An open question – what are the alternatives to ‘Left’ and ‘Right’?

Are we still accurately describing the split of opinion?

I currently exist in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Actually, that might be too strong. It’s not quite that bad, but I do find myself in the situation of simultaneously thinking that the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are entirely outdated and unusable, yet the only terms that best describe the two general political wings.

I hate using them, and yet I have used them liberally (no pun er…well…) throughout my contributions to Off the Party Line. Given the deadlines I give myself, I’ve had to write quickly and in short bursts, giving me little time at all to reason properly about this. Given that many of my recent topics have centred (eh? Centered? As in…never mind…) around addressing problems between the two perceived wings and how they come across to the other, it’s been difficult to avoid. I’ve used them about 30 times, at a conservative estimate (YES THIS SENTENCE WAS ADDED JUST TO MAKE THAT JOKE COMPLETE, COME AT ME).

But then, even if I did come to some miraculously accurate conclusion of terms that could be applied, it would be my revelation and mine only. Nobody else would know what I was talking about. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are the terms that most people generally understand and accept.

The terms were discussed broadly here, Left being generally understood as liberal, pro-gay rights, anti-monarchy, Labour/Democrat and the rest, with the Right being more conservative, traditional marriage advocates, stern punishment of crime, Tory/Republican etc. But these broad categories seem to have more and more diversion among them than before, perhaps because of the nature of recent elections and votes. Conservatives seem less conservative, and liberals are certainly less liberal.

There’s the oft talked about libertarian/authoritarian axis which cuts across the traditional spectrum and could apply broadly, but this again seems messy.

Often, attempts to bridge the gap just ends up with ad hominem abuse or epithets, neither of which are very helpful or pleasant. On one end, you’ll have the ‘Regressive Left’, on the other, you’ll have ‘Racists and Bigots’. Or you’ll get ‘Remoaners’ on one side and ‘Racists and Bigots’ on the other. Perhaps you’ll even hear one side described as ‘SJWs’ (Social Justice Warriors), with the other described as ‘Racists and Bigots’.

I think we know which side is the more imaginative…

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for casting off the labels and being interesting. That’s the whole point of Off the Party Line after all. There’s nothing more fascinating than a staunch lefty advocating for the monarchy, or a Tory wanting to nationalise the railways. But we’re simply not in a place where those things are common enough to discuss succinctly.

Or maybe I’m wrong. I’m open to your views. Any ideas on how we can best navigate this? I’ll take anything that means I don’t have to use ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ any more. They are outdated – but what can replace them?

The Windrush Scandal – how to unite a country in condemnation

When outrage comes from across the entire political spectrum, you know you’ve made a serious mistake

What an almighty mess this is. British people being sacked from jobs, unable to access healthcare and being threatened with deportation to countries they haven’t seen for decades. Welcome to government by ‘we think this is what you mean…?’

If ever a government wanted a clue, some sort of sign that it had made some errors in judgement, it couldn’t get much clearer than the reaction to the Windrush Scandal – a near universal reaction of horror from all corners, all political wings and all media outlets.

Governments these days seem to have no idea what those resistant to mass immigration actually mean. How can it be made any clearer? They don’t want a “hostile environment”. They don’t want people treated poorly. They don’t want cruelty and meanness. They simply want fewer people to come to Britain.

I’m in the familiar position here of trying to explain a position that I don’t particularly take – immigration has never been something I’ve hugely cared about, though I can see why there would be resistance to the scale we’ve seen in recent years. That said, you will rarely find anyone, anywhere in this country who opposes mass immigration and yet supports outrages like this.

Of course, you get the idiots, the racists, the horrid and the violent. These are people for whom we have much more to fear than simply their attitudes to foreigners. But these are in such a minority in this country, a point which is often difficult to get across to lovely liberals. There is a world of difference between hating people because of the colour of their skin (and therefore wanting them to stay away from Britain) and fearing that the sheer pace and scale of immigration is going to be too much. Conflating the two, which is all too common, is insane and counterproductive.

But that’s where you start to get crazy policies like these ones. “Hostile environments” indeed. Because we are constantly conflating the two distinct points of view, governments start to feel like they need to pander to the extreme, which is not how to deal with it. People don’t want others mistreated or put through turmoil, it’s not about cruelty and hostility, it is a mere policy position – slow the pace down, don’t be horrible and nasty about it. Those who do come should treated fairly and with respect.

The most strident voices I’ve heard throughout this ridiculous debacle have been from the ‘Right’ – that is, those who would typically oppose mass immigration. They have been furious at the treatment of these people. Why? Because they’re British citizens, and those on the Right have a keener sense of this fact than anyone else, being the more naturally patriotic side of the spectrum. They have been appalled at how the British state could treat British citizens so terribly.

Doesn’t this give you a clue? Does this not tip you off that racism isn’t a motivating factor? They are as British as I am, and as British as Jacob Rees-Mogg. They are completely naturalised and have been a part of this country for a lot longer than I have.

When the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Spectator and the Mail are united in condemnation, this should be an alarm bell that you have miscalculated. The blame lies squarely with the government.

From Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail:

“Like the British people in general, the members of the Tory Party are mainly a decent and tolerant lot and have always welcomed immigrants who want to make this country their home and contribute to society. Paradoxically, reaction to the Windrush scandal proves this.

“As soon as their plight was highlighted by the Press, led by the Guardian and the Mail, there was public outrage. This didn’t just come from the Left, but from all parties across the political spectrum — including Ukip.”

From Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator:

“This is truly scandalous. The Home Office harassment of the Windrush generation is a black mark, perhaps the blackest mark yet, against Theresa May’s government, and she urgently needs to end this wickedness.

“[A] driver of this scandal is Theresa May’s great misreading of public concern about mass immigration as public hostility to migrants. This is one of May’s key failings. From her time as Home Secretary and her creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants, to her unjust expulsion of large numbers of foreign students, to her playing hardball with the rights of EU migrants in the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote, she has done a great deal to make life harder for migrants in the belief that this is what Britons want. But it isn’t. The majority of British people, as evidenced during the Brexit debates, want a greater democratic say over the immigration question, yes, but this doesn’t mean they hate migrants or want them to suffer. May is buying into the rather nasty outlook of that section of the political class which looks upon ordinary Brits as deeply anti-migrant, as a racist pogrom in the making, always just one dodgy Daily Mail editorial away from going on the rampage.”

I’m amazed there haven’t, so far, been any resignations. In normal times, this would have been almost automatic, but because of the strange weakness/strength of the government, the Brexit process, the fact that the Home Secretary at the time is now the PM and the fact that she faces a shambles of an opposition, this isn’t happening.

Whatever the solution is, it needs to happen fast. Deporting your own citizens is not a good look for a Britain attempting to make its own way in the modern world.

The Left has cultivated an image of viciousness and intolerance. This needs to change

When the Left operates with bad faith, it damages its own cause

It is something that has been niggling away at me for some time, indeed a reason I started this site. Why do so many conversations these days end in an argument, smears, lies and bitterness? Why does this happen particularly online? Why are tribes forming where once there were simple disagreements? I think I may be stumbling toward an answer.

Now please, forgive me if this has been blindingly obvious to everyone else and I’m late to the party. But it seems to me that we have no desire to believe that our opponents are arguing in good faith. We assume ill of them, we figure malign intention on their part and, above all, we believe they must be bad people.

I don’t see how any debate, discussion or argument can bear any fruit if this good faith is absent. The reason I offer the pages of this blog out to anyone who wishes to write for it is because I want people to give an unpopular opinion in an environment that encourages them to think freely and have the best assumed of them. If you give an ‘off the party line’ opinion, you have, by definition, thought it through, because the backlash wouldn’t be worth it unless you believed it to be so. Again I offer – if you have an unpopular opinion, get in touch.

The viciousness of much public discourse these days can be attributed to a lack of good faith. Left wingers assume Conservatives are evil and sadistic, Tories assume Corbynistas want state control over which trousers you’re allowed to wear that day, and so on and so forth.

But that is to provide a balance that I’m sure isn’t a fair one. I hate to come across all Lefty-bashing here, but it seems to be well documented that the Left is increasingly savage and hostile to its opponents. Dissent is deemed intolerable and impure to so many on that side of the spectrum. Providing me with examples of it happening the other way round are fine, if you want to waste your time. I don’t claim it is only one way, it definitely happens both ways – I merely offer a note of caution to those who claim themselves to be ‘kinder, gentler‘ people. Is your bar really going to be the cowardly and deflecting phrase, ‘yeh well they do the same thing to us’? I sincerely hope not. If it is, you offer no virtue that separates you from your opponents.

Let me just make that completely clear – I do not claim this is solely a Left wing problem. But it is one that should feel more urgent to those on the Left.

The Left is the wing that I should naturally be on. I try to have opinions on every issue individually, but inevitably there will be overarching principles that will inform my outlook. Most of those tend to be ‘liberal’. But I cannot count myself as among the modern Left. Elements of both wings may share the attributes of hostility, nastiness and downright rudeness, but the Right makes little outright claim to be the opposite. It is the Left that self-declares its occupation of the grounds of ‘kinder, gentler politics‘, ‘reason and science‘, ‘data-led policy’. And yet it simply isn’t so. And therefore there is a hypocrisy that cannot be tolerated by anyone with half a brain or a conscience.

If it were indeed ‘kind and gentle’, it would not assume ill-intention of its opponents or shout and scream at them. If it were a lover of ‘reason and science’, it would not shout down those who question, for instance, new gender orthodoxies, but would engage based on research. If it were ‘data-led’, it would not engage in spurious, politically driven nonsense that clearly defies the data.

The obsession with the word ‘hate’, a word my mother told me not to use unless in extreme circumstances, is now so all-pervasive that mere disagreement is now deemed hate. Disagree with gay marriage? You hate gays. Hate them. All of them. Disagree with abortion? You hate women. Vote Tory? You hate the poor. Concerned about Islamic terrorism? You hate Muslims. Want immigration to be slowed down a little? You hate immigrants. No nuance, no discussion, just straight to the extreme. Straight to the sliming and the smearing.

When even the CiF pages of the Guardian are filled with those on the Left denouncing that newspaper for straying even a tiny bit off the party line, you get a sense that something isn’t quite right. It was savaged in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader (the paper having backed Yvette Cooper – sounds crazy now, doesn’t it?). Things have rarely been better since.

I am an occasional listener to Sam Harris’s ‘Waking Up‘ podcast, among others. He is an atheist, I am a Christian. He believes free will is not a fundamentally defensible concept. I believe it is central to our being. There are plenty more disagreements I could point out. But I believe he is honest, a man of integrity and fully believes every word he says, and therefore worth listening to. That is all I would ever ask of a person – its a reason I will never listen to the likes of Milo Yiannopolous or Katie Hopkins, because I simply do not accept that they really believe in what they’re saying. They’re professional trolls who feed their children and their lifestyles on the money they make from upsetting the Lefties who will consistently rise to their bait. They are not serious people. I don’t believe they should be stopped from speaking publicly, but I won’t be listening when they do.

Mr Harris has recently been in the middle of some controversy, which you can read for yourself, or better yet listen to his discussion of it. It is far too long and detailed to go through here, but suffice to say, he has been attacked by many on the Left for a particular podcast. His most recent opponent, Ezra Klein, the editor of Vox, took a completely bad-faith interpretation of the podcast and would not back down from his position despite plenty of evidence to show that he ought to. He could still have disagreed, but still have assumed good faith on behalf of his opponent. He steadfastly refused to do so.

I was struck by the end of one the podcasts in this controversy, and it made me realise just what a problem this is for the Left more so than the Right.

A listener contacted Sam to ask: “You come off cosy with those on the Right, and then when a blowout like the one with Ezra Klein comes, it seems you can’t have the same warmth of relations and good spirit with a straight up Liberal”.

Sam explains why this misses the point spectacularly (I have shortened the monologue to sum up the key parts – highlights are all mine):

“I, as you know, disagree with Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro [two men the writer had highlighted as Right wing examples] about many, many things…but the point here is not disagreement, it is slanderous misinterpretation. And that almost always comes at me from the Left…With Ben, I made a joke on our podcast together and Ben came away not realising that it was a joke, and so misrepresented my views elsewhere. I reached out to Ben by email: “Ben, you’ve got me all wrong. That was a joke”. What did he do?…He apologised immediately, he regretted misrepresenting me.

“Same with Jordan Peterson when he got on Dave Rubin’s show. He said the opposite of one of my core beliefs. It is the centre of the bullseye for me intellectually, and he was getting it wrong. So I wrote to Jordan, with whom I had a painful collision on the podcast, and I said “Jordan, you’ve got me completely wrong. You’re misstating my views.” What did Jordan do? An instantaneous apology. He said ‘Sorry, I guess I have to read your books so I know what I’m talking about when we have our public events.”

“That is a difference that cannot be exaggerated. Peterson and Shapiro and I will go on to disagree about many things, it could be very heated…but there is a world of difference between bad faith misrepresentations and honest engagement with a person’s ideas.”

This guy’s whole experience of disagreeing with people on the Left is disheartening in the extreme. His experience of disagreeing with people on the Right is worlds apart from that, and is the way things should be. This is only one example of course, but I highly doubt this is not typical. My question to the Left would be, do you really want to concede the ground of honest, reasonable debate to the Right? When protesters can storm a lecture given by Jacob Rees-Mogg and he comes out as the level-headed, reasonable one, does that not set off an alarm bell? You’re conceding this ground to your opponents and it will be hard to wrest it back.

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine had this to say:

I’m not a fan of the term ‘SJWs’ (at this point it just comes across as a pejorative), but the point is made all the same. You get an insight into why more and more find themselves moving away from the Left and going elsewhere. There is no longer much tolerance or respect over there. It’s shocking to see otherwise lovely, intelligent people spit bile over those with whom they disagree, rather than simply have the disagreement.

They seek to destroy, to burn, to have fired, to shun, to have removed from social media, to silence, to shut down anyone who will dare defy them. It is savage and bloodthirsty, as stomach churning to watch as it is to see a lion tear up a gazelle.

 

This assumption that ‘they must think that because they are bad people or have malign intentions’ is so unhealthy. If you can’t believe your opponent is arguing in good faith (unless they’ve clearly and repeatedly demonstrated otherwise – again, see Hopkins, Yiannopolous, Klein), then not only are you doing them a disservice, you are doing yourself one as well.

The image that leads this piece is of students protesting Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury in the US. He was invited to speak by conservatives in the college and was due to debate a professor who was planning to challenge him hard. He was not just going to speak freely – he was going to have a robust dialogue with somebody who totally opposed him and his ideas. But then the idiots started to shout him down as he spoke. Then what happened?

“When Murray and Stanger finished their dialogue [having moved to a secret place], they found themselves surrounded by protesters. The protesters—some of whom were wearing masks and may not have been Middlebury students—began pushing them. When Stanger tried to shield Murray, according a Middlebury spokesman, a protester grabbed her hair and twisted her neck.

“Murray, Stanger and their escorts made it to a waiting car, but the protesters “pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood,” according to The New York Times. One took a large traffic sign, attached to a concrete base, and placed it in front of the car to prevent it from leaving.

“Finally, Murray and Stanger got away. They had planned to eat dinner at a local restaurant, but, upon learning that the protesters planned to disrupt their meal, left town altogether. Stanger later went to the hospital, where she received a neck brace. “

Kinder and gentler, apparently. Hardly. This was a vicious attack on someone who was going to debate on their side. Complete insanity, and what happens when you refuse to engage in good faith argument.

Much like yesterday’s post, I’m trying to help. I’m trying to show you how this looks to those outside your bubble. My main source of news and comment is the Guardian, but I venture to the Spectator as well, the Telegraph, the Independent, Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday. I listen to people like Ben Shapiro, Christina Hoff Sommers, Jordan Peterson as well as Owen Jones, Polly Toynbee and Gary Younge to name very few in my attempts to have as rounded a viewpoint as possible.

When you go to the places outside the bubble, you see so many people who are natural Lefties but who have either been shunned or can’t bear to be a part of it anymore. If you don’t care, then fine, that’s not a problem. I won’t tell you what you shouldn’t or shouldn’t care about. But if you keep wondering why you’re losing elections or not being listened to or not being taken seriously, you have to start listening to the other side, and not whilst seething at the temerity of these people to dare defy the social norms.

I had a fantastic knockabout debate on Facebook with a small group of friends before the EU referendum. I will keep coming back to this time as a perfect example of peers treating each other with respect and dignity, because whilst we fundamentally disagreed, the basis of the whole discussion was that each of us was arguing in good faith. Without that, it could not have happened. We were all sincere and honest, and nobody insulted or attacked anyone else.

It really can be like that. But one side has to make the first move. Lefties – please let it be you.

Labour reaps with Munroe Bergdorf what it sowed with Toby Young

Do we really want to play this game? Trawling our social media histories can’t end well for anybody.

There’s a storyline in the TV show ‘The Thick Of It” in which the main characters are subject to an independent inquiry on the subject of ‘leaking’. Leaking had become one of those practices that everyone did, everyone knew was going on and just got on with it. Whether it was a genuine scandal, or just the way the government worked, everybody knew that it wouldn’t look good with a full media glare shining on it, despite the fact that this was exactly how the media got their stories.

So when one of the parties (the party of government at the time) announces an inquiry in order to gain some political leverage, the whole thing looks like it’s going to collapse. Ollie, a special adviser almost crumbles at the news. “An inquiry into all of leaking – all of leaking! We are so…! We are so screwed.”

To which Alastair Campb…sorry, Malcolm Tucker replies, “He’s done it. That chinless horse-fiddler. Our f***lustrious PM has opened Pandora’s f***ing Box and curled a massive steamer right into it.”

Which is to say, well done mate. We’re all going down now. And if I am, I’ll be dragging you down with me.

Both parties are constantly trying to one-up each other, looking for any tiny crack in the armour to ram a sword into and prise power. But they both know there are some roads that they can never start down, because they know the whole house of cards will come tumbling down and take them all out.

It’s starting to feel like the modern day version of this is what the Spectator have started calling ‘The Digital Inquisition’. And Labour and the Left generally must be starting to regret opening this particular Pandora’s box and curling a…well, you get the gist.

Only recently, the journalist and director of the New Schools Network, Toby Young stepped down from a new advisory position that he taken up in the Office for Students following an unprecedented campaign against him that was based on a trawl of his social media history. It turned out that he had said some unpleasant and shocking things in the past, and this was brought into the full media spotlight for all to pick over.

He was jumped on – Angela Rayner, Jess Phillips, Owen Jones, all took chunks out of him and the government for this apparently unwise appointment. I saw plenty of it from my own friends and connections on social media. Petitions, campaigns and reposting of his old tweets were paraded around for all to sign, join and despise.

Now, I’m not (here, anyway) taking a position on this. You’re welcome to make your own mind up on whether Mr Young was an appropriate choice for this post. My point here is that this tactic is not something that will only hit one side of the political divide. This has been proven in the last week, as Labour found themselves caught in their own net.

The transgender model and campaigner Munroe Bergdorf had been appointed to the Labour party’s LGBT advisory board, but stepped down after a similar campaign showed some highly unpleasant comments that she had made in the past on social media.

I’ll be completely honest, in my opinion this person is a deeply unpleasant individual with some shocking, awful opinions. I’ve heard her speak where she can give as much context as she like to her views, and I find her to be ill-informed and spiteful. She is, as far as I’m concerned, an idiot.

What I don’t like, and will defend her as much as I will defend anyone on this point, is the stripping of context around something that someone has said and presenting it as the whole truth. This is something I will come back to in a future piece, but for now let’s just say that whenever you see a small quote, especially when used to attack or smear someone, ALWAYS look for the context around it. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve read something, thought “well there’s no amount of context that could give that any credence”, only to click the link and find it more understandable. So please, when you read anything about what Munroe has said, read it in its full context. And do yourself a favour and do the same for Toby Young, Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else you’ve taken a dislike to.

I really don’t want to play this game where any appointment is followed by a trawl of their history. We will have to get to the point where we’re going to have to see our past selves in the context in which they were said, and give each other a break. Can any of us really admit that we’d be happy for anyone to trawl back into our archives before we’d had a chance to do so ourselves?

It doesn’t help that everything we have ever said on social media is presented (if you search for it now) in the modern UI (user interface) – that is, whatever Twitter or Facebook looks like now. Imagine we could see a post from 2010 in the UI that 2010 Facebook had. It would already put it into its context effectively. Old photographs and videos are black and white – it gives them context immediately. If we could put them all into full HD colour, we’d subconsciously be applying our modern biases and culture to an age that didn’t have them.

If you want to do this, then fine, but it’s going to take us all down. I promise you, though, it isn’t a fight worth having, and it’s up to all of us to take responsibility as individuals to start giving people a break. This starts with your enemies. Because I can assure you, if you don’t apply the same rules to those on your side as you do to your enemies, you will be open to justifiable attack.

And you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Judge the past at your peril – who knows what we’ll be maligned for

Who knows what we will be judged for in 2118? It’s simply impossible to know.

And then there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Well, sort of. The hit 90’s American sitcom “Friends” recently hit Netflix, some people tweeted some things, and it all well and truly kicked off.

Apparently, some so called ‘Millenials’ (a group to which I, apparently, belong having only been witness to around 4 months of the 80’s) pointed out some ‘problematic’ things about one of the most popular television shows of all time. The lack of racial diversity, apparent sexism, transphobia, toxic masculinity – a veritable feast of modern Twitter cliches poured onto the internet like a spilled tub of organic houmous.

The reaction was no more enlightened. A howl of rage quickly countered, quite disproportionate to the initial crime, and blasted and smashed its way through the rather bewildered twentysomethings.

Now, let’s be clear. Friends is one of my all time favourite shows, it suited its time perfectly, and I can’t stand this horrid modern view that all things at all times must reflect all things and all people (except of course if they aren’t liberals). But that’s what it is – a MODERN view. Whilst the reaction was over the top, the silly, self-serving sobbing over how Chandler treated his dad deserved at least some of it.

I have been rather amazed, having watched some of my favourite classics again recently, at just how much things have moved in this direction, though. One episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ has Uncle Albert use the term ‘paki shop’ and ‘that paki’ (in purely descriptive terms, you understand, certainly not as an insult). I was quite shocked. But that is a relatively old show, most of it made before I was born. While such language makes me bristle, it was of its time (if you don’t believe that, the mere fact that it was broadcast with that word in it should make the case for you).

The IT Crowd has a whole episode devoted to the discomfort of the main characters while attending a ‘gay’ musical. Not much politically correct language there, and this from a trendy lefty writer and producer.

And herein lies the problem. Shows like Friends, the IT Crowd, The Office – they were written by as right-on lefty liberals as you would have been able to find at the time. So how can they be judged by the standards of 2018? Setting aside for a moment that the standards of 2018 are stupid and ridiculous, surely we must never watch anything from the past again?

Moving away from television to more serious matters of the past, some recent issues have involved attempting to remove statues of major historical figures from public view, and lamenting the views of otherwise heroic persons. This again is going to cause issues if we seek to constantly judge the past by the standards of today.

We judge the Victorians for sending children up chimneys. We judge the 1920s for restricting universal suffrage (despite the whole concept being, apparently, up for debate again following the referendum). We judge many previous centuries for overt racism. We judge the slave trade. But how many of things were obvious to the masses to be wrong? Demonstrably none of them.

The problem we will have is that a future generation will slam us – and it is next to impossible to work out what that thing is. The comedian Jimmy Carr once said “I know one of my jokes on my tour will land me in serious trouble – but there’s no way of knowing which one”. Clearly, we’re not trying to be deliberately offensive as Jimmy certainly is, but the outcome is the same – how can we know which of the things that we do or say now will be judged harshly by the standards of 2118?

There may be some obvious candidates. It could be our treatment of animals raised for food, but then that is already permeating pretty far into our consciousness. How about the supply chains for our clothing and electronic devices? Well again, we’re pretty aware of them. Driving around vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine? IN CITIES?! Again, it’s being addressed.

It could be that referring to any baby or child as a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ will be seen as monstrous. “How could those ignorant people have assumed their child’s gender before they had a chance to work it out for themselves?”, they may cry. Or perhaps keeping an animal inside a domestic dwelling will be looked back on with shame and anger. “Can’t believe my grandma jailed a conscious creature and referred to it as ‘hers’ – #disowned”.

If that sounds alarmist, consider this. People quickly forget the speed at which some things have entered our consciousness. Who would have guessed even 2-3 years ago how controversial it would have been to claim that there are two genders? Slightly further back, that a marriage is between a man and a woman? I remember the word ‘gay’ being used as a pejorative on the playground at school, quite unchallenged. Sure these things are changing now (and fast), some rightly, others questionably – but should that give us a warning sign?

I don’t want to stray to far into predictions – I think I’ve made my point. Maybe those things will never come to pass. But the point remains – we simply cannot know. And we’re for the most part going about our lives as best we can, just like our ancestors did. If we want to be remembered fondly as people who tried, but were of their time, the biggest favour we could ourselves is giving the old great-great-grandparents a break. They tried their best.

The predictability of opinion – what makes people interesting

What makes a person interesting? Can I predict your opinion? Yes? Then you’re not interesting.

 

Let’s take an issue to start with: gay marriage.

You’re in favour? Ok great. Now let me guess:

  • You’re ‘pro-choice’ in the abortion debate
  • You’re in favour of ‘gun control’
  • You read the Guardian
  • You hate the Daily Mail
  • You’re broadly pro mass immigration
  • You voted Remain
  • You, shall we say, ‘display negativity’ towards the state of Israel
  • You’re in favour of legalising marijuana
  • You don’t want any private money in the NHS/healthcare
  • You want the railways to be nationalised
  • You’re in favour of proportional representation of some kind
  • You would abolish the monarchy
  • You think the BBC is broadly right wing
  • You are against the death penalty, even for heinous criminals

Oh I do beg your pardon, you’re against gay marriage? Ok great. Now let me guess:

  • You’re ‘pro-life’ in the abortion debate
  • You’re against ‘gun control’
  • You read the Telegraph or the Mail
  • You hate the Guardian
  • You’re broadly anti mass immigration
  • You voted Leave
  • You, shall we say, ‘display positivity’ towards the state of Israel
  • You’re against legalising marijuana
  • You don’t mind private money in the NHS/healthcare
  • You don’t want the railways to be nationalised
  • You’re against proportional representation of some kind
  • You would not abolish the monarchy
  • You think the BBC is broadly left wing
  • You would favour the death penalty for heinous criminals

 

Now, these things are all very different issues. Some of them are moral questions, some political, some social. Some would reasonably require a lot of thought to come to a solid conclusion. And yet, with most people, just knowing their position on one of these things is a solid predictor of their opinions on the rest. Why should this be? I question how much anyone really understands the issues they have taken such a line on.

The neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris sums it up best: “Knowing one person’s opinion on any political issue allows you to reliably predict their opinion on other issues. This shouldn’t happen because these issues are totally unrelated. Why should a person’s view on guns be predictive of his view on climate change, or immigration or abortion, it shouldn’t be but it is. This is a sign that people are joining tribes and groups, it is not a sign of clear thinking.”

Having a conversation with such a person is, for the most part fruitless and dull. It will inexorably end in subject changing, whataboutery and appeals to emotion, because they don’t understand enough about the issue. If their opinions are predictable, they are not interesting. The briefest trawl through Twitter will tell you this. Such people are not interested in listening, changing their mind, or accurately capturing their opponent’s position.

Listening to some professional women’s rights activist sound off about gun control is painful, particularly when they come up against someone who knows the facts, the stats and can back up a pro-gun position. Similarly, watching a right wing businessman chat on about immigration or ‘the lies about climate change’ can be made to look idiotic by a scientist with a full grasp of the facts.

You can tell instantly when a person clearly doesn’t read or even acknowledge anything on the opposing side. It’s painfully obvious when a Guardian reading Corbynista has never even seen the Telegraph, glanced at the Mail on Sunday or picked up a copy of the Spectator. It renders their arguments incomplete and turns them into an intensely vacuous shell. You’re not arguing the issue – you’re defending the tribe. I use an example from the Left here, simply because that’s what I experience most, and the Left is the side that claims dominion over fact, logic and reason. But if you can’t make your opponent’s case for them, you don’t understand it well enough. So how can you claim you understand yours? And where does yours come from?

Some of this is understandable. A high level belief that ‘big government’ is bad and that individual freedom is paramount will inevitably lead to a grouping of some issues under the same banner, because any misgivings at that lower level would be overcome by an overarching principle, in much the same way that the US constitution overrules many smaller changes in law because it is the overarching agreement that American citizens have with one another.

But what is really fascinating is when you come across a person whose views on some issues deviate from their home crowd. These people are much more interesting to listen to, because the only way they will have come to this deviant view is by thinking carefully and forming a solid conclusion. To express it in public would have required a complete conviction in their process and their argument.

It’s exciting, because when somebody puts a question to them, you have no idea what their response might be. But whatever comes, it will surely be well reasoned.

There are brilliant examples of these people from across the political spectrum. Liberals who voted Leave and vice versa is a good place to start looking. There are also shining examples of those dull, lifeless crowd followers all over the place as well.

Think of Farage – I could probably predict his opinion on everything. Similarly with Owen Jones. What fashionable lefty cause has he not jumped all over and furrowed his brow in that sincere way while appearing authoritative about it? It’s just so boring. He gave a perfect example of what I’m talking about during the referendum campaign when he penned a piece putting forward the case for a ‘left wing Leave’. This lasted all of 5 minutes before he retreated back into his herd, now consistently sounding off against Leave voters and Brexit itself.

Indeed, the whole tone of the piece should have foretold this. It opens with “at first, only a few dipped their toes in the water; then others, hesitantly, followed their lead, all the time looking at each other for reassurance.” Does this not show just how little he has really thought about it? He’s essentially saying ‘I’ll go if you go’. How courageous.

“The more leftwing opponents of the EU come out, the more momentum will gather pace and gain critical mass.”

“The case for Lexit grows ever stronger, and – at the very least – more of us need to start dipping our toes in the water.”

Except the second he dipped his toe, he saw it was freezing and promptly wrapped himself in a towel. Thanks mate, the rest of us who swam out into the deep are so grateful for this bravery now that the sharks are devouring us. Hope it was worth it.

True courage lies in expressing thoughts that you know full well will get you ostracised by your side. Others simply occupy their own space, not bothering to cultivate a base in a camp in the first place. I raise the example of Mr. Jones only because, having read his column for a while and getting bored of its predictability, I suddenly glimpsed a light shining through it. “This will get him into trouble – how exciting. How will he push through?” Alas, he didn’t, and his column has been as predictable as ever, ever since. It’s a real shame, because he is likeable, writes well and has a significant following.

On the other side of things, let’s take the Hitchens brothers as an example. Christopher, the darling of the Left – Peter, the darling of the Right. Neither, when you really look, deserves the title, nor would they want it.

Christopher, who sadly died in 2011, was one of the so called ‘Four horsemen of the Atheist apocalypse’ alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (this was later expanded to be the 5 horsepeople, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali joined the group). He exploded into public consciousness with his book ‘God is not Great: How religion poisons everything’ and was a vicious polemicist against religion. He was adored by students, atheists and left wingers.

But looking a little deeper, things aren’t as clear as they might be. He was an avid proponent of the Iraq War, never ever shying away from it. He blasted the Clintons (one of the most painful things about his death is not being able to see what he would have made of the 2016 presidential election), believed firmly in Israel’s right to exist (albeit with criticism of the Israeli government), thought that men should be the providers and breadwinners for their wives/partners and had serious reservations about abortion.

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.”

Well, quite.

His brother Peter has a similar style, yet finds himself on the opposite side of most things. As a Mail on Sunday columnist and self-declared Burkean Conservative, you may think you could predict him. He hates Tony Blair, strongly opposes drug legalisation, believes criminals should be punished with prison, would reinstate the death penalty if certain judicial criteria could be met, is a fervent Monarchist, opposes mass immigration and believes the UK should leave the EU.

So how, then, does such a person also find more hatred for the Conservative Party than any other? David Cameron is a ‘slippery HR man’, Thatcher ‘overrated’. He would renationalise the railways ‘immediately’, did not vote in the referendum (indeed does not vote in elections), believes the UK should stay in the Single Market, that there should be a strong welfare state, that the Iraq War was a disaster (not difficult now, but opposed it when it was unfashionable to do so in media circles), that Trident is a ridiculous and out of date weapon that we should rid ourselves of and that Jeremy Corbyn is a good thing for the Labour Party.

These are the kinds of people you always want on your side, but they can never predictably be so. Simon Jenkins, Germaine Greer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Murray (Matthew Parris recently said of him “[he] writes so well that when he is wrong he is dangerous.’) – these are the people you want to listen to. Not even necessarily to agree with them, but to see that they have thought clearly, express their view and sod the consequences. Some of the most interesting talks you can hear are broadsides against your firmly held beliefs, spoken by a heavyweight intellectual from the other side in firm and weighty tones. Who could fail to be stimulated by that? Dullards and cowards, that’s who.

The greatest joy is meeting someone in the flesh who can argue against your view with rigour and persuasion. A small group of us had a wonderful knockabout during the referendum campaign, a time that I look back on as a period that sharpened my thinking, forced me to back up what I thought and, in some cases, change my mind. They argued passionately for their side, and they could very well see what motivated my side.

That’s all disappearing. In this new world, tribes are king. There is simply no reasoning with most people. There is no ‘I disagree with you, but still like you and enjoy hearing your arguments.’

Well, screw it. I think what I think. Come at me. Let’s have it out. I promise you – it will be more fun than you think.