Why is everything a two-way confrontation in politics? There is no zero-sum game, it is not always right over wrong, argues David MacPherson.
Do we really need to raise VAT? Should we build more nuclear power stations? Are you in favour of the Coalition Government? Should we cut benefits or raise taxes? Is the Government cutting too early, too fast, too much? Do we need to replace Trident? Are we winning in Afghanistan? Should we legalise assisted-suicide? Will abolishing short jail sentences make crime worse? Should we fund weight loss surgery on the NHS? Was the Iraq war a success?
I enjoy discussing politics, I studied politics (well History and Philosophy actually but close enough) and I work in politics. As such I watch, listen and read about these sorts of questions a lot. More than is healthy if my less politically engaged friends are to be believed.
However, despite hearing all manner of answers to the above questions, from carefully constructed logical arguments backed up by compelling evidence to the most stirring of rhetorical outpourings, I can safely say that my answer to all of them is “I don’t know.” At a push I might say “I think X, but I’m not really sure.”
Now I am going to assume that reaction is not that unusual. We would all have to be pretty arrogant to have conviction in all our beliefs all of the time. Yet it is a sentiment very rarely heard and when it is voiced can often be met with more hostility than one might expect.
For example, during my student days I was once approached by a member of an anti-Israel protest group collecting signatures for a petition against the latest controversial actions in perhaps the world’s most complicated conflict.
“Will you sign our petition?” He asked.
“No.” I replied.
“What? You mean you support Israel?” He asked, as if it was a matter of United or City.
“No.” I replied again.
“So you will sign the petition then?”
“No.” By this time he was looking very confused so I tried to explain, “Seeing as it is a very complicated issue, and having never been to Palestine or Israel, I don’t know which one is right or which one is wrong or even if that distinction can be made.”
“So you do support Israel!” At this point I gave up.
The media, activists and commentators have always tried to push this frame of “if you’re not with us you’re against us” over the big stories of the day. In part it is an attempt to stop a politician’s favourite game; fence-sitting. But increasingly it seems this frame is being expanded to “if you’re not with us you’re against us and if you haven’t made up your mind yet you’re definitely against us.”
Every contentious news issue is now punctuated by a pair of disagreeing “experts” -Who will not only tell you what they think and why their counterpart is wrong but will do so loudly and angrily in order to emphasize their expertnessness (Glenn Beck, Peter Tatchell, Mehdi Hasan…)- in order, we are told, to present a balanced view. But is this really what they are doing? A balanced view is surely one that considers all the relevant facts, highlights the weaknesses in both positions as well as the strengths and in some instances indicates areas of compromise and similarity as well as division. It is not what you get when you ask Nick Griffin and the local Taliban sympathiser to debate whether or not we should ban the burka. Sometimes the public get a chance to put their two cents in too, as in the enlightened BBC shouting match that is Sunday Morning Live. Unfortunately, since most reasonable people would rather listen to commentators who have formed their opinions after a bit more reflection and thought than can be achieved in the time spent reading the latest “outrage” to appear in the papers phoning in is left to Mr “Some of my friends are black” and Mrs “Windfarms kill fairies”.
The result of all this is that coverage of important issues commonly focuses on only two alternatives; ban it or do nothing. While this makes it easy to report on I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of an over simplification.
Now it’s fair to say that we in the UK have not gone quite as far down this road as the US (and I am pleased to see Jon Stewart and his Rally to Restore Sanity is flying the flag for people who don’t think anyone who disagrees with them is Hitler : http://www.rallytorestoresanity.com/ ). But this drowning out of reasonable debate does seem to on the rise.
Is it due to the internet generation’s seeming ability to become hugely offended by just about anything? Is it designed by the media transform mundane subjects into highly charged issues in the hope of catching someone making an “unforgivable” faux par? Or is it indicative of peoples’ gnawing self doubt that pushes them to close their mind to anything they don’t want to hear leaving them with lashing out violently as their only option?
I honestly don’t know what my view is on the cause, but if I shout loud enough someone will probably print it.