by Peter Wells
Let me recommend a New Year resolution, in case you don’t have one yet: Be nicer to people you disagree with.
I’ve been moved to make this recommendation by my recent reading of The Guardian, a British centre-left newspaper. It has disappointed me.
This is sad, for I agree with the general tenor of The Guardian’s views, oscillating, as I do, between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. What is more, The Guardian has allowed me to read its columns free of charge. But increasingly I note that in its attempts to express its views more forcibly, it has begun to resort to vilification.
Take, for example, this article by Andrew Rawnsley, entitled ‘With his sudden U-turn over Christmas, Boris Johnson caps a year of debacles.’ The theme of the article is that Boris Johnson is a really bad prime minister:
He has looked good only when benchmarked against Donald Trump. The coronavirus crisis could not have been more cunningly engineered to expose Mr Johnson’s flaws. He was made prime minister not because anyone thought that he was a cool and decisive head with the leadership skills and moral seriousness required to handle the gravest public health emergency in a century. He was put there because he was a successful representative of the entertainer branch of populist leadership that prospered in the pre-virus era.
Rawnsley feels able to give a psychological explanation of Johnson’s problems. Apparently, Johnson is
feebly fearful of having any substantial figures around the top table who might challenge him … just below the surface of his performative face lurks an insecure character who trusts no one and yearns to be loved by everyone. He hates being the bearer of bad news and tough choices.
This weaponisation of amateur psychology is an increasing trend, and is bad for politics, psychology, and people in general. A proper psychiatrist or counsellor would keep a client’s condition confidential, but Rawnsley is not a qualified practitioner: he’s a journalist. He has neither the ability to make a diagnosis, nor the right to disclose one. He is just one of a growing group of people who think it is legitimate to assume that people who disagree with them must be suffering from a personality disorder, or mental health issue. They then turn their pseudo-diagnoses into damaging insults. There is no concern or compassion here, as one would expect from a civilised human being on hearing of someone else’s mental health problems – just hatred and derision.
The great former Guardian editor, CP Scott, said that “comment is free, but facts are sacred.” The Guardian’s comment is now free online (which may be part of its problem), but facts seem to be less important to it. Rawnsley’s informants include ‘one Senior Tory,’ ‘one witness to these internal debates,’ ‘one former Tory cabinet minister,’ and ‘one of the many women in his [Johnson’s] life.’ These unidentified sources do not constitute a credible body of evidence. Even if these people exist, and said what they are reported to have said, what are they offering more than mischievous gossip?
Rawnsley also lashes out at the entire cabinet, calling them “lightweight,” “talentless,” “loyalist duds,” and “nodding dogs,” while the Secretary of State for Education is dismissed as “serially blundering.” His evidence for his assertion that the current cabinet is “one of the weakest cabinets in modern history” is that “few would dispute” it.
Rants like this can be enjoyable for some of those who disagree with Boris Johnson’s views and actions, and find themselves irritated by his attitude, and concerned about what he is doing to his country, especially its more vulnerable citizens. But in what way is this article designed to make things better? That should presumably be the aim of political journalism, especially when, as in this case, it’s given away free of charge.
Rawnsley’s article, apart from the fact that it showcases his extensive vocabulary and mordant wit, tells the targeted audience nothing they do not already know. All of them, almost by definition, believe that Johnson is a Bad Thing. Rawnsley could equally profitably have spent his time demonstrating that beer is wet. He gives us no hint about how we can mitigate the effects of Johnson’s policies, nor any suggestion about how such a disastrous selection of leader can be avoided in the future. Although he excoriates Johnson as an ‘entertainer,’ what is he doing other than entertain? He is a performer singing his fans their favourite song.
Making things better would involve reaching out to people who don’t think Johnson is an incompetent buffoon, and/or to those who are happy to think we in the UK have recently gained our independence. But this would require an entirely different approach. Identifying and addressing the relevant audience. Speaking their language. Finding common ground. Searching for compromise. Making workable suggestions. Offering facts rather than gossip. Showing respect. Listening.
It is one thing to sit on the sidelines and snipe at the government in the light of hindsight. It is quite another to be at the heart of the decision-making process, confronted by masses of contradictory, passionate advice, and knowing that whatever decision you take will harm some people and anger many. I don’t see anything in Rawnsley’s biographical details online that suggests he has any knowledge or understanding of what this is like. He doesn’t seem to have ever done anything which would entitle him to comment on people who do actually do things. But he has done what no one else has ever managed to do – he has caused me to empathise with our Prime Minister!
How toxic the nature of political debate has become is neatly illustrated by this article, from the other side of the Atlantic, about how toxic the nature of political debate has become. In its first nine paragraphs it sets out the problem soberly and concisely, giving the reader hope that, in the tenth and last, it might suggest a way out of the impasse. Instead, it concludes thus:
This dispute over the election results is not simply another point of political disagreement among Republicans and Democrats. It is not the kind of difference that can be addressed by listening to one another in the democratic spirit of seeing our partisan rivals as opponents but nonetheless not enemies. It is rather an instance where a large segment of a major US political party has affirmed, without evidence, that our democracy is fundamentally fraudulent. We cannot employ the tools of democratic citizenship – Biden’s prescribed modes of listening, hearing, and seeing each other – to repair relations between democratic citizens and those who content [sic] baselessly that our democracy is a sham. Those two camps can only be political enemies.
What Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse (the authors) are doing here is nothing other than more of the same: just another attempt to trump the arguments of the opposition (in this case the Republicans), in the endless tit-for-tat that has been escalating for as long as I can remember – emotion countering emotion; argument, argument; slogan, slogan; facts, facts, and lies, lies: evermore looking for the ultimate put-down, whether statistic, metaphor, or insult.
The trick on this occasion is to lure the reader in by the pretence that here at last is impartiality, overview, balance, wisdom, even grace. With the reader hopefully convinced, the authors then go in for the kill. Trump’s Republicans, they announce, are beyond the reach of the wisest wisdom, the most open-minded tolerance, the most eirenic bridge-builder. They cannot and never will be dialogued with; it is hopeless.
Really, therefore, if this is the case, the only rational solution would be to massacre them all, would it not? Or possibly defeat them politically by an overwhelming barrage of lying propaganda. Or use billions of dollars to fix elections by electronically fiddling with the results. If this article is intended to make ‘Trump’s Republicans’ think again, perhaps it should have been made available to them. How many of Trump’s followers read 3QD? Like Rawnsley, what Aiken and Talisse are doing is basically talking about people behind their backs. The fact that 3QD and The Guardian are available online is irrelevant; to communicate with people you have to go where they are.
More of the same will only produce more of the same. The alternative, hard as it may be to contemplate, is courtesy, interaction, honesty, relevance, professionalism, and hope. There is a terrible temptation to abandon this slow, patient process and resort to the nuclear option of verbal abuse. We must resist this. It will only result in an answering fusillade of baseless insults about liberals, leaving us still farther apart.
Have faith! The doctrine that our political opponents are beyond the reach of reason cannot stand. If we are not beyond the reach of reason, neither are they. If they are irredeemably evil, why aren’t we? If they’re the helpless victims of lying propaganda, how do we know we are not? If persuasion influences them, why not try it ourselves?
Let us take as an example the issue of sexism, specifically, women’s suffrage. The period of debate and protest about the right of women to vote lasted less than 100 years – between the Great Reform Act (1832) and the granting of votes to women on the same terms as men (1928). How was the age-long disenfranchisement of women overturned so completely, in such a comparatively short time, when it was necessary to persuade men in power to relinquish it in some degree?
I can’t claim that I have examined every piece of literature written on behalf of woman’s suffrage to check that it is free from offensiveness, but I have looked at JS Mill’s Subjection of Women, with its nearly 45,000 words of detailed logical argument, and note that it treats the opposition with unswerving respect. Mill did not decide to write an article, to be read only by women, about how pathologically stupid men are, nor does he produce items of gossip about the leading opponents of the women’s suffrage movement, given to him by unnamed persons. He keeps a steely focus on his proper audience – those not yet convinced. He never abandons his conviction that these people share his desire for the welfare of humanity, and that their disagreement is only about how to achieve it.
We may also recall that the women’s suffrage movement’s success was achieved by years of courageous protest and campaigning, and eventually by the preparedness of campaigners on hunger strike to undergo the pain and humiliation of force-feeding. It is difficult to imagine many of our modern newspaper columnists being prepared to undergo such treatment in support of their opinions. There are lessons for us here if we really value our views and want them to be more widely held.
Let us take, as another example of a live and important social issue: racism. It is sometimes suggested that racism is so obviously wrong and stupid that it’s no longer worth discussing. Giving racists a hearing at all, it is urged, accords their opinions some degree of respectability, whereas they ought to be treated with utter contempt. I can understand the emotional force and background of this position, but by abandoning debate we will be more likely, in my view, to leave the way open to more and more outrageous expressions of racism. Why not engage?
Racism seems to be a trait that in the early part of our evolution had survival value. Being able to spot a stranger at a considerable distance could save your life. Now that many people live in multicultural societies, and the world is a global village, it has become a social problem that is hard to eliminate. It seems likely that it is at least partly hard-wired. Add to this the fact that (in Britain at any rate) our history lessons in school are a litany of war after war, in which we bravely and righteously fought people of different languages and skin colours, either winning (due to our innate wisdom and courage) or being unfairly defeated. Many citizens know of a family member killed in a war, or know one who lived through one. Obviously foreigners are people to be wary of(!) And some of our newspapers, unfortunately, have a tendency to encourage racist views, because their owners think there’s money in it. So it’s not surprising that a large proportion of our populations – perhaps around 50% in Western liberal countries – have a poor opinion of foreigners/people of minority ethnic groups.
This may sound like a serious obstacle to surmount. But let’s bear in mind that this is 50% fewer than it probably was when we were nomads. If people have been taught one thing, they can be taught another. There are plenty of strong and simple arguments against racism. In countries like Britain and the USA there are innumerable role-models from minority ethnic groups, in politics, sport, academia, the arts or the media. Our armies include decorated heroes from minority groups. Millions of people have formed successful marriages across racial or national boundaries. It is clear that humans are of a single stock, for any human of any ‘race’ can mate with one of the opposite gender from any other group. It can fairly easily be shown that after our four million years or so of evolution even those races that think of themselves as ‘pure’ are really a mongrel breed, due to hundreds of thousands of generations of migration and miscegenation. Even bad history tells us that in our wars against evil foreigners we were often helped by plucky foreigners from friendly countries. So, not all foreigners are bad! There are more arguments like these, and you don’t have to be JS Mill to express them (or write 45,000 words!). And the same goes for similar issues such as climate change, vaccination or homophobia. It may not be easy. But if we can move one person’s opinion even slightly in the right direction, that will achieve more than reams of scorn.
Shall we try it?