You can find the full Episode “What If” We Transformed Political Engagement? here.
“Most of us have never had to explain why we think the way we do,” says Chlöe Swarbrick, Green Party MP and resident of Auckland. “Most of us, particularly when we first turn 18 and become eligible to vote, we take on the views of our parents. We haven’t necessarily investigated these views. Instead we just continue to move into these bubbles which consistently reinforce our biases.”
Stay in these bubbles long enough and they become protective walls. Everything outside that bubble starts to look and feel scary. That fear and need for security is one symptom of our increasingly polarised, unstable world. The other symptoms are the election of Donald Trump and the beginning of Brexit. For a world that our children can feel safe in, we need a co-existence of the multiplicity of ideas.
“The first thing to realise is you need to have time and space in order to engage meaningfully with somebody.” As WLAS listeners know by now, we believe #ToListenIsToLove. But it shouldn’t take four weeks of a national lockdown for us to have the time and space to listen to each other.
After posing The Why Question — “Why do you feel or think the way you do?” — we have to allow the person enough uninterrupted time and space to share. “Keep following up with the why question, get to the core of it. Often you’ll find that some of the views that we see as the most vehement are actually founded in fear, a need for security, to protect one’s family or community.
By asking The Why Question we can “get to that nub of care about community and family, and that’s the base that you can build a bridge of humanity on.”
“What you see as racism or bigotry or sexism is actually only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is a lifetime of experiences which ultimately inform who we are and how we navigate the world. And you’re not going to be able to unpack that by shouting at [racist or bigoted behaviour].”
In fact, shouting can make those protective walls, that bubble of bias, even harder. “So many people, understandably, are really frustrated with the way that things are,” says Chlöe. But it is so much harder to come up with the solution if we’re locked in our own little bubbles. “We have a society that is more fragmented, more individualised, more isolated, and more traumatised than we have had since the world wars. And we wonder why our young people are struggling with poor mental health or experimenting with risky behaviour, looking for escape.”
So what is the fix for isolation and trauma? “Connection and community, and building a shared kaupapa.”
But is it up to the isolated and traumatised to be the ones to engage? People who have been marginalised and disempowered by the political system aren’t “choosing” to not engage. “There is a reason for the disengagement, and that is because of the erosion of trust,” says Chlöe. “It didn’t happen overnight, can’t pin it on one person, but a lot of people have been pushed into a corner and pigeon-holed and told that they don’t matter.”
“The most revolutionary thing that any one of us can do is recognise how much we matter.” And the simplest way to do that is by participation, by reaching out.
In a recent Stuff article Chlöe wrote some matters are “not politically impossible, just a matter of priority”. While it might seem like only someone in Chlöe’s position can change those priorities, she believes that’s not entirely true. Start by stepping out of your own comfortable bubble, she says. “Stop talking to your echo chamber.”
“To be in politics you have to be a politician: That is the biggest myth out there!” says Chlöe Swarbrick. “And whether or not you engage in politics, politics governs your life. If you care about stuff, if you have opinions — and everybody has opinions! — about roads, about wages, about the quality of the air you breathe, you are engaging in politics, on a daily basis.”
“Traditionally, power has manifested in wealth or ‘connections’,” she says, “But we have so much untapped power in numbers, particularly in this country.” It’s one of the rare moments Chlöe describes people as numbers, otherwise always placing the highest value on humans, humanity, and a collective sense of purpose.
“I used to go to church with my grandma until I was 13, and that was the fundamental teaching within Christianity — the values of compassion, community, redistribution, and looking after those who need it so that all of us can recognise and realise our potential and contribute.”
In the 21st century, she says, we have a tendency to think of revolutionary changes as being caused by the actions of one person: “We tend to individualise, celebrit-ise, and personalise historical change. The civil rights movement, the suffrage movement, or gay rights, we associate them with that one person with those sick quotes, they’re the ones who did stuff!” They may have been the most poetic or able to offer the best rhetoric, leading the marches, but they would not have been able to change society without the movement and mobilisation of hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of average folks who gave just that little bit. “Because that’s the tipping point.”
As a journalist with BFM, before her career in politics, Chlöe interviewed mayoral candidates who didn’t seem to place as much value on people. “All they really wanted to talk to me about was rates,” she says. As a rent-paying tenant herself, and a participant in the gig economy, she didn’t feel represented by these candidates. And she knew her friends didn’t really care about rates, either.
Realising that most New Zealanders are less likely to be “rate payers”, Chlöe quickly explains what “rates” are — a form of taxation that’s folded into rent, and funds services we tend to take for granted such as rubbish collection, and maintenance of streets and parks.
The mayoral candidates didn’t seem to want to encourage wider participation by people like Chlöe. And when her good friend Lillian Hanly, now the news director at BFM, had listened to one rant too many, she said to Chlöe, “Why don’t you do something about it?”
“So I did what any self-respecting millennial would do: I went home and googled how to become Auckland’s mayor,” says Chlöe, who was 22 at the time.
While mainstream media couldn’t get over her age and did nothing to boost her candidacy, Chlöe and her creative friends used social media to organise gigs, and events and share campaign films to garner votes and support. “We came in third place with just less than 30,000 votes and all of the usual outlets were like ‘whoa where did that come from’ and we’re like we were just on the ground, doing the mahi.”
Mahi doesn’t have to mean running for mayor. It doesn’t even have to be community service or charity. “To be perfectly honest, the function of charity is a demonstration of a state that’s not doing its job properly. Charity fills the gaps caused by a poorly functioning system of taxation or redistribution.”
In a democracy like ours, your mahi can be as straightforward as exercising your right to vote. “The folks who go, ‘I don’t like politicians, I don’t like politics, so I’m not going to engage in it’ they give the badly behaved a hall pass to keep doing bad stuff. If you don’t like or trust politicians, recognise that you can replace them.”
Engaging in politics also doesn’t mean boning up on legislations and government policy. It can be as simple as sharing your values with the world, the values that transcend religion, ethnicity, and geography. But for real sharing to happen, we must also listen.
“Find the thing that enables you to create, to collaborate, to contribute and to feel that sense of accomplishment. That’s fundamentally what all of us want. When you’ve found that, find the people who align with that. And when you’ve done both of those things, you’ve recognised how important you are and you’ve built a community. That’s the basis of revolutionary politics, my friend!”
This article is based on When Lambs Are Silent: The Podcast Ep #2 dated Monday 4 May 2020 and has been edited for brevity. You can find the full Episode “What If” We Transformed Political Engagement? here.