In defence of bickering

31 Mar 2019

In recent years, the BBC have taken to ‘rebooting’ classics such as Yes, Prime Minister and Porridge. Lacking the original cast, and being outside of the time which conceived them, these efforts have been about as successful as Brendan Behan at a Pioneers meeting, and only marginally more successful than the tenure of Karen Bradley as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. 


Yet if they are set on this programme of reanimating bygone televisual corpses, there is one they have sadly overlooked: Till Death do us Part, which ran from 1965 to 1975. The show featured Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett, a cantankerous working-class Tory, and his constant sparing with Liverpudlian and staunchly left-wing son-in-law, played by Anthony Booth, the recently deceased father of Cherie Blair. 


The language used and views expressed by Garnett were offensive to every quarter of humanity. But they effectively demonstrated how such ignorance can form when a person is insulated in their own narrow and cosy sphere of existence, only to be swiftly overcome when they are brought outside their own head. All of Garnett’s rage at the ‘coons’ stealing jobs from the English, for example, evaporates when he stands face-to-face with an actual black person who has come to fix his television. 


It should not be news to anyone that a person can harbour bigotry against an entire group of people in the abstract, yet make an exception for the member of that community who lives down the road. 


David Hume’s theory of the ‘limitations of sympathy’ is relevant in this context. Hume classified human relationships as a series of concentric circles: the smallest, centre or ‘inner,’ circle is oneself and those that one loves and holds most dearly, while the wider circles include extended family, near acquaintances, neighbours, supporters of the same football team, and so forth. The level of empathy for each group becomes less and less as the circle expands and therefore moves away from the subject. 


This is a natural process of emotional selection, and is not reflective of poor character: if you cared for all seven billion people on the planet in just the same way as you do for those you love, you would be so consumed by paranoid fear you would hardly be able to get out of bed. That being said, from time to time we could all do with being reminded of the world outside our inner circle.


Among the greatest threats to democratic politics today is the lack of empathy expressed to those one disagrees with. The main quality provided by Till Death do us Part is the example of two people with diametrically opposing views, arguing with passion and force across the dinner table without the family unit disintegrating as quickly as Theresa May before a politically awkward set of questions. 


Within the threads of any ‘trending’ topic of political discussion, one is sure to find a post encouraging like-minded followers to ‘block, not bicker’: a practice legitimised by figures in high office, including Donald Trump, DUP MLA Jim Wells, or other individuals of similarly high temperament and low wit. 


Among all the merchandise available for purchase on the Labour Party’s website, and visible at so many demonstrations, are t-shirts and other items bearing the phrase ‘Never Kissed a Tory’ as if this were a point of principle, or a mark of pride, as opposed to a rather sad indication that a person ought to get out more. Has no one in the Labour Party heard the phrase ‘shift and drift’? 

Contrary to the well-used quote, politics in a democratic society should not be viewed nor practiced as ‘war by other means’ but as a healthy contest that relies upon good-natured, principled, and well-thought out conversation which goes beyond a 280-character punchline. In times of constitutional crisis such as these we need all the words we can get. 


People are not ‘sick of experts’ as Michael Gove suggested, but rather have very strong views based on no semblance of reality. The answer is not for each to sink to the level of the other, but for people to strike a reasoned and empathetic accord. We seem today to talk an awful lot about our rights, without recognising our responsibilities: their essential counterpart. Yes, everyone has the freedom of speech, but they also have the responsibility to assure that what they say is not some farcical miasma of notions which may be politically useful in the short term and insidious in the long. 


When Belfast preacher Jim McConnell referred to Islam as a ‘doctrine spawned in hell,’ among those to defend him was Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Al-Hussaini who stated the need to reach a ‘higher quality of disagreement’: an encouragement to recognise the humanity in other people as a means of reaching rational conclusion. 


Anger in all forms is the most useless of human emotions unless its energy is harnessed to propel one to greater passion and stronger force of argument. But we must also not lose sight of that fact that the person on the receiving end is really not so different from oneself.  

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