The Truth Cannot Force Its Way In
22nd June 2017
After a long time in which left and right blurred into one, lo and behold some contrast has been etched across the political landscape in the UK of late. And this has to be a good thing. As an electorate, it has simultaneously left us less apathetic and yet more divided. Politics has become incredibly unpredictable and boisterously noisy.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Glastonbury-headlining rise has played a large part in this. Observing the progressive ideas of the left that he champions against a right-of-centre establishment that has dominated in recent decades seems to clearly show that something is shifting in the hearts and minds of much of an electorate that had previously failed to feel engaged with politics in the UK.
And yet, despite the very different ideas, policies and values within those right or left in leaning, it sometimes feels as if there is a worrying sameness to much of the way each dissents from the other. The voices on each side are often shrill and abusive. Both left and right, there is a lot of unhelpful noise which is hampering the possibility of the country making some progress in an extraordinarily unstable moment in British history.
I broadly agree with the sentiment that maintaining neutrality is not workable in a politically mobilised society. It serves only the status quo. Everyone’s voice needs to be heard. Every one of us. But it is important to weigh up the most effective ways to use that voice in a way that precipitates change. For the left at the moment, it is to respond to the status quo in a way that will destabilise it. That means appealing to voters who are marginal and convincing them that a shift to the left is the more progressive move. We need to reverse the many voting for the few.
Across the pond, we have a President in office who is beyond parody. The truth is grim. The man is utterly appalling to many. But to 63 million others he is the choice. For these voters, there are attractions to his charisma that need to be understood if he is to be ousted. I’m not sure shifting the views of some of those 63 million is best served by abusing Trump. But that is largely what those on the left seem to do, rather than understand what propelled him into power and keeps him there.
The temptation many of us feel to ridicule or rain abuse on him is enormous. Almost the instant he speaks, I feel impelled to take to twitter to denounce him as a tangerine man-baby. But the desire to ridicule him also feels unsatisfactory somehow. I often wonder if it is likely to be counterproductive. It won’t remove him from power – if anything it seems to bolster his position further.
This is no less true for those opposed to the right in the UK. For all the abuse hurled at Corbyn and Diane Abbott, it has been no less vitriolic when aimed at Theresa May or others. The politics of the Tories, and beyond them a flailing UKIP, as well as the Brexiteers are unacceptable to many people; it is often hard not to become furious. More and more people now demand a shift in power. Me included. But I wonder more and more how best to achieve this.
It isn’t by reproducing the kind of attacks that the left say are the preserve of the right. But that is what is often happening. The aggression that is slung around is not neatly accorded to whether you lean left or right, whether your views are generally liberal or conservative. It is more about the aggressive parts of our nature, whatever our values. By and large, we’re all as flawed as each other.
Anger can be a really powerful driver for change if channelled appropriately. It is easy for the anger people feel to cause them to resort to more unhelpful, abusive retorts that hold back change and progress rather than winning it. The reality in these times feels like injustice. It creates an anger, but needs to be an energy we don’t waste. It is too easy to fall into the trap of nursing a grievance, picking at the wound, misdirecting the fury, taking pleasure in complaintkeeping the abuse alive and enjoying the drama of it all.
Keep pressing home the damage done to the NHS, the unemployed, the housing situation, immigration policy, the rights and wrongs of Brexit. Better still, if we can collectively manage it, resist the temptation to ridicule the right, despite how irresistible it is to do so. The type of thinking that prizes inequality, exclusion, prejudice and division – literally building walls, denying human rights – all of it is best challenged at the level of ideas.
It feels as if we are in the midst of a powerful, collective, societal feeling – a ressentiment. But the demand to claim a collective voice can quickly become a sort of free-floating revenge. The oppressed/repressed will home in on an object – any object – so they can direct their impulse to detract, to project their anger, hatred, envy onto that object. But if the desired end-result is change, this will fail. To create a UK with a greater sense of equality, inclusion, tolerance – a greater humanity – then each of us has to check our motivations, our own prejudices, our darker sides.
All of us have more in common than we might imagine. For instance, it seems for many of us, one way or another, Brexit is about loss. On the one side it is the loss of membership of the EU and the inclusivity if offered. It makes us feel safer. On the other side, it is the loss of a UK that once existed. To those believers, this is similarly a desire for feelings of safety. Either can be argued to be a rose-tinted notion of what once was or what could be. But both sides feel a loss.
Using wit against those we disagree with can often be delicious fun, but if we aren’t careful it can quickly descend into the kind of abuse which further separates the ‘us’ and ‘them’ and maintains the very divisions we’d like to see dissolve. It is really, really difficult work to win over hearts and minds. To do so demands that we address the prejudices we each hold – every one of us – the prejudice, othering, aggression and selfishness that only serve to maintain the divisions between us. It is difficult because to do so often goes against our powerful instincts for security.
What is more, this challenging work is never-ending. No progress made can be considered irreversible. Human failings invariably re-emerge under duress. The rights of each person, each group need to be sought after and re-sought after. This is what makes it so easy for unscrupulous politicians to mobilise the anxieties that we all experience by othering, splitting, dividing and racialising. It is really difficult not to resort to similarly divisive actions in response to it. The work isn’t just tireless, it requires us to engage in the very delicate task of remaining self-critical and take great care in how we add to the discourse, to how we debate. To win over the hearts and minds of others, we must first win over our own.