Actually…how *do* they sleep at night?

If we don’t try to understand our opponents – or those we think of as villains – we are condemned to lose to them.

Around seven years ago – fairly early in my career – I was chasing what’s now an otherwise unmemorable story.

A small UK-based arms dealer had been trying to get a permit to sell arms to Swaziland, an absolute dictatorship, and US sources suspected the deal was being used by the country as a cover to try to sell the arms on to Iran.

Journalistic ethics require that if we want to print allegations of this severity, we give the subject of them the chance to respond first. Where we don’t have phone numbers, or emails, that means turning up on the doorstep.

And so it was I found myself in the yard of an arms warehouse on the outskirts of London – surrounded by high walls and razor wire – levelling these accusations at a confused, then angry, then worried arms dealer.

Yes, he immediately admitted, he’d been trying to sell weapons to Swaziland. He’s an arms dealer. That’s what he does. But he knew nothing about the Iran detail, he insisted, and if I wanted verification that idea was nonsense I only needed to ask the US ambassador to the country. He knows what’s going there, the arms dealer said.

Unfortunately for him, the person who suspected the deal was a means to channel arms to Iran – likely without the UK dealer knowing – *was* the US ambassador. How did we know? It was in one of the state cables leaked by Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks.

It was what happened after the admissions and denials that sticks with me, though. Now he’d explained it, he said, worried, it surely wasn’t a story? A story, even if he’d not done anything actually wrong, he explained, could ruin his business, and so his life. On the verge of tears he explained he had young children. Why did I need to publish something and potentially ruin his life?

I said all the usual things we say: we’ll consider the public interest. It’s up to my editor. If we publish we’ll be sure to reflect what he’s said. But in truth, a story like that one is not big headline news if no law has been broken, and there’s no household name involved. I would have to talk an editor into running the piece – such stories only run if a reporter fights for them. It was up to me.

Having someone plead with you is an awful feeling – anyone who gets a kick from it is not to be trusted. I could probably decide if the story would run or not. And I felt terrible about it – until my brain kicked in and I remembered he was an arms dealer, who had been entirely happy to try to sell weapons to a dictator, if he could only get the permit. I ran the story, to (so far as I know) virtually no attention or effect.

What’s stuck with me since – and why I recount the story now – is what struck me later: this man thought of himself as a decent family man, who did nothing wrong. And yet he had got himself to a place where he was happy to consider selling weapons to the dictator of a country with what could, at its most generous, be described as a patchy human rights record. How did he get there?

Trying to understand why people do what they do isn’t the same as trying to absolve it, or to cover from it. It’s also not comforting: it’s the very opposite.

People pollute the atmosphere, cover up studies that their product does harm, fake news stories, help people avoid or evade taxes, arrange bribes to corrupt politicians, and more – and rationalise it to themselves, and to others, often believing they’re genuinely a good person.

Working out why that happens, and understanding the mindset, is the first step to genuinely tackling it.

This is a concept those of us on the left intuitively grasp for petty crime and almost always reject for bigger problems. We understand why the drug addict steals, and why just dismissing them as a thief or an addict is wrong – the best outcome for them, and for their victims, it to look at the societal problems that led them there, and how to lead them out. The same stands for benefit “cheats” and numerous others.

The same stands for tax dodgers, fraudsters, corrupt politicians, and others. They should be punished – and are far more likely to get away with it as it stands – but we should also understand how their actions are rationalised, and what we can change.

Any time your explanation for someone’s action is simply that they’re “evil”, or can be summarised in a sentence, it’s lacking. It might help you feel righteous, but ultimately it won’t help fix the problem.

This rejection of understanding – and its extension beyond the outright criminal to those we disagree with in politics, the media, and beyond – is only growing, and it harms us.

The least important aspect of it is the “death of civility”, or the endlessly bemoaned quality of debate on social media. Society can cope with us all being ruder on Twitter. It’s the least of our problems.

But it’s certainly there as a symptom, and is coming to inform and even dominate views on politics, the media, Brexit, and more.

Losing the instinct to understand motivation, to look for causes, to dig beyond the obvious answer to see how someone explains or rationalises their action means we will get worse at winning over those we disagree with, worse at tackling the problems we face, and worse at understanding the world.

Our opponents have to be hoodwinked, venal, self-serving, or in the pay of someone (this can vary from Russia, to Murdoch, to Soros, to the CIA, or the foreign office). They can thus be immediately dismissed.

Understanding doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean equivocation, becoming an apologist, or even forgiveness. But it shouldn’t be the dirty word it’s becoming.

Let’s ask more questions, if only of ourselves. The only alternative is shouting, and as we might have noticed through 2018, that’s getting nothing done.

I’m sure I will, from time to time, carry on shouting in 2019. But I’m going to try to listen more, too. At least for long enough to try to work out where people are coming from.