Wednesday, 15 June 2011

On the polarising of debate

Yesterday morning, I was on BBC Radio York as part of the ongoing debate about North Yorkshire’s library service (which debate, in short, involves a new report whereby the mobile libraries and eight library buildings are under threat). For the first time, I wasn’t interviewed alone. I was alongside another guest, Conservative councillor Chris Metcalfe, the Executive Member for library services. It was a engineered situation with two people who hold polarised opinions on an issue discussing that issue and in the situation I felt a certain internal pressure to conform to radio/TV debates that I’ve heard/seen in the past: I should take a contrary position to Cllr. Metcalfe’s answers, I should interrupt to ‘come back on that last point’. I felt like I had to act as I expect others to act in that kind of media debate situation. Despite feeling that I should be conforming to a stereotype, I sat quietly and spoke only when I was questioned: I’m always happy to speak for libraries but I don’t think I played the part of ‘media pundit’ very well. 

We’re familiar with this binary representation of opinion in everything from politics to religion. Humans have simplified ideas for centuries but the binary polarisation seems to have increased over the past year or so. For any debate on any issue in any media, two talking heads are wheeled out, each on opposite sides representing opposite opinions. TV and radio current affairs programmes routinely enlist one person to speak for one extreme and one person to speak for another, generating conflict and antagonism between the two. The writer Graham Linehan wrote about a recent appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme where he alleges that a debate was artificially generated about a topic as innocuous as a script adaptation. Middle-ground is not tolerated in the media. 

Where polarised political debates go to die.
And then, because it’s the media’s job to represent real-life, we believe that the polarised opinions we see/hear/read are the only opinions and that they are therefore our opinions. And so the binary representation becomes reality, further perpetuated by a two-party political system and a tendency for humans to simplify complex ideas (a tendency which predates the media: they aren’t entirely to blame). The perceived opposing sides become mirror images. In March, I went on a protest in London; two months later, there was an opposing protest in London. The only way to balance the mirror image was for one side to match the other. These opposing protests generated an astounding degree of vitriol on Twitter with both sides shouting down and insulting the other while generating very little actual debate on the serious economic issues underlying both protests. Instead of acknowledging that the other side were genuine human beings with genuine concerns about the economy, people belittled and insulted and pretended that the other side were irremediably ‘different’. 

We need reminding that this binary division of opinions is an inaccurate simplification. Rather than facing up to complex issues with all their convoluted philosophical ramifications, geopolitical assumptions, and accompanying belief systems, it’s easier to adopt a Yes-No frame of mind where everything is divided into simple propositions of affirmation and negation. 

‘Women on the front-line!’: ‘No women on the front-line!’
‘NHS reforms!’: ‘No NHS reforms!’
‘Wikileaks is bad!’: ‘Wikileaks is good!’

Truth usually lies somewhere in the middle of black and white. My philosophical outlook is a hodge-podge of various theories and ideas lodged together in what I believe to be a coherent and consistent way. This may change as I learn new things. Humans don’t have to be stubbornly binary: I believe in political freedom for the individual à la John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty but sometimes – only sometimes – I ponder the merits of a conservative benevolent dictatorship à la Plato’s Republic. We can change our minds when new information comes along, we can be unsure, we can vacillate between shifting ideologies, we can pick up elements from the different sides of political discourse and settle in between.

The collective human mindscape is awash with colour: a landscape of shades and distinctions between the binary masses of black and white; a panoply of ideology shifting and flowing as people change their minds, discover contradictory opinions, hold contradictory opinions, make tiny and glacial shifts in attitude that accumulate into continent-sized changes in belief systems. Journeys into opinion, belief, and philosophy aren’t about setting up camp in the first place that looks comfortable: they are about exploring one place and then picking up to find new places; they are about exploring the Forests of Ideas, the Valleys of Facts, and the sweeping terrains of distinctiveness that characterise the massive and beautiful landscape of human thought. 

There are colours between black and white.

Politics is not a Venn diagram with two circles that barely meet: it’s a swirling kaleidoscope of ideas and thoughts and feelings, many of which do not settle into neat camps of the left/right distinction. When we think and debate with one another in a binary way, we ignore the elegant complexity of the world around us and we forget that truth is usually somewhere around the middle.


Lauren said...

I really enjoyed reading this, Simon :) I struggle with the same thing when asked leading questions by journalists - and feel bad if I do fall into the easy 'giving a simple answer' or 'what they want to hear' rather than trying to explain the complexities of the debate. I think the more we do this, the longer we'll get to explain things.

And hopefully, there'll still be libraries around in which people can sit, learn, think about and discuss the bits inbetween black and white, with their fellow human beings.

Simon Barron said...

Agreed: it's the difficulty of deciding between being disingenuously simplistic or being complicated and risk not getting invited back.

It's a really good point that libraries are places to think. There are so few places where people are expected to just think about things nowadays. We can't afford to lose them.

richhawk57 said...

I can't decide whether this blog post is brilliant or just a load of rubbish now ;-)

Seriously though - I too really enjoyed reading this. It's something I try to be mindful of so it's always nice to be reminded of the silly dichotomies that the media frequently perpetuate.

Lately I have been most annoyed by the print v ebook 'debate'.

Thanks for writing such a great post Simon.

Richard Hawkins

Simon Barron said...

Print vs. ebook is such a good example! People get very territorial about either print or digital and tend to argue that there can only be one. When in fact both have different uses and both live side-by-side. I have a Kindle and I love print books. There doesn't have to be an extreme all-digital world.

MeganJRoberts said...

Great post! I completely agree, as well, but would never have been able to voice it this well! I very often find myself getting annoyed at both parties in discussions, because they are so far entrenched in their ideas, and there is no room for listening to others or true debate.

It's frustrating when you see debates that have to be one extreme or the other - the middle ground that many people would naturally lean to seems to be ignored completely!

Jillybean said...

Great post. I love the idea of politics and idea being a colourful kaleidoscope Reminds me of a Tim Minchin song - "the fence". I think that media and people go around in a circle. While using polemic views in reporting issues it help people to easily see the issues under debate in a set time slot, it also seems that people trust the media and think they are reporting accurately or it allow people to be lazy and think only of the two sides of the debate. So the media thinks that there is in turn only 2 sides to the debate and thus is goes on. Life and people are more complex and interesting than that.