Political debate need not be a zero-sum game

Political debate need not be a zero-sum game

Catherine Neilan

07:09 17th November 2020

In a society where we are privileged enough to enjoy free speech very few topics should be off-limits for discussion.

And yet in recent years, there has been a reluctance - particularly on the left - to grapple with certain issues, and the idea that something should be "debated" has itself been put into doubt.

Labour MP Nadia Whittome earlier this year was one such advocate for pulling away from discussion - and she is not alone.

In some respects it is understandable that people might feel a bit wary of opening up sensitive topics. After all, the last few years have hardly been a golden era for discourse.

The Brexit referendum was an example of precisely what not to do. Instead of trying to understand the concerns that people had about loss of sovereignty and the EU's creeping control - some of which were based on evidence, others more on gut feeling - the Remain machine churned out reams and reams of reasons why people should not vote Leave. Project Fear was quickly dismissed as the elite trying to scare the little guy into submission, a sentiment that continues to pervade much of the pro-Brexit areas of the country.

So too, fingers have been burned in the long-running debate about global warming. Despite scientific consensus, with a weight of evidence behind it, being emphatic that a long-term change in our climate was taking place, experts were given equal footing with deniers, framing the discussion about whether it was real or not.

A far better use of all our time would have been if the debate had been framed around how to deal with the problem. Perhaps then we might not be in the scramble we now appear to be.

This year the never-ending culture war embraced Black Lives Matter, pitting advocates against those who argue that All Lives Matter. The need for urgent action was made pretty powerfully in a cartoon that went viral during the global protests of the summer.

Much of the debate centered around whether or not white privilege exists, with critics claiming the existence of deprived white children leaving school without qualifications proved it was a fallacy.

This simplistic argument rests on a very narrow understanding of privilege and fails to take into account the different experience of daily life, from interactions with the police, to snap judgements made by would-be employees to health outcomes from Covid infections.

Saying there is no such thing as white privilege because there are deprived white communities is not sufficient to counter the Black Lives Matter argument.

But neither is it acceptable to brush away the concerns that fuel the All Lives Matter counter-argument.

If we shut down debate, the problem doesn't go away. It festers and turns into something more dangerous as we have seen in the rise of populism and other, more extreme, political views.

Instead of the divisive and circular arguments about who is worse off, effort should be made to direct it towards solutions.

One of the most toxic online debates right now is between feminists and trans activists, where the problem has become so acute that dialogue in any form feels challenging.

Figures such as JK Rowling have claimed they are being cancelled for speaking out in support of domestic abuse survivors. Yet with more than 14m followers and two bestsellers published this autumn alone, that accusation doesn't ring true, and only serves to make dialogue harder.

Indeed, while the sentiments of the infamous Harper's letter might have been valid, those who signed it were just as guilty of claiming to be afraid of being cancelled while speaking from an unassailable platform.

This week Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore left her job after many years following months of outrage over an article from March in which she wrote about gender being a biological classification "not a feeling".

It was undeniably provocative - but no more so than your common-or-garden column might be. And that might be the problem itself.

Because while a vituperative comment piece might bring in the clicks, it doesn't really do anything to help find a solution to the problem it claims to dissect.

When it comes to the debate between feminists and trans activists, the question should not be who is the bigger victim.

Let's face it, both abused women and those who struggle with their gender identity are among the least empowered people in society.

The debate should focus on how things can be improved for all those who are victimised, how we can ensure safe spaces for anyone who feels unsafe, how we can protect the weakest.

In forcing out Moore and the New York Times writers and editors who left in the wake of the Tom Cotton op-ed this summer, the risk is not to those who have an existing platform, but to all of us who feel any debate puts us in the firing line.

Because politics is not a science. There is no set of actions that can yield a guaranteed result. If it were, we would be very much better at it than we were, with much less suffering and greater prosperity for all.

Politics - and therefore society - is built on the all-too fallible opinion of humans about the right way forward, which is there is a rainbow of arguments about the best approach.

Sometimes the course has been steered by bad faith actors who want to further enrich and empower themselves at the expense of others. But sometimes it is a genuine case of trying to grasp in the dark, and find the path that doesn't crumble and collapse into the abyss.

That is why we must discuss issues as they arise, so that we can find a way forward that works for people. But at the minute it is very clear that dialogue has failed. Instead of discussion, pragmatism, compromise, we just have opposed groups shouting at each other from the sidelines, then going off to have their backs slapped by like-minded friends, comforted within their echo chamber.

Majoritarianism had been the overriding attitude in post referendum Britain, as it was after the 2016 US presidential election, but this naturally excludes more diverse communities. As we look to put the recent past behind us, we must work harder at having constructive conversation to do that.

Finding common ground is not about forcing what the majority want on an unwilling or unhappy minority, but about creating a foundation, however limited, on which something bigger can be built.

With so much turmoil in our societies, informed discussion should be at the very heart of how we work out exactly where to plot a course.

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Tags: Climate change Brexit Black Lives Matter Open dialogue Death threats