A plea regarding public debate

Politically there is, unfortunately, much to fear at the moment. Apart from the socio-economic effects of our fast approaching climate and ecological breakdown, I am deeply concerned about the amount of not just anger being expressed regarding our ongoing political chaos, but the potential violence that could accompany it. Violent threats appear to be multiplying in every direction. Only this lunchtime I heard a report on Radio Four about closed Facebook groups in which members freely make extreme threats against people, but particularly politicians, who have the audacity to hold different opinions to themselves. The antidote, I suggest, is two-fold. We need to take some advice from Tony Benn, and we need to get rid of some myths about politicians.

Tony Benn once argued (I’m sorry, but I can’t remember where) that we should attack other people’s ideas, not them as a person. It’s ideas that should be challenged, and brought to account, not the people who express them. But doing this requires a degree of skill, skills which I fear as a society we are rapidly losing. These are skills of debate, of critical thinking; skills that enable us to analyse an argument that we do not like, understand not just what it is we do not like about it but why we do not like, and explain all this to other people. In return, we also need to be able listen to other people’s views, understand their argument (even if we don’t agree with it) and respond in a thoughtful way. But most of all, these skills involve us appreciating that there are no absolute right or wrong accounts of any situation, and that listening and understanding to other viewpoints may require us to either amend our own, or even abandon them altogether. In short, we seem to have lost the ability (if we ever truly had it) to have public debates.

There also seems to be a generally held view that politicians are ‘only in it for themselves’, and that as a result they are open game to abuse, even violence. I would like to offer a different view. Since being elected to Dorset Council I have been struck by both the sincerity and hard work of the vast majority of my fellow councillors. With the odd (very odd) example, I have to admit that even those councillors who politically and ideologically I strongly disagree with work with a profound sense of public service, and are definitely not involved in politics to improve their own wellbeing or wealth. And although I am not an MP, I have absolutely no reason to think otherwise of them. In fact, in recent months I have been deeply impressed by the integrity of most of them, and particularly my local MP, Oliver Letwin. I disagree with many of Sir Oliver’s opinions, but I struggle to fault him as a constituency MP. People will always be able to recite examples of corrupt politicians, and politicians whose motives are very questionable, but these are very much the minority and should not be allowed to tarnish the characters of the hardworking and sincere majority.

So, in advance of the inevitable general election, I would like to make a public plea. Please could everyone, unless there is actual and relevant evidence to the contrary, respect the sincerity of all the politicians who will be campaigning for your support – even the ones you disagree with. And could we please try to listen to the arguments, and criticise (even attack) these and not the person expressing them. Once a climate of fear takes hold only the voice of the most violent will be heard – and that would be disastrous for us all.

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