Is there any quicker way to ruin an evening out with a friend, than to bring politics into the discussion?
Usually I’m the guilty party, my obsession with politics rendering me incapable of completely avoiding the subject in company with friends and family.
But last night I was catching up with S, a friend I’ve known for many years and always got on very well with, but with whom in recent years catch-ups have dwindled to yearly events. With two young children at home being looked after by their Dad, this was a rare night out for S and we had plenty to catch up on.
So why, then, did she have to bring up Brexit? In fact, not just casually bring it up but ask me pointedly – “What have you done?” It turns out in the year that’s passed since our last meeting, when she had not yet decided which way to vote but was leaning towards the status quo, she has now become a passionate member of “the 48%” and is convinced that the Brexit vote is a disaster. A year ago, when I explained that I was leaning towards voting Brexit, she was more than willing to listen to my arguments and we had a very interesting, dispassionate conversation about the reasons for and against the EU. Now I’m left wondering if she was just humouring me at the time, happy to let me make my points in the almost certain belief that the vote would go to Remain in the end.
From Brexit, we inevitably moved onto Trump, the immigration ban (she insisted on calling it a Muslim ban; I insisted she was wrong to do so), the Saudis, Syria and then, of course, recent terror attacks in the UK and Europe. There was virtually no subject on which we were able to completely agree – with the possible exception of the Saudis where we were in complete agreement that the way the west panders to them, despite their appalling human rights record, is sickening.
But the part of the conversation that sticks in my mind went something like this:
Me: I get really annoyed, after a terror attack in the UK, when the first response is to shift attention to possible Islamophobic attacks by the far-right, rather than focusing on what is being done about the actual attack that has taken place.
S: Yes, but there was a 100% increase in hate crime incidents following the Manchester bombing.
Me: Well I’d like to see the evidence for that.
S: What do you mean? It’s a fact – I know it is because I know people who have been affected.
Me: Yes but what are you classing as a hate crime? Are we talking violent attacks, or name-calling, or graffiti on buildings?
S: Why are you so reluctant to believe these attacks are taking place?
Me: Why are you so willing to believe they are? My point is neither of us actually knows what is being classed as a hate crime. A speech by our home secretary was recently reported as a hate crime. A man was sentenced to a year in prison for leaving bacon outside a mosque, because that was classed as a hate crime. So when I hear that hate crime figures are rising, I’d like to see a bit more detail as to what those crimes are.
S: So are you saying only violent crime should be a hate crime? Should hate speech not be a crime?
Me: Well I think it depends on what is said. If what is said is threatening or intimidating, and leads the victim to believe that they are in danger, then yes, that should be a crime. But if it’s just something that the victim feels slightly offended by, then I’m not so sure.
S: But we have to have protections for people against religious intimidation.
Me: Well it’s not just other religions. Hate crime laws cover all areas. And the problem is, it’s not necessary to actually intend to cause offence. All that is necessary is for somebody to perceive an offence has been given by what is said, for it to be classed as a hate crime. And it doesn’t have to be the person the comment is aimed at, who takes offence to it and reports it. The person who reported Amber Rudd’s speech as a hate crime, didn’t even listen to it – he just reported it on the basis of what he’d read about it in the press. So you end up in the situation where just about anything anybody ever says, could be perceived by somebody as a hate crime.
S: Okay so you’re talking about a few isolated cases that in no way represent hate crime as a whole. I still think Islamophobic attacks are a problem, especially after terrorist attacks.
Me: Well I’m more interested in knowing what is being done to prevent future attacks. I’m sick of the whole “hearts and prayers” response to terrorism – I want to see more focus on preventative action.
S: Yes, of course, but what more do you think our security services could be doing than they’re doing already? You can’t predict attacks such as the one in Manchester.
Me: Well, there are apparently 23,000 jihadis living in the UK. Start by rounding them up, imprisoning them and keeping them in prison until we can either be sure they are not a threat, or if not British citizens, deport them.
S (mockingly): Yes, great solution, if only we knew who they were. Or are you suggesting we just round up anybody who looks suspicious?
Me: Well we clearly do know who they are given our security services have said there are 23,000 of them.
S: Well where are you getting that figure from?
Me: It was the front-page headline in the Times a few days ago. The story mentioned that the security services have identified 23,000 potential jihadis living in the UK.
S: Oh well you clearly have more time to read newspapers than I do. I don’t read the Times. I didn’t see that story.
Me: Yes, you’re right – I do have a lot of time to read newspapers at the moment. That’s the problem – the more I read, the more wound-up I get and the more right-wing I seem to become.
S (laughing): Oh well that explains why we have so many right-wing unemployed people. You all need to get back to work – then you won’t have time to get so wound up.
Me: Yes, let’s all go back to being brainwashed.
We changed the subject after that. The rest of the evening was perfectly pleasant and we parted as friends – though possibly both a bit relieved that it will likely be another year before we next meet up.
Admittedly to an outside observer it would not have been the most scintillating political debate. But two things in particular struck me about that part of the conversation.
Firstly, how firmly S kept sticking to her position, and with how much mistrust she treated every argument I presented, despite her eventual admission that actually she simply wasn’t previously aware of many of the points I was making. I actually had to Google the story of the man who was imprisoned for leaving bacon outside a mosque, and show it to her on my phone, in order for her to believe I was not making it up. And of course the first few Google results were all from tabloid news sites so I had to trawl through to find a BBC source before she would believe it was not a fabricated story.
And secondly, the fact that the more we talked, the more I kept coming up with more and more extreme arguments to make my point. Which didn’t help as S was already giving me pitying, disbelieving looks that clearly communicated she felt she was sat across the table from a tabloid-reading fool. I actually try to read as many different sources of news as possible, and very rarely read tabloids, but it’s always the extreme arguments that seem to stick in my head the longest, and which I end up blurting out at times of stress. This morning I can think of far more balanced points I could have made but I certainly wasn’t making them last night.
Maybe if we wish to put the world to rights, we need to start much closer to home. Start with actually listening to each other’s points of view, rather than trying to score points with sound-bites and counter-arguments. Very few of us have the time to follow every news story – but I don’t believe the solution is, as S laughingly suggested, for those of us with lots of time on our hands to simply find something else to occupy our attention. In the same way that a team can achieve more than an individual by pooling its collective knowledge, so too can we all further our understanding of the world, the problems we all face and the potential solutions, through discussion that takes into account our own collective knowledge and points of view.
As the much-overquoted Jo Cox said, “There is far more that unites us than divides us”. Maybe it’s time we started focusing on finding the common ground, rather than on trying to change each other’s minds on the points about which we will always disagree.
Rather like world peace, I suspect it will be harder to achieve than anyone can imagine. But it’s something to aspire to, in any event.