There’s a bit at the end of an early West Wing episode:
Bartlet walks out to the portico. Josh tries to run and catch up with him.
JOSH Mr. President?
BARTLET [looks back] Yeah?
JOSH We talk about enemies more than we used to.
JOSH We talk about enemies more than we used to... I wanted to mention that.
Well, I’m not sure about the United States*, but there never was a Golden Age of British politics when people with differing politics were only ever seen as opponents not enemies.
(*I’ve been told I should start using that instead of The Colonies. I dunno, political correctness gone mad, but ok.)
How could there have been? In a two party system (which the UK has been for the main part) elections are a zero sum game. If the other lot get in, not only does your party not get to do what you want them to, the other lot – with ideas entirely just wrong, as far as you’re concerned – get to do what they want.
For every person that has regarded people of different political persuasions as good people with bad ideas, there has always another, sometimes many more, who regarded them as scum, as vermin, and as parasites.
The insults thrown at political opponents back in this non-existent “opponents not enemies” time were in fact as nasty, as vicious, as personal, as anything said today and it’s sheer naïveté or conceit to pretend otherwise. And for all the erudite and clever political put downs inside and outside parliament, there was:
Lloyd George on Churchill: “He would make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises.”
Andrew Faulds on his own party’s then Shadow Foreign Secretary John Davies: “A fat arsed twit”.
Harold Wilson on Tony Benn: “…the only man I know who immatures with age”.
And in return, Denis Healey on Wilson: “He did not have political principle . . . he had short-term opportunism allied with a capacity for self-delusion which made Walter Mitty appear unimaginative.”
And again, Wilson on Ted Heath: “A shiver looking for a spine to run up.”
So, no. And neither was there ever a mythical uplands where British politicians were held in great esteem by the general public and/or by the media. Any ostensible respect or deference offered was enforced by social peers and a class structure that drummed it into some that everyone was better than them.
I was struck a couple of years ago, during the MPs expenses scandals, and the criticism of MPs having the gall to complain about their remuneration and expenses, that way back in the 1950s, Jennie Lee – the widow of the great Aneurin Bevan – was complaining about… the same thing.
That said, and without taking any of it back, the polarisation and the personalisation of argument in politics today is something I’ve never seen before. Not at this level, not to this extent, nor as widespread. And it’s not limited to social media by any means, although that’s where it’s often at its most egregious. Rallies have come back into fashion, both for Corbyn and for the populist. The speeches made at Corbyn events, at Trump events, at some of the Sanders events earlier in the year, were as polarising and personalised as I’ve seen in many a year, And those at the Conservative Party conference could have been written by software entitled The Polariser 5000, if Andy Zaltzman hadn’t probably used that gag already.
There have been half a dozen or so major political events that have directly affected me or mattered to me – and friends of mine – in the last year or so, two of them repeating but long enough apart to be worth separating. They are not linked – other than all taking place – and I’m not suggesting any causation nor correlation. I feel shitty that I have to say that, but after the past year? Yeah, I do.
In rough order of chronology:
- The Syrian refugee crisis
- Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party
- The US Presidential primaries
- Jeremy Corbyn being re-elected leader of the Labour Party after a year
- The US presidential election
Every one of those things has to my certain knowledge fractured friendships, destroyed them in some cases.
For it’s all very well protesting “you should be able to have political discussions without it getting personal” but it’s a tad harder to do when you’re being called racist if you support leaving the EU or an apologist for antisemitism if you support Jeremy Corbyn. It’s hard to keep it entirely impersonal when by supporting Clinton over Sanders, you’re called a warmonger. Or when, by supporting a Republican candidate who hasn’t disowned trump, you’re accused of enabling racism. Or when, because you query the levels of immigration, you’re called a racist, but if you support immigration, you’re said to be a traitor to the UK.
There were and remain many sensible, logical reasons why one might want the UK to leave the EU, advantages and detriments considered. There are, similarly, lots of equally cogent well-reasoned arguments against it. But even on the very few occasions those coherent informed arguments were made, those making the arguments were accused in the former case of being shortsighted idiots and in the latter case of mendacity and talking the UK down.
And, faced with those insults, what are you supposed to do? Accept those slams at you without hitting back? Turning the otehr cheek may be fine, but in political discourse, it as often as not solves nothing. Sure, responding in the same vein may bring more heat than light to an argument but ignoring personal slights brings neither heat nor light.
And while I’d be the first to recommend making your case and defending it with calm logic, sensible debate, when you receive a slam back, it’s obvious the one thing they’re not interested in is calm debate. Nor logic. nor dance. Nor reason. And as my friend Mitch Benn is wont to say: “it’s impossible to reason someone out of an argument they’ve not been reasoned into.”
So how do you keep it from being personal? You can’t. Oh, you can try to prevent it descending into personal, sure, and you’ll sometimes succeed, but for those other themes? Once you realise that for your correspondent, ad hominem attacks are their first option rather than their last resort? Walk away. Don’t run, but walk. Hurriedly.
But are they always at fault? No, not always. But you’re not going to know which is which. And if it’s a stranger, really, really, it’s not worth the hurt and upset and sheer bloody anger you’ll experience while trying to find out which.
But what do I mean when I say they’re not always at fault? Well, let’s gp back to that “trying to keep it not personal”.As hard as it is to not make it personal if you’re accused of racism and an apologist for antisemitism, it’s also and equally hard to prevent it being personal when you see people being racist and being apologists for antisemitism. Again, what? You’re supposed to let people, even friends, say and do things you find loathsome, and expect the friendship to remain unaffected?
And if not, if you accept there are some things up with which you will not put, then where do you draw the line?
Is a little racism ok, but not a lot? Is it ok if you’re accused of a little racism? No?
If you let [what you consider] their racism affect your friendship, then why not also voting for a party you think wants to gut the welfare state, or that you think wants to give away sovereignty, or… or… or…
Again, without saying that accusations of racism are as bad as racism – again, I’m most assuredly not saying that – I can see the difficulty in keeping it ‘not personal’ for both the accusations, and the protestation.
And as I say above, one problem with ‘making it personal’ (which is a nonsense phrase; all you’re doing is acknowledging the personal, not creating it) is that it will, it has to, it must, fracture friendships.
I know friends that fell out over the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 that are still not back on speaking terms, not so much for the two opposing positions but because the other didn’t condemn the excesses of each campaign. Similarly, I know people who were fast friends, and are now barely speaking because of the EU referendum campaign. If only the lesson required was “ban referendums”; I know people in the US who have family members or friends who fell out during the Republican and Denocratic Parties’ primaries and also some that have changed their opinions – for the worse – of celebrities and creators because of their political affiliations.
And then there’s me.
I have many friends who are Labour Party supporters; either those who are in fact members or who regularly and almost invariably vote for the party whenever they’re able. So far (about which more in a moment) that’s not been a problem.
What has been a problem for me – I’ll leave it up to you to judge whether it’s been a problem for them, I suspect not – has been Mr Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader, his term in office, and his recent re-election.
Look, I’ve never hidden my views on Corbyn. Before he was elected in 2015, I wrote a piece entitled “ABC: Anyone But Corbyn“, and the day he was elected, I wrote another entitled “congratulations, Mr Corbyn… and goodbye“.
I wrote the first to bring to anyone’s attention – anyone who was previously unaware of it – Corbyn’s determined, and history of, indifference to other people’s antisemitism. I wrote the second after I’d resigned from the Labour Party over that issue. I could not, and would not, remain in a party headed by a man for whom someone else’s antisemitism was not only unimportant but utterly irrelevant.
(And yes, he’s criticised “antisemitism” repeatedly, though only really since 2015. But only ever in the abstract, and never identified acts as antisemitic without great reluctance. Hell, his admitting that Hamas want to kill jews had to be dragged out of him. And as always, I welcome any examples of him criticising anyone for their antisemitism. Especially since that long and distinguished career of fighting racism. Of fighting racism that isn’t antisemitism that is.)
I wrote in that second piece above that i didn’t think he was antisemitic, merely that he didn’t care if anyone else was. Later I changed my mind to my current position: I’m not convinced he is* an antisemite; I’m just no longer convinced he isn’t.
(*he’s certainly indulged in more than a few antisemitic tropes, and publicity agreed when others make claims antisemitism claims just to prevent criticism of Israel.)
My views on this matter – and Corbyn – have caused me to fall out with more than one friend; it’s damaged friendships; it’s fractured them and in at least two cases, completely destroyed them.
For of course this is what I wrote about up there, earlier in the piece.
From my side, for someone, anyone, to support and defend Corbyn is to excuse indifference to antisemitism. For someone to regard accusations of antisemitism by labour people – for which as leader Corbyn just take some (not all) responsibility – as all “smears” is saying to me, to Jews, “you don’t matter. Antisemitic attacks, use of antisemitic tropes, criticism of Jews for being Jews… don’t matter.” And there’s a word for that.
Similarly, those who defend Jeremy Corbyn, who support him, view me and others as ‘weaponising antisemitism’, of making false claims of antisemitism because Corbyn doesn’t like Israel. They regard those attacks as mendacious, and malicious.
Well, if I’m being mendacious and malicious, don’t let me stop you no longer regarding me as a friend.
Seriously. Off you go…
See what I mean about it not being so easy to keep the personal out of it?
Diane Abbott has come in for an enormous amount of criticism recently. It is beyond doubt that some of it was racist in nature, other was sexist, much was both. (Again, it shouldn’t need to be said but I utterly and unreservedly condemn it and anyone who levelled such loathsome attacks at her.)
Yeah, you can see the “but” coming, can’t you? While I don’t resile from the previous paragraph whatsoever, I don’t believe either that every attack on her was racist or sexist or both; neither do I accept that the only reason she has been criticised, or the only reason she has received so much criticism, is because she’s a woman of colour; i.e. that the motivation for every attack was racism, sexism, or both.
My position above, however, was enough for another woman of colour – a woman whose work I admired – to deride me, and ask me never to contact her again.
She – I’m guessing because I accepted her request and we’ve not spoken since – views my position as indifferent to the racist attacks Abbott received and my purpose was to minimise their seriousness and widespread nature.
Pretty much the same thing I accused Abbott and others of doing where antisemitism is concerned.
So, where does that leave us?
Whether you hit back is a personal decision, of course. So is what you find personal.
But fore you criticise someone for taking something personally, I’d just ask: do you have a ‘line; that you won’t allow others to cross because then you’ll take it personally? If someone called you a racist, would you take it personally? If someone said you were being homophobic, would you take it personally? If. you saw someone being racist or homophobic or sexist or ableist to you, would you take it personally?
If you would, then what right have you to criticise others for doing the same?