My mum told me this story a lot (note how many times the kid is noted to have worked hard) because it’s about my great-great-(I forget how many greats)-grandfather. Weirdly, there’s another great-great-??-grandfather on the same tier of the family tree who had the same experience of being sponsored by the lord of the manor to continue studying (he too worked hard), went to Oxford and became head of the first school for the Blind. Education is a big deal in my family. I come from a long line of teachers and was brought up with a real sense that education is an incredible gift - it’s through this that you transform your life and, more importantly, the lives of those around you. With education comes the responsibility to look out for those who may not have had the same chances as you in life.
Stupid, crazy, evil. (Some science should be footnoted here – Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error is good, and a good friend is due to write a book with this very title).
So, when we disagree with someone, we first assume they are not in possession of all the facts - or are stupid. How many times have you dismissed someone: ‘Ugh, he’s such an idiot anyway’?
If this is shown not to be the case, we conclude that the person with whom we are disagreeing is crazy, not in command of their senses – only this can explain why they hold an opposing belief. (‘This guy is nuts.’)
If we are confronted with evidence that the person with whom we’re disagreeing is not at all crazy (or at all stupid), we have no option but to conclude that they are evil.
It doesn’t matter which bit of the political spectrum you inhabit. Senator Ted Cruz’s book, A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Miracle of America, called out the Democrats for using exactly this language – characterisations of stupid, crazy or evil- against their Republican opponents. Left people go through this explaining-away categorization too.
Last week Paul Nuttall, the erstwhile new leader of UKIP, was on the Today programme. While clumsily trying to dodge the interviewer’s questions, he described Donald Trump as an Anglophobe when he presumably meant anglophile. Derisive tweets popped up in my twitter feed. What an idiot. ‘Thick leader of a stupid party.’
And it *was* slightly awkward given how much time UKIP spend banging on about the need for foreigners to learn proper English. But this characterization of the right, or alt-right, or whoever they are is not a one off.
In one of his first tweets as President, Trump made a spelling mistake. Again twitter jumped on it (this one is selected at random).
What a dumb-arse. How stupid. God, the Right are stupid.
I’m no fan of Trump – or Nuttall – but it’s a bit easy, isn’t it, to dismiss the guys we disagree with as stupid.
Or a bit textbook.
Following Brexit and also the hideous election of Trump, a lot of liberal folk have identified the need to get out of the echo chamber, or the bubble, and find a way of talking to people who hold differing views to them.
Underlying this, though, I sometimes sense a mission. Why sit down with these people? Because you want to understand them, or because, secretly, you think that if you could just talk to these people, tell them what you know, what you read, they’d come round to your way of thinking? Brexit is terrible for everyone, you’d say. The Leave campaign lied about money for the NHS. Leaving will mean an erosion of workers’ rights. And the region you’re from is a net beneficiary of EU money.
Oh, they’d say, I didn’t realize that.
It’s not your fault, you’d counter, the media were terrible, you only believed what you read in the papers.
In a piece about climate change and facts, David Roberts draws attention to the liberal hope that through education, we can all arrive at a certain point of view.
Roberts goes on to argue that ‘tribal’ or group identity and inherited beliefs will be stronger than any education system. The impulse towards education as a fix-all is something that is very familiar to me. And, as a person who was lucky enough to have a great education, I’m careful to check my privilege and not immediately go to ‘they’re stupid’ but to the more optimistic, ‘they didn’t have to chance to develop the skills to interrogate these post-facts.’ They didn’t have the opportunities I did.
But on reflection, this feels hopelessly patronizing. I don’t mean ‘develop the skills’, I probably mean ‘develop the right opinions’ – opinions like mine. If we could just sit down together, in ‘dialogue’, I could convince you to agree with me. Because I think sometimes it isn’t dialogue we want, it’s for everyone to agree with us. Because we’re right. But privilege and tolerance and commitment to free speech and everyone having an opinion means we can’t say that out loud. Perhaps.
If you could wave a magic wand and have everyone wake up tomorrow and for the 52% to write to Teresa May and say they were wrong and they don’t want to Leave anymore, would you do that? Or for the Trump supporters to do the same thing? It seems like we’re on the brink of eroding all kinds of human and environmental rights – which would be seriously shit. Wouldn’t it be worth wishing to extinguish the differences between people to prevent those things?
I think I would wave the wand. I’d wave it at the same time as talking about diversity and valuing difference, and homogeneity making society (and my bit of it, the arts) weak and uninteresting.
I’d mean some diversity though, not all diversity. Not the people who believe in electrocuting gay people, or that a woman doesn’t have rights over her own body, or that using openly Nazi rhetoric to talk about immigration is ok. Or even that we should ‘take back control’ by leaving the EU. Those diversities have no place in my world. So maybe I don’t mean diversity, maybe I just mean including the people I share values with. Which is kind of problematic. Let me educate you. Engage in ‘dialogue’ with me and if you prove you’re not stupid enough to disagree with me, I might let you in the tent.
Is this what we’re aiming for?
Where are the places that actual dialogue takes place, rather than covert attempts at conversion? Is it even possible to talk to someone about something you feel passionately about and not try to convert them? Or is the starting point talking to this person about everything apart from the thing that divides you, finding shared ground? Those are genuine questions. If you have thoughts, let me know.