I work with 5 churches totalling some 250 people who cover a very broad swathe of opinion on most issues and I need to understand all sides if I’m to be able to do my job. I have opinions on the same things as most people but I tend not to share them because I don’t want to be placed in a particular group. I would rather understand all sides.
The Reverend Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference, recently sent out a statement about the state of debate in politics at this time. It followed on from a great deal of emotional name calling on both sides of the Brexit debate in Parliament, particularly the words of Boris Johnson as he found himself stymied at every turn.
Reading it got me thinking. I’m not sure if the language and behaviour in parliament is a reflection of the country as a whole or if the country is a reflection of Parliament but in many ways we have lost the ability for civilised debate. Looking at Brexit, Remainers characterise Brexiteers as racists, xenophobes or morons. Brexiteers call remainers traitors and sulking babies. Both sides, in their belief that they are correct in their aims, view the other as stupid or evil.
For every Brexiteer that wants to bring back the British Empire or believes that Brussels is trying to build a super state based on misinformation, there are thousands who have genuine and reasonable concerns about the EU and honestly believe we will be better off, recognising it may not be so in the short term, leaving and forging our own path. For every remainer who wants to hand over sovereignty and be part of a European super state there are thousands who believe leaving will do serious economic harm to our country and harm our children’s future for decades to come. Name calling will not change minds, it will entrench people in their political fox holes.
There is a lot of talk appearing about the need to build, or rebuild, community to take the place of the growing tribalism. Tribes connect people based on their large number of similarities and their animosity to those who are different. Community is willing to encompass difference in the recognition of the value difference brings.
So how do we move forward. First, we need to acknowledge that some minds cannot be changed. Some people are so entrenched in their beliefs that they will deny actual, physical, incontrovertible proof. Second, accept the possibility you may be wrong. We are talking about the outcome of things that have yet to happen. Financial modelling and the like can do a great job of predicting the outcome of events but it is not infallible. Third, be prepared to listen. Genuine fears should not just be dismissed as stupid. If you don’t listen, you cannot understand. If you do not understand, you cannot have a proper conversation. Without conversation, debate, no progress is made. Fourth, consider others first. You may be in the perfect position if your particular side of the argument wins but what about others? At the moment there are a lot of parents with disabled children who are concerned they won’t have access to the life-saving medicine their children need. That may or may not be the case but talk of sovereignty and empire is not going to engage them if they think their children’s lives are at risk. Calling them traitors for wanting to stay in the EU is not going to win them to your cause. Many in Northern towns and cities are in favour of Leave. They feel their jobs and homes are at risk because of immigration. Calling them racist will not change their opinion.
The remain argument has largely run on appealing to facts. You can argue their accuracy but they are presenting facts. The Leave side has run mainly on emotion. It’s told personal stories about disappearing neighbourhoods and muggings and crime and laid it, fairly or not, at the foot of immigrants. Both sides, if they want to change others minds and rebuild the community of this country, need to take a leaf out of the other’s book. Remain needs to offer stories that show the human cost it believes is at stake, Leave needs to offer more reliable facts, not hyperbole, about what Britain will look like after Brexit.
The only way fences get mended is if name calling stops and people start to understand each other’s position. If we can’t do that we can look forward to everything getting worse. We can change the world from the ground up and be an example to those in parliament and elsewhere.