Society is divided, or certainly feels so (even if the pandemic has brought us together a little). This article is half of a pair of articles, each aimed at people on one “side” of the argument. If you hate the sound of this one, try the other.
They say there’s a culture war on. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The last few years (i.e. since 2016) have been a bit of a shock to some. The events of that year and the aftershocks since created “sides” in society, and most people seem unavoidably to find themselves on one side or the other. Politically, this might manifest itself most obviously through votes for or against Brexit or Donald Trump, but there are a whole load of correlated issues, such as #metoo #fridaysforfuture #blacklivesmatter #takeaknee and so on. And when a new hot topic comes along, it feels very straightforward to guess who will take each of the two polarised viewpoints. This even applies – though less straightforwardly – to the current pandemic, on such issues as whether it is right to completely lock countries down, saving lives but trashing economies in the process.
If we accept that these are matters of “culture” and values, it is interesting to look at times when cultural differences don’t seem so terrible. When we go to a faraway country, or encounter people in our own country who come from far away, we accept that they have a different culture to us without a second thought (without necessarily agreeing to everything in that culture). But when our views and values differ so much from other people “like us”, i.e. from a similar background, it seems harder to accept.
Maybe it’s the sudden change that has been difficult to understand. People suddenly found that their hitherto agreeable parents had morphed into people who hold intolerant (and intolerable) views and who feel empowered and encouraged to express those views by the media and certain politicians and commentators.
It doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It just demands a resetting of expectations. Just as you can (assuming you can, reader) get along with people from different cultures by leaving certain subjects alone – i.e. accepting your differences, so you can with relatives and friends. It might mean you’re less close to them. So be it. You may feel a sense of loss for a while, but you will adjust.
I hope that enough time has passed to allow us to manage our differences better. It would be nice if those with power and status in society would help with this, but they often have not. It’s in the interests of certain politicians (see 2019 UK General Election, for example) to divide society so that they have an angry, loyal minority (which, in the UK, is enough to have a “stonking” mandate in our parliament).
Top-down suggestions about “bringing the country together” have often in essence meant “shut up and do what we say”. So I have for a while concluded that, if those with status and power won’t help create a climate where we can get along better, it is up to each of us as individuals to take the lead. You may feel on a “side”, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow pre-set rules about how you behave.
If you often find yourself outraged, angry or sad about people saying things you feel are offensive, small-minded or wrong, I urge you to consider the following points – for your own happiness as much as for us all in society. (Does all of this apply to me as well? You bet!) How you feel is completely understandable – it can be difficult to be internally strong in the face of external uncertainty. But it really is in your own interests to be resilient, and from there to be someone who can contribute to a more cohesive society.
So, in no particular order…
- Be strong
Be resilient – it’s for your own good. The pejorative term “snowflake” implies delicacy and fragility among a generation of young people, who are supposedly very easily offended. Although the term is banded around in an unpleasant way, I hope you don’t mind me saying that there could be a grain of truth in it. If you feel often hurt or offended by things people say, you might conclude that those people ought not to say those things, and you ought not to have to hear them. Unfortunately, the world isn’t like this. There are always going to be people with views wildly different to yours, and people who deliberately want to get a reaction (especially in the often futile social media sphere). Being offended may be your immediate, gut reaction, and may be what you do by habit. It may even be a kind of norm among your friends. However, strength in the face of this would make you much happier. Offence and anger can come from feeling threatened, but if you can feel confident with your beliefs and values, know what you know, then naysayers can be viewed with pity rather than hate (though – as below – you should still be nice to them).
Give yourself a break. As many people recognise, Twitter (along with other social media outlets, to a greater or lesser extent) is toxic. Don’t spend too much time there. Go outside (if current government advice allows). Have boring, everyday (but nonetheless fulfilling) interactions with people from all walks of life through work or volunteering or hobbies or in other settings where hopefully no one shouts at anyone. You may conclude that, like during probably any time in history, most people are basically good-natured (if they weren’t, society wouldn’t really function), even if their views on broad questions of life, morality and politics don’t match yours.
- Be kind
Be as respectful and kind as you would like others to be towards you. Just because someone is being rude to you, you need not necessarily follow suit. When they aren’t actually being rude, but merely disagreeing with you, then there is no justification for initiating any impoliteness.
Avoid saying things you know will inflame. For example, you might have noticed that people don’t like being called racist, or white-privileged. Those things might be easy to say, but they’re often over-simplified. They do not help discussion. Questions about whether Britain “is racist“, or the treatment of Meghan Markle is racist, are complex (e.g. what do you actually mean by “racist”?) and deserve complex, evidence-based, demonstrable answers. Understand why someone might feel offended to hear those terms, and if you really need to suggest someone has some sort of unconscious racial bias then consider how to say it to them in a way that they could understand and that takes their perspective into account.
Punch up, not down (if you need to punch at all). I remember an edition of the Guardian’s weekend supplement that was edited by a “Gal-Dem“, in their words a “new media publication, committed to telling the stories of women and non-binary people of colour” – obviously a very Guardian thing to happen. Inside, there was a cartoon depicting an “ordinary” couple watching TV, saying – in response to a drama or something on TV – how they couldn’t understand trans and nonbinary people. They change the channel to see the artist formerly living as Prince and make approving noises. The cartoonist highlights the androgynous nature of Prince and wants us to view these people as deplorable hypocrites. I see a depiction of two ordinary people privately discussing how something doesn’t make sense to them. It doesn’t depict some sort of hate or violence. The people’s faces don’t look filled with rage. They aren’t saying people shouldn’t have the right to use the pronouns they want, or should be denied rights like the right to work or to a fair trial or to equal pay. They just feel left behind by a societal change. Do they deserve this derision and belittlement?
Minority groups and individuals belonging to minority groups are sometimes oppressed – no doubt an awful thing. But remember that this is relative and changeable. A person in an oppressed minority group in one country or culture can be in a majority in another, and has the power to do their own oppressing. A group feeling oppressed by daily “microaggressions” and conservative societal norms on the part of unsuspecting ordinary people can be allowed access to the megaphone of a national newspaper and suddenly they can become oppressive themselves.
This also brought to mind how I felt when reading Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. Clearly she had a horrible time growing up with her narrow-minded mother in downtrodden mid-1900s Lancashire. But then she became educated and smart and wrote a book where she goes into great length about what an idiot her mother was. Her mother cannot possibly fight back against this, so that’s the lasting impression everyone has of that person. Is the punishment deserving of the crime? A different response from Winterson might have been to come to understand that her mother’s behaviour towards her came ultimately from a position of weakness, and that to have to live with that weakness might have been punishment enough.
- Be cautious
Don’t assume you know another person’s point of view without hearing them out. Someone’s behaviour or language might seem like what you’ve heard before (and disliked before), but don’t leap to the conclusion that it’s the same. I recently took part in a Park Run I had only done a couple of times before. There is an important rule about not stepping into the road during a brief section outside the park – which I’d forgotten and which was not repeated before the start (or maybe I didn’t hear it). At the relevant point, the pavement got busy so I did step in the road, and immediately got shouted at by a couple of people. Someone said “You’ve been told enough times”. The rules I completely accept, but what seemed unnecessary was the immediate assumption that I was trying to cheat, that I knew and was ignoring the rules, and that my motivation was bad. Somehow it seemed typical of our time. In short, you may feel on the righteous side right now, but the righteousness could turn against you, and it doesn’t feel good.
Judge each case on its merits. Such is the divide (or perceived divide) in society that when each new “scandal” or “outrage” arises, it feels easy – all too easy – to see which “side” you might fit on. You don’t need to follow this instinct unquestioningly. Clickbait headlines are there to get an instant reaction. Don’t give it. Look at the facts. See what has actually been said and done, then take a view. Until then, acknowledge that it sounds concerning, but you don’t know enough about it. It’s fine to say you don’t have a view on something yet.
Look for and own up to grains of truth in the arguments of your opponent. There will usually be some. To use an example from a major dividing issue of recent times: is the question of who should decide the laws in our country really so irrational? Whatever else you think might be implied by the Brexit question in terms of values or anything else, it’s not unreasonable to ask the sovereignty question in isolation. Acknowledging the grains of truth is a generous thing to do and should lead to less confrontation. If the other person responds childishly or ungenerously in return, feel good that you took the higher ground.
Allow nuance in your view. Adoption of black or white positions on things is easier than allowing nuance. It’s also attractive because it gives more resolution, i.e. you no longer need to think about something because you have your position and that’s that. But nuance is more truthful and helps you get on with people with different views to you.
Don’t take a view until you have worked out your reasoning. The term “woke” has emerged as a polarising label: a badge of honour for some, a stick to beat young people with for others. One characteristic of “wokeness” that may be unhelpful is the treatment of certain moral questions as a fait accompli, a given, without need for any further explanation.
To use an example, there was some minor kerfuffle on Twitter this year after Richard Dawkins said that, although arguments against eugenics on moral and ethical grounds were reasonable, arguments against it on practical grounds, i.e. saying selective breeding in humans is not practically possible, are false. There was a predictably strong reaction against it, with people suggesting Dawkins was advocating eugenics (not, I think, a correct conclusion from his comments). A fair amount of negative responses seemed to be simply that he was wrong and “problematic”, but without explaining why.
The idea of eugenics is a pushover, in my view. There are strong moral arguments against e.g. to do with the right of each person to basic human rights, and the immorality of one group of people deciding on the value of another group (or lack thereof).
I also think it’s preposterous. Some people argue that through selective breeding, humans could have, on average, higher IQs. So what? What then? We could do the sudoku faster? (Never mind that IQ is a pretty limited way to view intelligence.) The best things to aim for in society are things like happiness, health, equality and personal fulfillment. How will having people with higher IQs, or who are stronger or more aryan help with that?
Reasoned arguments are much better than outrage and insults. It may be disappointing that we still have to make these arguments against ideas we wish we outlawed or acknowledged by everyone to be incorrect but so be it. Keep pushing. A nice garden never stops needing to have its weeds removed from time to time.
At an extreme, this element of wokeness could conceivably lead to people not actually having a clear idea of why they think something is wrong anymore, because it is never talked about. This would be unhealthy.
- Be tolerant
Distinguish between thoughts and actions. You cannot really control other people. But if you can control anything, it’s their deeds, not their thoughts. Allow people to have all the awful thoughts they like, as long as they do not act on them. (And by action I do include broadcasting, social media posting and unkind expression of these views.) Choose your red lines wisely. Defend those red lines to the end, but don’t waste your time thinking about what happens before then.
Tolerate others’ views, but not unkindness or disrespect. There’s a lot in the way people say things as well as what is actually said. A lot of what is inflammatory about right-wing politicians and commentators these days is contempt – in their words and in their faces – for anyone who disagrees with them. This is a way (deliberate or not) to get audiences whipped up into righteous hate. It is very questionable as a tactic and you shouldn’t tolerate it. People who agree with those views also should not tolerate it, and most definitely should not mimic it. You should expect people to express their views to you without pulling faces at you or implying you’re stupid. And yes, you should do the same for them.
There is a difference between views that are empowered and those that aren’t. Extreme racist views (e.g. white supremacy) expressed through governmental power have serious negative consequences for society, and we must guard against them gaining such traction. Extreme racist views in individual people motivated in part by their own sense of hopelessness or worthlessness, while unpleasant and worth tackling, should be seen in that isolated context. But of course, individuals can gain power, or can vote for people with these views to get power. That is a problem – and that’s where the red line is. By extension, people with power- certainly where their job is to represent and protect people- should be held to a different standard. This is one reason why any claims about someone like Nigel Farage being an “ordinary bloke” are spurious. Similarly, people in power making “jokes” at the expense of minority groups in society is highly irresponsible. Individuals doing it in the company of their friends or family can be, though unedifying, harmless.
Beware the purity spiral. What do you do if someone you like says something “problematic”? Says Brexit ain’t so bad? Says we could do with a leader like Trump or Bolsonaro? It might be hard not to be disappointed in them, but don’t reject them outright. Your admiring that person has put you close to them, and now their views – like a bad smell – makes that proximity unpleasant. But they still might be good at what they do, and have things to offer you. Step back, see them as someone from another culture, just like how you readily accept people from other cultures in other circumstances. Find out what binds you instead of what divides. If we start rejecting people on the basis of their views, where will it end? Somewhere like this. Beware the purity spiral.
So in summary, be your own person, be generous and be a positive input into society, even in the face of what you see as great provocation. Lead by example, and help others to follow.
These are just my suggestions. You are of course free to disagree.