Amid the recent political turmoil I’ve found myself rewatching old reruns of the UK Parliament’s Prime Minister’s Questions: the highlight reel. I suppose given recent events in Turkey (etc) I can’t complain that the worst our parliamentarians have to deal with is a David Cameron calling his opposition a ‘muttering idiot’ or telling someone to ‘calm down, dear’. Yet one does wonder whether the snide remarks, jibes, recourse to personal insult, mocking, laughs, and jeers is really the best way to ‘do politics’, that is, in a democracy, to find agreement between as many people as possible in order to effect change.
On the face of it, the public side of politics is hardly set up to foster this agreement. The two main parties face off across opposite sides of the room; the party system itself and the presence of a Chief Whip reinforces group identity; the clear delineation between ruling party and ‘opposition’; the fact it’s not necessary to look the recipient of your insult in the eye but that you can get around it by addressing your remarks to the Speaker instead; all I daresay contribute to the antagonistic mentality that produces personal insult and what seems like disagreement for the sake of disagreement, ‘just because’ it’s the other side that said it. Even in the so-called Coalition government, Nick Clegg was less the second-in-command team member than the enthusiastic but ineffective Donkey to Cameron’s Shrek, finally able to thrust Lib Dem ideas into the limelight shouting ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ while actually despised by Cameron and, it seems, the electorate.
Now on the one hand, the possibility of an open playing field wherein a 21-year-old MP can publicly challenge, even shame, the top dog – as well as the right to insult liberally exercised by Cameron et al – speaks to the extent of the free speech we are lucky enough to possess in this country. Yet I do wonder what this antagonism can possibly achieve except resentment and hurt feelings, or at best hours of wasted time. At my most cynical, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that this antagonism does have a purpose, but a sinister one. When one hears that Cameron, Blair and the Chairman of Barclays holidayed together on Rupert Murdoch’s yacht (or similar) it is hard not to believe that the exercise of this hard-won ability to disagree with the ruling power as manifested at PMQs may be merely a game, no more than lad banter set aside the minute the cameras go off and George Osborne offers to buy the Shadow Cabinet a tray of vodka jellos (‘oh don’t worry, I’ll claim it back!’). Could it possibly be the case that the once revolutionary concept of Opposition, then a necessary safeguard against the dictatorial tendencies of royal clans, is now deployed ironically by our ruling classes as fake debate designed to have us believe that we are participating in a democracy, that we are in fact making a choice between the two sides that we see so vigorously have beef on TV.
Regardless of motive, I feel there may be more mature ways of adding some British quirk to political proceedings. Unfortunately, we see a similar meanness replicated in internet comment boxes, and of course in many real-life discussions. Like the shield the politician has when addressing his/her insults to the Speaker, the ability to insult from afar, over the internet, removes some of the inhibitions most people would have if forced to be mean in the face of someone they know personally. The risk that we will forget each other’s humanity in the heat of the moment makes any debate held in a public forum potentially dangerous. That’s not to say that I’m backing the ‘safe space’ movement; although it laudably attempts to compensate for our propensity to get hurt feelings, it goes beyond the objection to ‘trolls’ (which could include someone who logically disagrees, and not just someone who hurls abusive tweets) to police content instead, curtailing discussion of certain subjects or language because, it is claimed, some logically correct statements are offensive attacks on individual people.
Now I always thought I enjoyed hashing out ideas and trying to find a better version of the truth, yet I instinctively dislike the mode of debate that we people seem invariably to fall into, stuck between Charlie Hebdo-esque ‘right to offend’ and social justice warriors’ ‘right to never be distressed’. Between wasting your time countering logical fallacies and misunderstood arguments, when debating contentious issues with people you don’t know very well, you also risk having your ‘privilege’ shoved in your face as an excuse to shut down the argument.
Now without recurring to jibes or invoking taboos, I find it hard to believe that sitting down and having a reasonable discussion with another person could not be persuasive. When you deliberately insult another person or a group they belong to (note that I am not talking about calmly arguing that something they do or think is wrong or incorrect), all you are doing is making someone feel personally hurt. You may make your admirers smile and reinforce your own group’s values, but you won’t make any new followers and are only likely to further alienate those you are trying to convince. A reasonable person will be convinced by reason, and not your mocking of their stance.
Of course, there are situations where reason is unlikely to prevail. The police force called to attend a gun stand-off should probably take weapons to incapacitate the aggressors in the case that telling them they shouldn’t fire looks like it might fail. Similarly, if you happen upon an ISIS message board, you’re unlikely to be able to persuade its members not to join the fighting in Syria. I would like to think that in the right situation, even someone who’s been brainwashed could be convinced that blowing up innocent people is morally wrong and against the tenets of whatever creed they think they’re taking as their driving force. Yet perhaps one can only fight irrationality with more irrationality (e.g. try bargaining with a toddler mid-tantrum). Perhaps mocking Osama bin Laden, rather than expending energy refuting his obviously wrong views, is a way of reminding his followers that there is a group out here that’s laughing at them, which they’re not part of. Perhaps that would speak to the lack of identity and belonging that it’s said drives young men to join fanatical movements. But in all other situations, the person who cares about other humans will not let them languish in incorrectness while mocking them. That person will attempt to get their message heard and on fair terms only.
There is an alternative to all this, and that is a way of seeing debate not as asserting group identity or reinforcing dominance, but as a way of trying to elucidate each other’s positions in order to find common ground on which to found change. It’s harder than banter; it can be genuinely difficult not to give up on reason and resort to an easy personal jibe. Yet maintaining this is far easier when with a close friend than when among strangers or in the public sphere. When your opinion diverges from that of a friend, you’re more likely to give each other a hearing and attempt to understand why they think what they do; you won’t personally attack them or assume they’re personally attacking you; and because you naturally try to avoid hurting them, you’re likely to be less mean, and dismissive of their argument.
Recently I was sitting in a beer garden on a summer afternoon with two friends. We’d got as far as we could with the topic under debate, and I found myself basking in the glow of this beautiful day spent exercising our minds, listening and being listened to. Naturally this type of debate lets us learn about each other and some of the fundamental beliefs on which our other more trivial opinions rest, and it lets us be heard and considered and validated by our friends. This feels more than instructive (and I can’t even remember what the debate about) – it feels like making a profound emotional connection. Whether or not you go into the debate hoping to learn something new or refine your opinion, digging to the bottom of our friends’ beliefs and values can only make us feel more sympathetic towards and intimate with each other.
I thought back to the many more antagonistic debates I’d witnessed between friends and how, the more like a shouting match it became, the less I cared to participate and the more I withdrew my interest – not out of fear or because the topic didn’t matter, but because I did not want to be shouted over, and did not feel happy to shout over others, or laugh at a point that appeared ridiculous. I wondered whether I had been using these debates all along as a way of pursuing an emotional connection, since I do value clarifying my opinion, but not over everything else. At first this worried me. Perhaps it means I’m intellectually inferior or incapable of really pursuing a correct argument to the bitter end. That’s probably untrue. Now I think it’s just that I prioritise emotional concord over other values.
I don’t know that it’s always a good thing, but perhaps we could do with a little more of it from our statespeople: a little less strife and a little more #lovewins maybe.