As I write this, Labour, the UK’s nominally left-wing political party, have just lost the general election. In the same week, Joss Whedon, the director of the blockbuster Avengers sequel, has reputedly been hounded off Twitter by a mob of angry “feminists”, accusing him of being a misogynist. On the face of it, these two events may seem unconnected, but I’d argue they’re both symptoms of the same issue: those with a progressive agenda are very bad at putting their arguments across.
When I say progressive ideas, I don’t just mean those who consider themselves to be on the left of the political spectrum. UKIP, a party whose entire platform is in opposition to a socially progressive agenda, managed to take a huge share of the vote in this election. And that share came from both the Conservatives and Labour. Similarly, while many Conservative policies hurt the poor and disadvantaged, they did support the legalisation of gay marriage. And that may well be one of the reasons so many former Conservative voters chose to support UKIP.
The difficulty we face, whether we’re economically on the left, or simply consider ourselves to be socially progressive, is that we focus on the nebulous idea that what we believe in is the “right” thing to do. As such, when people don’t agree with us we often close down the debate. Because we truly believe it’s “right”, we can’t comprehend why someone may object to it, and so when faced with disagreement we don’t have the tools to argue, and descend into hyperbole and name calling. This is true whether we’re discussing social ideas like gay marriage or women’s rights, or economic ideas like welfare spending and disability benefits.
I’ve been guilty of this as well, terribly so. In the first few years of the last parliament, I was so appalled by the extent of the cuts in public funding, that I frequently described David Cameron, George Osborne and Iain Duncan-Smith* as evil. And when losing a debate with someone about social issues, I was very quick to cry “bigot” or “racist”. Unsurprisingly, all that happened was people stopped arguing. I may have had the final word in the discussion, I may have felt that I had won the argument, but I didn’t change anyone’s mind.
Recently, I’ve been trying to do something different. I’ve read a lot of books on economics, both macroeconomics and microeconomics. I’ve begun to understand the reasoning for a lot of these opinions, and I’ve come into debates with the belief that, however misguided, these people think that their ideas aren’t just for their own benefit, but are genuinely better for society as a whole.
And this has resulted in my arguments being much more persuasive. I may not have changed many people’s minds about who to vote for, or their underlying beliefs, but people with whom I previously clashed fundamentally have conceded points, and considered that I might, just possibly, be right.
I’m not for one second suggesting that I’m the first person who believes in progressive ideals to realise this, but looking at my Twitter feed, both during the election results night, and this morning, it’s clear that a lot of people who would describe themselves as believers in social justice, including those one might describe as ‘leaders’, are still coming to the debate with the same mindset I once had. And as a result, the salient points they’re making are being ignored by those who need to hear them most.
Don’t Close Down the Debate
One of the reasons UKIP did so well in the elections was that they claimed to be the only party willing to discuss immigration. That may not be the case, but I know from my own experience that debates on the issue quickly descend into ideological battles, and rapidly from there into name calling.
Nigel Farage constantly protests that he isn’t a racist, as do most of his supporters. Objectively we might believe that they are, but I’ll bet that they believe what they disagree. We dismiss their concerns as not based on reality, we smugly produce infographics showing that UKIP support is strongest in areas without immigration at all. And in doing these things: in closing down the argument, in ignoring a grievance, however ill conceived we believe it to be, we reinforce these ideas amongst people who feel vulnerable and isolated.
And it’s not just UKIP. If you followed the Gamergate arguments online, you’ll have seen groups of middle class white men turning on women in the computer gaming community in horrific ways. We might not agree with their grievances, and we certainly shouldn’t agree with their tactics, but by dismissing their concerns, rather than trying to help them see why they were wrong, we made the problem worse.
There Are Very Few Cartoon Villains
The common theme in both the rise of UKIP, and in the Gamergate controversy is how few truly unpleasant people are involved. The majority of supporters of these groups, as well as the majority of men’s rights activists, Christian rights campaigners and those involved with similar campaigns aren’t vile psychopaths. They’re working class and middle class people who feel their lifestyles are under threat. They are often disenfranchised, poor and vulnerable. They are, in short, the people we so often claim to want to help.
But by jumping down their throats when they express an opinion we can’t comprehend, or we know to be factually untrue, we send them running straight into the arms of people who really are, for want of a better word, utter shitbags: racist bullies like Nick Griffin, or sleazy opportunists like Nigel Farage.
At the election, the people who voted UKIP should have been easy pickings for Labour. If someone’s main fear is that their public services can’t take increased immigration, it should be a simple task to explain that their vote shouldn’t go to a party who believe in cutting those services even harder and faster than the Tories. Instead we ignored them. Or told them their concerns were unjustified. And while that may be the case, we unfortunately live in a world where the front page of The Mail, The Sun and The Express can’t be defeated with facts.
Look for Allies not Enemies
Part of the reason for the success of these papers, these parties and these anti-progress pressure groups is that they don’t really care who agrees with them. UKIP and Gamergate are perfectly happy to be home to people whose views were out of date while our species was still living in caves. By contrast, those on the left of the political spectrum, and indeed many in the centre ground, look for demons wherever we can.
The writer/director Joss Whedon has spent his career making movies and TV shows that prominently feature women. He created the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse. The female characters he creates might not be as well-rounded as we might like, but given the prominence he gives to women in his shows, it would be hard to count him as anything other than a feminist ally. And yet that’s exactly what a huge horde of people on the political left did just last week.
He’s the most recent in a long line of attacks on people the left have been attacked for the most minor of transgressions. A list that includes a PR specialist who made a joke, one of the UK’s foremost gay rights campaigners and a scientist with no idea how to dress appropriately for work. Not only do these attacks play into the hands of the truly unpleasant, who use them to brand progressives as ‘loony lefties’, but they also alienate people who are on our side.
One of the things I’ve noticed in my discussions with my friends on the political right is how much we actually have in common. We overlap almost entirely on social issues like women’s rights, gay marriage and a staunchly anti-racist stance, but we even have a lot of common ground economically. We all want a strong economy, we all hate the idea of people living in poverty, we all want to go out of our way to help those less fortunate than us, whether we know them personally or not.
There’s even common ground between my liberal ideals and my economically far-right libertarian friends. We might vehemently disagree with how involved government should be when it comes to regulating business, but we all agree that government should never interfere with people’s lifestyle choices, whether that’s the decision to have sex with someone of the same gender, the right of a woman to chose what she does with her own body, or the decision to take narcotics in the privacy of one’s own home.
Take the Debate to Them
Even where we do find fundamental differences, particularly when it comes to subjects like business regulation or the welfare state, I’ve often been able to win people round on some points by arguing on their terms.
I work in film production, producing and line-producing low-budget movies. One of the biggest problems we face in our industry today is the proliferation of unpaid internships. As with a lot of creative industries, there is a general presumption that those entering the sector should be expected to work for free. The argument made is that it gives people an opportunity to get on set and make connections, and it allows productions to happen that otherwise wouldn’t.
I have a few issues with this. I believe in Keynesian economic theory, and so on principle I think it’s pretty flawed idea, but I also know without a shadow of a doubt that by limiting the people who can take entry level jobs in the industry to those who can work for free, we severely limit the talent pool. But these well-intentioned ideals are often too nuanced to make to my producer colleagues, particularly when they have hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt hanging over them, and a film that has to be made on a budget that is a fraction of what it should cost.
So I’ve changed the way I frame the argument. Instead of discussing high-minded ideals, I relate it to saving the production money. The unspoken agreement when ‘hiring’ unpaid interns is that you feed them, and cover their expenses. This usually runs to around £30 per day. Consequently, there’s still a limit to the number any production can bring onboard. But with no financial incentive to actually perform, these people often don’t turn up on time, or don’t care as much as their paid colleagues. The net effect is that they are sloppy workers, who make mistakes that sometimes cost hundreds of pounds to put right.
By contrast, in my experience at least, someone paid £100 per day tends to work exceptionally hard and pay close attention to what they’re doing. Even if they’ve never been on set before, their work is great, and the mistakes they make are minor. In effect, having a couple of properly paid entry-level crew is often cheaper and more effective than having three or four unpaid. And when put like that, people agree. Even those who are on the tightest possible budgets see the advantages, and as such support the decision.
This is obviously a very specific example, but it’s no different from pointing out that the NHS saves businesses money by ensuring their workers are fit and healthy, and removing the need for employers to provide private health insurance. Or justifying out-of-work benefits as being key to providing a pool of workers who can rapidly step in when the economy grows.
It may seem that I’m suggesting we follow the worst behaviours of the right and pander to people’s most selfish instincts. I’m not. At the moment it may feel like the UK is filled with cruel, spiteful people, but I don’t think that’s true. Most Britons are concerned about the welfare of others, that’s why, in 2012/13, Britons donated £10.4b to charity. But equally, it’s often quite difficult to understand how badly some people are suffering, and even when we do, we’re psychologically inclined to reject the accounts as anomalous outliers, particularly when they contrast with the images that appear in the press. By reframing the argument, we don’t have to go through the messy process of tearing down existing beliefs, and can win people over more naturally.
Know the Facts
Of course, if we’re going to win people over on their own terms, it helps if we understand the facts of the argument. Part of the reason I read so many economics books, apart from my own interest in the subject, is to be able to present fact rather than opinion, and do so in the right type of language. Now, instead of simply screaming ‘austerity is morally wrong’, I can point to examples of how cutting back government spending in times of recession hurts the economy, and how every time any country has escaped a recession since 1929 has been by increasing the size of the state.
Similarly, I can argue against the free market ideologues by citing examples of how big businesses use their financial capital to distort the market to suit their goals, and harm competitors and consumers. I can argue that the housing costs are at a historic high when compared to the average income, and why a house price collapse is inevitable, and I can argue that when that collapse comes, it’s going to have mid-to-long term economic benefits for the economy, as more people have money in their pockets rather than tied up in bricks and mortar.
These are important points, ones that will help win people over, particularly those who don’t necessarily consider themselves to be anything other than right wing. And they can only be convincingly made if we’re in full command of the facts, and the numbers behind them.
Of course, we can’t just bombard people with facts. If simply presenting numbers worked, it would have been David Cameron resigning rather than Ed Miliband. The key is to get people to question the received wisdom behind their opinions. To do that, we need an element of salesmanship.
Rather than turning the discussion into a lecture, we need to engage with people. We need to ask people questions about what issues concern them the most, and address our answers to those concerns. When faced with stern objections to an idea, we need to get to the root of that objection, rather than try to tackle it head on. If someone supports their argument with data or fact, we need to find where that information came from, and to understand why they’re using it in the way they are.
And here’s where things are going to become uncomfortable: if that data turns out to be valid, we need to be willing to question our own position.
Holding an opinion in opposition to fact is foolish. It results in making bad decisions, and ultimately in our own undoing. If we expect anyone to question their own beliefs, ours need to be up for discussion too. I’m not suggesting we sacrifice everything we hold dear just to grab temporary control of the world around us. The downfall of the Liberal Democrats is testament to the folly of that idea, but we do need to be willing to meet people halfway on some issues. Particularly if those issues are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.
The Battle Never Ends
The Conservatives have come to power on a platform of ideologically-inspired cuts, anti-immigration sentiment, and a feeling of unease toward Britain’s involvement in Europe. That means there are a huge number of people in the UK who support ideas that are opposed to a progressive agenda. We need to change that, and we need to begin doing so today.
Over the next few days, weeks, months and years, we have a real fight on our hands. And while the outlook right now, faced with five years of right-wing majority government, is pretty bleak, we’re actually in a better position to win that fight than we were a month ago. David Cameron is in charge of a government with a majority of 12, five MPs fewer than John Major’s ineffectual government in 1992. And while the Telegraph might be crowing about the 66.1% turnout being the best since Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997, it’s significantly down from the 77.67% turnout in Major’s last successful election. To use the language of the last days of the election campaign, they are ‘legitimate’, but only just.
Put bluntly, David Cameron may win a great many of the votes he puts before parliament over the next five years, but he’s going to have to fight hard for every single one of them. Even the most minor of rebellions could see the government defeated. If we can convince a handful of Conservative MPs to vote against the government — either directly, through one-to-one discussion, or indirectly, through the weight of public opinion — bills can be defeated. But to do that, we have to get better at really winning the argument, not just at having the last word.
* For the benefit of non-UK readers, respectively the Prime Minister (head of government), Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), and Work and Pensions Secretary (the minister for welfare)