, and, most importantly, of the demands of the “enemy”.

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

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