Being able to disagree without being disagreeable

Article by Max Jeganathan

Read Max’s full biography

OCCA Fellow and former political adviser Max Jeganathan takes the temperature of the UK’s democracy after the resignation of Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, and finds some worrying symptoms.

For many, faith and politics remain at the top of the list of sticky combinations – ranking alongside socks with sandals or checks with stripes, as dichotomies that seem to create more anger than interest.

Tim Farron’s resignation – for many – seems further evidence of this. Some are disappointed that he didn’t remain and fight for what he believed in. Others believe he joined the wrong party to begin with.

Some believe that those with faith in God should not be allowed anywhere near a voting booth, political party or microphone. And some are a little confused about why someone standing up for what they believe in was effectively ‘no-platformed’ out of professional politics.


Ailing democracy

Tim Farron’s resignation offers another example in the growing list of symptoms that something seems to be going wrong with our democracy. Dialogue and debate has been replaced by a knee-jerk tendency to abuse, mock and, if possible, to no-platform those we disagree with. The problem seems to stem from an increasing deterioration in our collective capacity to dialogue with opinions we disagree with.

This widespread antipathy to opposing views is not new, but it is newly personal and newly dogmatic.

Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were both gratuitously attacked personally during last year’s US Presidential election campaign for saying what they believed. Many on the left ‘blame’ Trump’s election on crazy Christians, just like many on the right blamed Obama’s election victories on crazy progressives. Brexiteers and Remainers portrayed the other as catalysts for the end of Western civilisation. The power of ‘the other’ continues to be harnessed for political purposes and channelled through emotions – primarily fear – for political ends.


Boxing clever

We have all retreated into our corners, only coming out briefly to take a few wild swings at each other before retreating again. As a result, Christians, Muslims, atheists and I’m sure many others – all feel more under attack and persecuted now than ever before in UK history. Ironically, they’re all correct. Somehow, we’ve taken the democratic model of government and made everyone feel like it’s anything but democratic. So, what now?

Christians must do better at articulating how and why their faith relates to government and why faith-driven policy positions can be both rational and positive for society. They must also think (and pray) more deeply and less dogmatically about the role of government as it relates to their faith.

Atheists must do better in dialoguing with the truth-claims and ideas of the faiths held by their fellow-citizens. They must also be intellectually honest about the legacy of the Christian faith (and other faiths) in shaping many of the institutions, values and moral truths we hold dear.


Fruitful combat

We must – to paraphrase Plato – follow the arguments and evidence to where they lead. We must stop rejecting opinions at face value because we disagree with them. And even – after having done our honest due diligence – we do disagree with them, we must continue to recognise them as worthy of our discourse.

A vibrant democracy will necessarily contain Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics in all political parties, all putting forward their vision for a better Britain that is perpetually presented to the public in honest discourse. We must strive for a political discourse in which we can disagree without being disagreeable.

Democracy depends on the fruitful combat of opposing ideas. All politics has ever needed is hard-working people who care enough to put themselves forward and stand up for what they believe in. We won’t get there by punishing people for doing exactly that.


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