What struck me most about the Brexit referendum was not the outcome, but our failure to have a decent conversation about it. The debate that led up to 23rd June 2016 was a painful experience for many – even here in Japan. Since then there’s been a noticeable lack of conversation on the topic. Many unresolved feelings still hover in the air.
With this collective communication failure ringing in our ears, the RSA Japan Fellows’ Network decided to experiment. We designed an event for a small group of people from UK-related organisations including the British Embassy, the British Council, the British Chamber of Commerce and of course RSA fellows. Participants were roughly half Japanese and half British, and, in keeping with the spirit of the RSA, represented a wide range of sectors including public, private and non-profit, arts, business, technology and education. The aim of the event was to share perspectives on Brexit, but in a special way.
The conversation was grounded in three principles of engagement, which were expressed in three drawings by artist Divya Kato FRSA.
The first was the principle of personal responsibility: instead of pointing fingers or shooting down opposing viewpoints, we agreed to focus on our own thoughts and actions, and to look for ways that we personally could make a difference. Divya’s drawing of ocean waves refers to the story of the little wave who looked longingly at the big waves, wishing that she could become so big and powerful – until she realised that she was already part of the big waves and she shared in their power.
Second was the principle of expanding perspectives: we would use the conversation as a way to expand our understanding in the knowledge that none of us has a monopoly on the truth. In Divya’s drawing, we see a girl sitting on a train. From the viewer’s perspective, only the back of her head is visible. Only if we change our perspective can we start to get a fuller picture of this person.
Thirdly we agreed to participate in the event not just through intellect, but engaging faculties such as emotion, imagination, intuition and body, in order to make sense of and deal with the issue. The image Divya provided to illustrate this is of a tree. In order to know a tree it is not enough to read a book about trees, or study their biology. We need to experience the tree, touch it, smell it, sit in its shade.
As for the contents, the session was structured into two main sections: awareness and action. The aim of the awareness stage was to expand our individual and collective understanding by listening to the perspectives of other people and to our own less-explored attitudes and ideas. Throughout this stage, the focus was on opening up to new perspectives, without worrying about right and wrong. The underlying question was not “Is Brexit the right thing to do?” but “What does Brexit mean to you?”. It was only in the second stage - the action stage - that we put on our practical hats and began to think about what we might think or do differently.
The conversation took place through a series of guided activities. In the opening exercise each person expressed their attitude towards Brexit through their physical placement (are you right at the centre of the debate? are you turning your back on the issue?), and through the use of objects symbolising what Brexit means to us. Later we did a drawing activity which tapped into our non-verbal, intuitive thinking. There was also a coaching exercise which drew out the contradictory opinions within us and helped us think about how we deal with contradiction – intellectually, emotionally and physically.
These principles and activities opened the door to a strikingly different kind of communication. The event was a reminder that there are constructive ways to communicate on divisive issues: ways which allow us to express ourselves more fully, expand our awareness of ourselves and others, and uncover more creative shared outcomes. RSA JFN is already planning further events to tap deeper into this world of expressive possibilities.