It’s time to have some difficult conversations
04 December 2018 09:47
Honest conversations, even very difficult ones, are the bedrock of strong relationships. Expressing disagreement can be uncomfortable or upsetting, but with trust and love assured and felt on all sides, most divides are bridgeable. Talking is therapeutic, cathartic and healing – even a huge row can clear the air. It’s the things you can’t say that gnaw away, doing far more damage, in the end. In a relationship or friendship, the suppression of thoughts and feelings, through compulsion, guilt, fear, self-censorship, or a desire for an easy life, leads to tension, anger or simply distance and estrangement. The same is true for societies. Without honest conversations, undertaken in a spirit of good faith and a desire to find a way through, the ties that bind societies will eventually snap.
If we are honest, we are quite some way down this road on several issues in Britain, and we are all suffering as a result. We are not a naturally hate-filled society, but we are becoming a very angry one. However, fundamentally good societies, just like fundamentally good relationships, can go through rocky times and still be saved. A period of honest adversity can even make them stronger, once out the other side. Britain, enlightened, democratic, liberal, secular Britain, is a fundamentally good society, and it is worth saving, so some things need to change.
Over the last few years, much needed conversations about culture, identity, policy and politics have been avoided by many on the political mainstream. Issues seen as ‘too tricky’ have been left to others to take on, with the worst excesses at times even compounded by mainstream politicians determined to not cause offence. Again, and again, scrutiny, analysis and where needed, challenge, to recently dominant ideas have not happened on the political mainstream.
Take the #MeToo movement, for example, and the apparent belief that every allegation by every woman must be immediately believed. Where does this leave the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty?’ Is #BelieveHer susceptible to abuse, including politically motivated allegations? How can this be guarded against? Will this new morality make men feel nervous about being with women without witnesses? Is this a good thing for human relationships, gender equality and a free and equal society? Are we ushering in a new puritan age? These are all obvious and important questions, and I suspect most people have probably pondered some version of them. Publicly exploring them does not undermine the positive impact of #MeToo, nor does it discredit the bravery of many of its earliest proponents. Why, then, has it been largely left to ‘men’s rights activists’ and, well, contrarians to ask them in public?
The rise of conservative Islam in liberal Britain is another area where the political mainstream has abdicated responsibility to drill into the most difficult parts of the debate. Just this week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims’ report, Islamophobia Defined, seemed to suggest that criticising the practice of hijabs on primary school children, aged as young as four, was Islamophobic. It may be well-intentioned, but this ignores the fact that the campaign against ‘child hijab’ is led by liberal, secular, Muslim women. They make the powerful case that little Muslim girls having to cover their hair, unlike their brothers and non-Muslim friends, is a regressive idea which entrenches their inequality from the moment they enter the public sphere. It’s fine to disagree, but to call that view Islamophobic makes it a hate crime. Another unspeakable thought.
Conversations can, and must, be had about difficult issues, including articulating uncomfortable views. Open, honest and public conversations are part of human evolution and the improvement of ideas. Currently we are trapped between extremism, anger and an increasingly tense silence. Society is terribly divided, and neither self-censorship nor the culture of offence is helping to heal the divides. They are making them worse. If the broad political mainstream made a concerted effort to play a true and honest part in these debates, they would make a powerful difference.