I write this as I attend the 3rd annual Methodist Research Conference at the historic John Rylands Library in Manchester. For that reason, it might be easy to engage in a philosophical discussion about truth and reality, but that's not my intention. What really got me thinking about these things was an increasing unease about the nature of public debates and public discourse. It feels as if we are talking at cross-purposes even though we believe we are addressing the same issues. The campaign before, during and since the Brexit referendum shows this very clearly. Loud and passionate voices argue their cases, but from two very different positions: reality and truth.
Reality can be a scary place as well as a heavenly. It can be dominated by strong feelings of fear, love, hope or freedom. All of these feelings are 'real' if they are experienced, even if they are based on myths or even falsehoods. Fears are not countered by rational argument - ask any parent of a young child. Albert Einstein argued: reality is merely an illusion albeit a very persistent one. All of us construct our realities to make us feel safer, but it is a fragile edifice that can be disrupted or even destroyed by others peddling fear and myth.
Truth is often confused with facts. Dickens' Mr Gradgrind was keen to develop a method of education that concerned itself only with the inculcation of approved facts. Those who seek truth in public discourse rely on rational argumentation and an imagined neutrality to arrive at major policy decisions. Even in a post-truth age, they see this approach as superior to those who rely on unreliable feelings and will arrive at better outcomes.
Neither approach does justice to the whole of the human experience. Most of us make decisions with a mixture of information, gut feeling, assumption and relationships. We make better decisions when we use our empathy.
How does empathy work? It is not the same as agreement. It is an acknowledgement of a common humanity - whatever the views expressed or fears felt, it is still a human being holding them. It is predicated on a refusal to dehumanise and a positive affirmation that no-one can be completely defined by the views they hold. It honours knowledge and ideas but looks to see who they affect the lives of ordinary people. It is shaped by love, hope and a sense of justice (a justice that is judged by feeling as well as rationality).
In the Brexit debate, empathy attempts to understand the origin of the fears of the other, rather than judge their legitimacy. It also accepts the need for verifiable evidence and the wisdom of experts. But is also acknowledges the limitations of rational argument and seeks to incorporate the human factor in decision-making, rather than remove it.
I wonder what would have happened if we had been able to acknowledge that the EU was always more than an economic project, that it has significant flaws and deficiencies that the current structures make it hard to rectify? What if we had been able to articulate the deep fears of many about an increasingly multicultural society and look at how a colonial racist past has helped to shape a white British self-identity? What if UK governments of the last 40 years had spoken truthfully of the EU and its impact on British life, for good and ill? What if the politicians had treated the British people with more respect and sought to structure a decision-making process that addressed fears and facts in a way that engendered trust rather than populism?