There are no exercises more important to the continuous function of any society than the conversations we have about our social and political issues; or more importantly, how we have them. Yet, now when these discussions should be easier than ever to stage it seems harder than ever to conduct them with any degree of civility. We are going through a time in which dialogue and mutual understanding is becoming increasingly scarce as we enter an era of ‘fake news’ and cynicism. Now more than ever debate on political and social issues is breaking down and proving fruitless. Pessimism aside, however, it has not always been this way. There are certain mistakes we are making, certain behaviours we are repeating that set our discussions up for failure before they even begin. Some ways of approaching a discussion are simply destructive. These inclinations whilst common are not insurmountable and they can be corrected to allow us to have a productive conversation.
The most destructive of these tendencies is our habit of conflating criticism directed at abstract ideas with condemnation for the individuals or groups who originated them. This miscalculation proves so damaging because it obfuscates the quality of the idea in question by shielding it behind individuals and personalities. Whilst criticism at an abstract idea is incongruent with any notion of bigotry, denigration of certain groups of people is not. Confusion between the two has lead to the protection of bad ideas behind false accusations of malevolence. In recent years the ascendancy of the term ‘Islamophobia’ provides a useful example of this phenomenon at work. Whatever your views about the role of certain doctrines within Islam on the promotion of violence, a conversation about this relationship has become increasingly difficult to have in recent years, as criticism of Islam as a set of ideas has been conflated with criticism of individual Muslims as people. Whilst bigotry and hatred towards Muslims is something about which we should be concerned, criticism of Islam as a set of ideas and principles is not. To use the former as a pretence with which to obfuscate the latter is disingenuous and has served to shelter ideas from often totally warranted criticism. It’s important to remember, these conversations we have about our socio-political ideas are our primary mechanism for sorting the good ideas from the harmful ones. It is a mechanism that works most efficiently when left free, open and unencumbered. When one injects hasty and often misplaced accusations of malice into this mechanism, it’s smooth operation becomes increasingly difficult.
A further unfortunate corollary of such allegations is that it becomes incredibly easy to impute the bad motives of your political opponents. Our aforementioned inability to distinguish ideas from their adherents makes this especially easy as the lines between the personal and political have become blurred.
If you are to truly believe that your political opposition is composed of bad actors with evil motivations then you effectively disqualify any chance of even starting a conversation in good faith. The attribution of unscrupulous motives to somebody is not to simply say that they are wrong, but that they could in fact never be right. Worse still there is nothing one could possibly say or do to redeem themselves from such denunciation because whatever they say will be tainted by their ostensibly nefarious motivations. This attitude serves to accentuate our divisions, making us tribal. Our differences become viewed through a moral rather than intellectual lense. People with whom we disagree are no longer said to have simply misjudged the evidence, but to harbour ethical deficiencies. Our discussions begin to be more about ‘beating’ our pernicious political opponents and less about a mutual understanding or insight. As a result, political discourse is viewed increasingly as a zero-sum game, something it shouldn’t be, but necessarily becomes when you believe your rivals are bad people. Hence, our inability to discuss ideas in isolation places our conversations on an inexorable path to toxicity and failure. If the constructive political discussions everybody wants are to return, we have to be able to discuss ideas on their merits alone, free from the influence of personalities or identities. Only then will we begin to be more charitable towards those with whom we disagree and rekindle our capacity for civilised debate.