Saturday, March 26, 2011

On political disagreement

Big protest in London today against spending cuts.  Fair enough, I guess, although I have to say I don't believe this is really a legitimate form of political expression when you live in a democracy.  We had an election: if the left had managed to persuade enough people that they were right (so to speak), they'd still be in power.  After all, I didn't march on the capital in 1997 when the Labour government which would spend the next decade ruining the public finances got into power.  Maybe I should have done.

But this is not what I wanted to write about.

I wanted to write about disagreement.  In politics, as in almost no other sphere that I know of (theology, actually, would be one), disagreement almost always turns bitter.  The number of times in the last few months that I have heard friends of mine describe the current UK government's position as 'evil' has taken me a little by surprise, particularly as it is difficult not to imply that I am also regarded as a morally bankrupt person.  And, in the interest of even-handedness, I must admit that the first para of this post reflects more than a little bitterness on my part too.

It is not all that surprising.  I think I can see two reasons for the bitterness.  One is that these disagreements are about things that are real; they have an actual effect on our lives.  Moreover, some of the things that politicians do are quite difficult to undo.  We see the world changing around is in response to political decisions, and that sparks fear, amongst other things.  This is no abstract debate.  The other reason is that these disagreements, when analysed, turn out to represent two very different visions of what society ought to be like.  More than that, debates about what society ought to be like tend to be based on different understandings of human beings.  These disagreements, which seem to be over fiscal policy (for example), often turn out to be disagreements over what it means to be human - what it means to be me or you.  There is nothing more likely to provoke bitterness than a question which touches on my own sense of identity.

I don't know that I have an answer to this, except to ask that we all try to think a bit more.  In particular:

1.  If you think that your opponent's position is nonsensical, consider that you probably haven't understood it. Very few people hold ultimately nonsensical positions.  Certainly it would be better to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe you should take some more time to think about it.

2.  If you think that your opponent's position is evil, consider that you may well be wrong.  In particular, try to work out what is integral to their position and what is a side-effect.  Ascertain what the goals are - is there nothing noble whatsoever?  Finally, bear in mind that you are probably good friends with people who disagree with you - do their lives generally give you the impression that they are likely to be wholly evil in the political arena?

3.  If you find particular representatives of a given position intolerable, consider that they are only human.  They probably don't represent what is best about your opponents.  Also, consider that they are human at the end of the day - with all the inherent nobility and tragedy that this name implies.

4.  Don't expect to win all the time.

5.  Try to see the roots of your opponent's position.  Where are they coming from?  Try to get inside the view of the world and humanity which would lead them to think as they do; consider whether there are incidental factors of your own upbringing and/or position in society which unduly influence your own perception.

6.  Consider whether there is any common ground at all - it may provide a base from which to establish wider agreement.  At the very least, it may serve as a reminder that we are all, at the end of the day, limited in our perceptions and understandings, and on the whole are only trying to do our best to work it out.

Now I must try to practice what I preach, and if I fail (as I already have a couple of times today), call me on it!


  1. Helpful. Thanks for keeping this general. I hear your point on resentment. But I'm surprised you don't see this as a particularly legitimate part of the democratic process; is that because miliband is such a high profile convened or because you see our democracy as a heavily but rarely punctuated equilibrium? Besides, It's not as if anyone voted for a coalition manifesto; that's not delegitimizing the coalition as undemocratic; Id see the formation of a coalition itself as a crucial part of the ongoing political process within this system, much like this rally. Granted it's susceptible to a postmodern "who shouts loudest merely asserts themselves" rather than a (modern?) "whoever walks within the channels appeals to others" critique. And insofar as it descenda into mere assertion rather than appeal, it falls to that critique, but (a) it doesn't look like that's the case (b) I'm a bit more of a postmodern pragmatist about governments myself anyway, so sue me.;)

  2. Hmm... I guess I was seeing the protest as a 'whoever shouts loudest' thing. The majority of people will always stay at home rather than march, even for things they feel strongly about - should their views count for less? (Assuming they participate in the process in other ways - voting as a bare minimum).

    I confess, I am also particularly suspicious of this sort of march because I know there is a real culture of solidarity on the political left. You march for our thing, we'll march for yours. Muddies the waters - e.g., I saw a lot of Palestinian flags on the news at the march. Why?

    But it's not a big deal. People should certainly be able to march if they want (not to illegally occupy or damage private property), and gov't should consider whether the marchers don't have a point. But I don't think they should be able to get their way just because they marched.