Everything is political nowadays. I cannot remember a time of more intense political debate. People still share funny cat videos and pictures of their food, but as any content creator will tell you, there is huge interest in politics and current affairs right now. There is a lot of stuff going on in the news: Trump, Brexit, the EU, #MeToo, North Korea. The list goes on. But also people are more exposed to political debate through social media where everyone is mostly able to freely express their opinions, which they do a lot. This has costs and benefits. It is good to see more people engaging in public discourse, but politics means disagreement and people do not always disagree well. Arguing over politics has caused rifts in families and friendships. In extreme cases it can lead to social discord, polarisation and even violence. There have been people, such as Thomas Mair, Salman Abedi, Darren Osborne, and the London Bridge attackers, to name a few notable examples, who stopped engaging with others and started attacking them instead. This has led many people to lose faith in free speech and open platforms that allow anyone to publish their views, no matter how abhorrent. At such times, it is important to not only argue for free speech, but also for disagreement itself.
Disagreement is certainly uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean consensus is preferable, because real differences do exist in society and perhaps for good reason too.
I was recently at a debate on Brexit, hosted by the historian Robert Tombs. A show of hands at the start of the event showed it was a mostly Leaver crowd and at one point during the discussion a Remainer who stood up to offer a contrarian view was heckled by the crowd. Almost immediately, however, other people jumped in to defend his right to freely express his opinion and shouted out, “Let him speak”. He was then able to clearly articulate his concerns about leaving the EU, which were entirely sensible and important for Brexiteers to hear and not dismiss straight away.
Real differences do exist in society and perhaps for good reason too.
We need to listen to the other side. They might have noticed things we haven’t. The famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment demonstrates how easy it is to miss the seemingly obvious when our attention is focused elsewhere. This experiment was first conducted in the late 1990s by Harvard psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. Participants in their study were told to watch a video of a group of people playing catch, and count how many times the players in white passed the ball. At the end of the video, they asked how many passes they counted and whether or not they had seen the gorilla. Most people who watched the video had not noticed the man in a gorilla suit walking casually between the ball players, plain as day.
One conclusion that can be reached from that study is that cultivating a plurality of different, contrasting voices leads to better quality public discourse that looks at all the angles.
Of course, it is much easier to listen to people who we can assume have good intentions, but what about people who have opinions that are truly repugnant, who advocate murder and violence, like supporters of ISIS do? People like that present a much greater challenge to our ability to tolerate disagreement. For me, the only choice is to allow them to express their vile views, but to consistently challenge them as much as we can.
I don’t want to be too much of a Pollyanna about difference. Disagreement is not always some detached intellectual exercise. It can be emotional, rancorous and deeply painful. I know people who have lied about how they voted in the EU referendum merely to avoid falling out with people they care about.
And even if you treat the other side fairly, there is no guarantee that they will do the same for you.
But I don’t see any other way forward right now. There are real divides that are not going to disappear anytime soon. The sooner we recognise that and maybe even find ways to embrace it the better.
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