Has Political Debate Become An Echo Chamber?

12 April 2018

Nye Bevan will rightly be remembered as the Minister for Health who delivered the NHS. He also has his name on potentially one of the greatest ever political putdowns. In reference to then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Bevan once commented: “He has the lucidity which is the by-product of a fundamentally sterile mind”. This resonates with our current level of political debate.

We seem to have reached a point where clarity and consistency are rated higher than critical thinking, open-mindedness and a genuine desire to find the ‘right’ answer. It has become far too easy for the opinions of those we disagree with to be dismissed as stupid, unpatriotic, racist or in some other way blinded to our own - clearly ‘correct’ - way of thinking.

Research published just last week shows that when opposing political views are introduced into our Twitter feeds our original opinions become hardened. In other words, we dislike being disagreed with so much that when it happens we become even more convinced of our own opinion without needing any additional supporting information. Or, even worse, a perfectly valid counter argument. We seem to have lost our vigour for that most British of traditions: a good honest debate. Instead we sit in our own echo-chambers. Are we letting our minds become sterile?

Politics is about passion and enthusiasm, it generates emotion and reaction. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The country is not a debating society and we are dealing with very real decisions that affect lives and livelihoods alike. However, it is because the stakes are so high, especially at this moment in British history, that we cannot afford for debate to be paralysed.

We, on the Left and within the Left, have to first get our own house in order. We should be confident enough in our views and ideas as to be happy discussing and debating them. We should be able to present our thoughts with the required gusto while retaining an analytical and critical mind, and at least a basic level of respect for those who disagree and a curiosity as to why they do.

As Socialists, by our very nature, we welcome diversity. We believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that our society is stronger when people work together instead of breaking into groups and factions. As the famous Labour Party Clause IV goes: “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”. Surely this logic also applies to ideas and opinions. Verity is in fact our greatest source of strength.

In wider politics, and in particular around Brexit, we are facing a number of generation-defining decisions while the level of debate spirals downwards. Newspaper columns and TV studies are filled with “shock jocks” and the most polarising of political figures instead of the insightful, knowledgeable and most relevant voices that we desperately need to be hearing at this time. I worry this cocktail is not conducive to our best collective decision making and if we get this wrong, the hangover will last for decades.

Many people will blame ideology for the position we find ourselves in today; commitment to one way of thinking without any regard to changing circumstances or evidence. But, the word ideology originally meant the “science of ideas” which suggested a rational approach to policy-making where theories could be discussed, debated and weighed against evidence. Wouldn’t this be a refreshing way of doing politics?

I started with a quote from a hero of the Left, so it only seems fair to finish with an equally respected figure from the Right, and someone with whom I otherwise wholeheartedly disagree:

“I love argument, I love debate. I don’t expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that’s not their job.” Margaret Thatcher.

I am not sure what the solution is, but like with any problem, the first step is always to admit it exists.

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