The Dangers of Cosy Consensus

7 Jun
Photo from the Guardian.

Photo from the Guardian.

One of the more pathetic arguments bandied about by the far right whenever we’re discussing immigration is that you’re “not allowed” to discuss immigration, that the “liberal, left-wing media” have shut the debate down completely, which is daft because it often seems like our pundits, politicians and think tanks do little else but discuss immigration on a never-ending loop. That said, every so often us lefties will do something that feeds right into that argument, and doesn’t so much give the other side ammunition as hand it the key codes to a nuclear arsenal.

Case in point: The author David Goodhart (that stony-faced chap above). Now, David Goodhart comes across as a bit of an attention seeking git (he’s essentially the thinking man’s Jeremy Clarkson that A.A. Gill clearly wishes he was), but when he was snubbed this year by Hay-on-Wye, I found myself feeling a bit queasy.

Goodhart, you see, is the author of a book, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration, which is apparently largely critical of the UK’s immigration policy in the last 60-odd years. I say “apparently” because I haven’t read it, so can’t comment on the book itself, but it’s been attacked from some quarters and praised in others. Fair enough… Immigration is a contentious and divisive topic. It’ll happen.

If they could read, there's every chance they would love it.

If they could read there’s a good chance these men would love it.

What left me feeling uncomfortable were the reasons Goodhart claims he was snubbed. According to him (and I should point out, this is all coming from Goodhart himself), Hay’s organiser Peter Florence didn’t invite him to the festival because he – that is, Florence – “stands for pluralism and multiculturalism”. Now, leaving aside the fact that “standing for pluralism” suggests one might support the right of views that contradict your own to be heard, the first reason this struck me as a little odd is that the festival is sponsored by The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that isn’t exactly renowned for its Kumbayah stance on immigration.  Here, for example, from last month is an editorial piece claiming immigration has left the UK with “an alarming legacy”. Or here‘s Telegraph blogger (and author of the similarly-themed The Diversity Illusion) Ed West, warning us that taxpayers are funding charities that support immigration. Heaven forbid!

And let’s not even get started on the comments their readers post beneath said articles…

But if we must, this is a pretty good place to get started, right here.

But if we must, this is a pretty good place to get started, right here.

Now I should point out, I have nothing against the Telegraph. The newspaper, its writers and readers are all entitled to their opinions. I actually wrote a blog for the Telegraph back when the internet was still in black and white, and for a while was one of their pet lefties, appointed mainly to piss off their regular readers and rack up plenty of comments.

Writing those blogs and reading the comments people left behind was, more often than not, like peering into a Lovecraftian abyss of insanity, but sometimes, sometimes, someone would disagree with me in terms that were polite, reasonable and considered. I still came away thinking they were wrong, or at least that I was more right than they were, but I could at least believe that they had come to their conclusions after a great deal of thought.

The other thing that struck me was that for many readers having someone spout anything that was pro-immigration, pro-gay rights or pro-welfare state was terrifying. They were used to commenting on articles that were anti-immigration, anti-gay rights and anti-welfare state, and all agreeing with one another in increasingly vitriolic soundbites. To anything else, they had only these words of advice:

“Why don’t you f**k off to the Guardian?”

We later traced 90% of those comments to a PC belonging to this man.

We later traced 90% of those comments to a PC belonging to this man.

They had reached, in their own crazy little way, a point of cosy consensus. In the comments section of the Telegraph they went unchallenged. Is it any wonder so many of them believe the equal marriage bill is undemocratic when, as far as they’re concerned, just about everyone in the country is against it? (In fact, the most recent polls suggest at least 3 out of 5 people in the UK are in favour.)

What bothers me, then, about David Goodhart’s snub is that it seems to imply that there is – or should be – a consensus on topics such as immigration among Britain’s intelligentsia, and that anyone who disagrees should feel the bitter, Siberian winds of exile until they’ve learnt their lesson. What exacerbated this was how little reaction there was from anyone on the Left. Too many seemed to see Goodhart’s inherent gittishness as reason enough for the snub, and his very vocal protests as nothing but sales-savvy attention grabbing.

Exhibit A: He's currently Nos 2 and 3 in Amazon's chart of "Books Popular With People Who Are A Little Bit Racist"

Exhibit A: He’s currently Nos 2 and 3 in Amazon’s chart of “Books Popular With People Who Are A Little Bit Racist”

Now, I can’t really argue with that last point. It’s likely more people have learned Goodhart’s name in the last couple of weeks than ever knew it before, so in that respect he’s pulled something of a coup. But whatever we think of him, his book or his views, somebody should have said something, shouldn’t they? Certainly, if a world-renowned literary event turned away someone with left-wing views simply because they held left-wing views, we would be up in arms, wouldn’t we?

I worry that a liberal way of thinking has become a lazy, default consensus for far too many people; in much the same way that bellicose, ruddy-faced imperialism was Britain’s default system of thought 100 years ago. I worry that whenever that way of thinking is challenged, rather than meet it head on and take it apart – which, let’s face it, isn’t usually that difficult – we’ve begun slamming the door in our opponents’ faces, or sticking our fingers in our ears and singing, “La la la… I can’t hear you… la la la…”

Too often we mistake the fact that our opponents’ concerns shouldn’t matter with the idea that they don’t, and dismiss them accordingly. If someone complains to you that they were “the only white person on (their) bus” the other day (as one of my aunties once did), rather than tell them to shut up and stop being so bloody racist (which, admittedly, is tempting), ask them why it matters, and keep asking them until they either a) Give you a decent answer or b) Realise they’re being a bit silly. I can guarantee, they will almost always work their way around to B eventually, but in doing so they might just have allowed you to see the world through their eyes, and learn a little about why they freak out about that sort of thing. The pair of you will also have entered into a meaningful – and hopefully fruitful – dialogue. What you won’t have done is shut that dialogue down from the word go.

The immigration debate is one without end, and so it should be. The UK’s ability to take in newcomers will never be a constant, and so it’s likely our immigration policy will, like my belt size, forever be in flux, waxing and waning to meet demand. It’s my opinion that the “immigration debate” is actually three different – though interconnected – debates that both the far right and far left confuse with one, i.e. “Race”. In my view, any debate on immigration should at some point splinter off into separate discussions about economics, resources, and social cohesion, and the people having that debate shouldn’t be the likes of us, the ill-informed and hot-headed, but economists, civil servants and sociologists.

That said, if some newspaper columnist, stand-up comedian or telly pundit wants to stick their oar in, that’s their right; but they should all be allowed that platform, when that platform is meant to be one without a political agenda, and not just those whose views match our own. That kind of lazy consensus, in which our opinions go unchallenged, is a one-way ticket to stagnation.

Having said all that, if this was The Sunday Times’ Rod Liddle we were talking about, I’d fully support his being tied to a rocket and fired into the fucking sun.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: