You and I may agree about one thing yet disagree about another. That, in itself, should be uncontroversial enough. That, for some, it isn’t demonstrates to me the weakness of their arguments. My frustration at another’s inability to at least agree on our disagreements without tumbling into verbal scrummage lends energy to both oppositional elements and cheering, jeering onlookers, popping cheerleader popcorn from the safety of the armchair. Debate is often healthy, but sadly pointless if one side is not willing, or able, to listen: I’ve changed my mind on many things at which a 19 year-old me might now grimace. But I’ve done so in the face of reason. And I am still, at bleeding-heart, a liberal lefty, whatever that actually means.
Undoubtedly it is hard to change one’s beliefs in the face of what appears to be another’s subjective reality: Tories are #dicks, Corbynistas are demented and fans of Farron have as much piquancy as a leaf of cress in a Vindaloo. Let’s not get started on the deluded Greens or the UKIPs, eh? A younger me absolutely recognised that one person might have ideas with which I agreed wholeheartedly in spite of their otherwise obvious evil, but that same younger me jumped to melodramatic assertions. I knew it was silly, but militaristic zeal is common in those to whom politics is the lusty spring after winter’s pale misfeature.
The order we inhabit, though, is imagined and malleable, at least to an extent. Our mediaeval forbears did not recognise privacy as we do, for example: single-room, single-storey dwellings offered seclusion only by the perish’d light of the stove. Whatever import we place upon the rise of the Privy Chamber and the water-closet, we now divide and surrender our common ground without a thought. And thus, the material world which we create also reinforces our imagined reality: we value privacy at this point in time. If, at some point, we collectively decide to forgo privacy for communal housing it will be both a result of, and perpetuated by, the architecture itself, among other things. To deny or discredit change is not Luddism, but certainly demonstrates a sociological, historical and philosophical illiteracy. In essence, shit happens, where ‘shit’ is stuff, in modern parlance.
Freeing oneself from the imagined order we inhabit, and therefore moving beyond the echo-chamber, is really bloody hard. To effect change whereby others might agree with us is harder still, as we find ourselves battling against both the subjective reality of our sparring partner and that partner’s social web, something Yuval Noah Harari calls the ‘inter-subjective’:
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. […] Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.¹
Political tribalism, in whatever form it takes or, indeed, regarding whatever it chooses to parade or attack, is an inter-subjective derivative. Most of us believe, whether consciously or otherwise, of certain values with which we’d like to be associated, partly due to imagined orders and myths, the prevalence of which we both perpetuate and are party to: we’re Morpheus, Kevin Flynn or Polystom, but some way short of deus ex machina.
This is why some teachers can support a Tory education manifesto despite its school breakfast numbers being several miles wide of the mark, and why Labour’s promise to scrap tuition fees is praised by progressives in spite of evidence suggesting applications from poorer students have actually risen. We are so often blind to that which we hold dear. Moreover, the language we use, inherited from the inter-subjective, binds us to a dialogue from which we struggle to break free. This is why, perversely, debate is so important: we need to be able to discuss openly and frankly without fear of recourse from those who instinctively rail against the apparently obtuse, whether by claiming insult or adding injury.
More important, perhaps, is to accept questions from those with whom we disagree, and accept these with good grace, even when our initial reaction is astonishment: ridicule begets ridicule, and so on. Likewise, the questions we ask of one another would benefit from a focus on the subject at hand, without scornful ornamentation. Think, ‘How does your previous opposition to grammar schools square with your support for the Conservatives?’, as opposed to ‘You’re banned from my school, you far-right scum.’ Such questions as the former are more likely to result in meaningful discussion.
Of course, those who proclaim the latter, whether coming from the self-proclaimed left or right, and whether to that outrageous degree or in somewhat less inflammatory terms, might not be ready or willing to discuss facts, whether yours or theirs. For these I have no magic bullet, less so a Roswell on which they can gorge. Patience, I suppose, might offer some hope. Maybe even education. Maybe not. Some people are just dicks.
1. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p.132.