In the summer of 1987, a man met a woman at a barbeque hosted by the local Young Conservative Club. Soon enough, the pair fell in love, got married, and 28 years later, found themselves reacting to their teenage son’s news that he might be voting Labour with the same ferocity you would direct at someone who’d swaggered 10 minutes late into an AA meeting slurping a mimosa through a curly plastic straw.
That teenage son, as may be obvious, was me. And no, I’m not exaggerating. My defection – for that is how it was seen – was a shock, and a big breach of family tradition. “Cut me”, said my granddad on the subject of politics “and I bleed blue”. My parents used to discuss Tony Blair with such seething vitriol that as a child I genuinely believed he was somebody they knew personally. My aunt would whisper “vote Conservative” into my sleeping cousin’s ear as a baby (yes, really). Conservatism was stamped onto my family’s DNA. For the eldest child to buck the trend was borderline scandalous.
These days, it’s easy to curate your friend groups to avoid the side-line views you find unappealing. For me, this wasn’t an option. From morning till evening, I was completely surrounded by Tories. Tories made me lunch. Tories dropped me off at school. Tories sang me happy birthday, and Tories tucked me in at bedtime.
My political disagreement with them was, and is, profound. But there was no way we were ever going to have a serious falling out about it. This was my family, not a Tinder match I could boot after I realised they hadn’t read the ‘no tories thanks x’ in my bio. Yes, there’s plenty my family have managed to get dazzlingly wrong. But they’re also attentive, kind and supportive, and these are qualities we just won’t notice if we define someone entirely by their political persuasion the moment it clashes with ours. Acknowledge the person behind the opinion, and you might find your Thatcherite parents doing the unthinkable and ditching the Conservative party just before the 2019 election. Stranger things have happened.
The fact is that calling someone ‘Tory scum’ will probably not win them over. It’s far more likely they’ll just stop talking to you about politics. But their convictions will not disappear. Instead, they’ll hold them tighter – but this time in secret. Lack of dialogue means we’ll never understand what attracts people to views that repel us, and before we know it, we’re looking at another five years of starving schoolkids so Richard Branson can buy a new yacht.
Echo-chambers do not help anyone. Never directly engage with an adversarial concept, and you risk constructing your own politics around a hypothetical; what you believe the opponent thinks, not what they actually do. This makes for impressive rants at your Marxist book group. But it means you will run into huge difficulties when trying to affect real-world change – which, after all, is what politics should really be about.
So, problem solved? Well, not quite.
It’s easy to forget just how extreme mainstream politics has become in the past five years alone. In 2013, UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom was hounded out of his party after referring to Africa as “bongo bongo land”. Fast forward 6 years, and the public’s reaction to Boris Johnson comparing Muslims to violent criminals was to whisk him into Downing Street by way of a landslide majority. As recently as 2015, declaring victory in an election you had manifestly lost was the behaviour of treacherous despots. But it’s exactly what we’ve just seen Trump do. As more politicians espouse extreme views, more ordinary people will end up adopting them. But something being normalised is not the same as it being right.
Throughout history, brave women and men have given their lives for that which we now take for granted; democracy, civil liberties, and human rights. These are the essential building blocks of any free society, and the atrocities which inevitably and historically follow their absence means that any discourse questioning whether some groups are more deserving of them than others is simply reprehensible. So, yes – America’s Muslim travel ban was instituted by the President. But that doesn’t make it any less of a human rights abuse. The morals of engaging publicly with supporters of this ban is one thing, but whether you should invite them into your social group seems an open-and-shut case. Overall, friendship is precious and let’s not waste it on authoritarians.