Lack of Conversation is the Greatest Threat to Democracy


The BBC in recent years, rather than funding any new ideas, 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 marginally more successful than the tenure of Karen Bradley as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Yet if they are set on this more of reanimating bygone televisual corpses, there is one that they have sadly overlooked: Till Death do us Part, which ran from 1965 to 1975 and 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, yet effectively demonstrated how such ignorance can manifest itself when a person is insulated in their own narrow and cosy sphere of existence, yet can be overcome when they are brought outside their own head: all of Garnett’s rage at the ‘coons’ stealing jobs from the English 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 harbor a 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.

This relates to David Hume’s theory of the limitations of sympathy, in which he classified human relationships to 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, with the level of empathy for each group becoming less and less as the circle expands and therefore moves away from the subject.

This is a natural process of emotional selection, and does not reflect too poorly on a person’s character: is you cared for all seven billion people on the planet in just the same way as you do for those you love, so consumed by paranoid fear you would hardly be able to get out of bed. Sometimes, and some people more than others, everyone needs to be reminded of the world outside their inner circle.

Among the greatest threats to democratic politics today is the lack of empathy expressed to those that one disagrees with, and the main quality that Till Death do us Part would provide 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 relatively simple, but 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 habit which is legitimized due to its use by those in high Office, such as Donald Trump, DUP MLA Jim Wells, or those of similar high temperament and low wit.

Among all the merchandise available for purchase on the Labour Party’s website, and visible at so many demonstrations, there are t-shirts and other items which bear 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 has to get out more. Has no one in the Labour Party heard the phrase ‘shift and drift’?

Contrary 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 possibly get our hands on.

People are not ‘sick of experts’ as Michael Gove suggested, but rather have very strong views based upon no semblance of reality; the answer is not for each to sink to the level of the other, but for people strike a reasoned and empathetic accord in order to raise the lowest common denominator to the hall of better angels. We seem today to talk an awful lot about our rights, without recognising our responsibilities which are an 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, but 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 encourage the humanity in other people as a means of reaching rational conclusion.

Anger in all forms is the most useless of human emotion unless its energy is harnessed and better utilised to propel one to greater passion, and a stronger force of argument, while not losing sight that the person on the receiving end of such is really not so different from oneself.