A couple of days ago, a video of a tense exchange between the novelist Will Self and the pro-Brexit MP Mark Francois went viral. In it, Self’s point – that “every racist and anti-semite in the country” voted for Brexit – is misinterpreted by Francois to mean that Self is thus saying that every Leave voter was a racist and anti-semite. He responded with a near-hysterical accusation of injury, demanding an apology live on national television to 17.4 million people.
What is interesting about this video is not the fact that a Conservative MP has a somewhat shaky grasp of logic, or that Mr Francois does not take well to criticisms of Brexit, but that it reveals the extent to which sensible, reasoned discussion is no longer possible in British politics, and that is a great shame.
In order to be able to have any successful debate on a topic, you need to have some common tenets upon which both sides can agree. Chief amongst these are facts, something which Brexit has made increasingly problematic. When Brexit supporters completely reject any evidence that goes against what they say, even if the weight of said evidence is overwhelming; it is impossible to have an argument that does not just simply turn into impassioned rants and insult-hurling. Needless to say, this does not help provide unity or resolve tensions. Any political dialogue that simply leads to both sides being even more firmly entrenched in their beliefs is not dialogue at all.
However the blame for the failure of political discussion does not lie solely with one group. Self himself is similarly guilty. He deliberately chose to put across his argument on the dangers of ethnic nationalism in a provocative manner. He played Francois, knowing he would miss the nuance in his statement, to get him to respond predictably with outrage.
For those who have tried and failed to argue with those who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the facts, making your adversaries look like fools is tempting. Donald Tusk demonstrated this by asking whether there is a “special place in hell for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan,” a trap that all the leading Brexiteers fell straight into by publicly denouncing Tusk’s personal attacks on them.
Nonetheless, this too does not help bridge the gap between two sharply divided groups. Considering much of the Leave vote was based upon a rejection of the ‘Westminster elite,’ who had done nothing to help people outside of London, demonstrating a sense of superiority over Brexiteers, whilst suggesting that some of those who voted Leave were racists and bigots, is not going to help reconcile differences.
Political discussion also needs to be more explanatory, and less reactionary. Discussion of transgender rights for example remains seriously limited by many people’s limited knowledge or understanding of the topic. Whilst these rights need to be championed and protected, an unintentional side effect of this can be an unwillingness for people to join the debate out of fear that their questions and comments on the subject will be decried as transphobic. Freedom of speech needs to be balanced with the intolerance of hate speech, but in order to create a more harmonious society, we need to explain why certain terms, behaviours or ideas do not have a place in that society, rather than just condemning them outright.
Image: George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures