Democracy and exposing oneself to different views

Director of Sixth Form, Mr Stephen Prest delivered a fantastic presentation about the importance of disagreeing well within a democracy, and exposing oneself to different views in assembly this week.

  • When asked to deliver Whole School Assembly I thought – what have people not heard enough about . . .BREXIT
  • Now most people see Brexit as either a great opportunity for the UK to strike out into the World, negotiate new trade deals with other countries & to ‘take back control’ or an incredible act of self-harm by a nation that is retreating from the World.
  • However I don’t want to get involved in the detail of Brexit itself. Instead I want to focus on what the referendum – and particularly its aftermath – says about politics, society an democracy in the UK.
  • About what lessons we – and indeed you – can learn from the process.
  • Now Brexit can be seen as the greatest act of democracy in UK history – the second highest turnout in an election ever. Certainly the biggest mandate ever given to a party or a referendum option ever.
  • But the referendum campaign and the aftermath can also be seen as causing, or at least exacerbating, incredible divisions in the UK. Elections & referendums are by the nature divisive – but the referendum campaign was characterised by unusual levels of hostility & bitterness
  • This has continued in the aftermath with headlines in the papers using terms like “enemy of the people’, “traitor”, “treason”, “mutineers”, “betrayal”
  • This is not good. Societies are always divided to some degree, yet the modern, liberal democracy in which we are remarkably fortunate to live in – both historically and geographically – depend on a level of unity – citizens buying into the state and society – and the acceptance of certain behavioural norms
  • Without this – democracy, the rule of law and the very social contract on which our present levels of historically unusual affluence, peace, health and longevity depend – are threatened
  • So what has gone wrong and what can we do about it?
  • For me the bitterness I have mentioned is a symptom and the cause is people’s willingness to do two things:
  • Here are some commonly held views about Brexit – views that it is quite possible for one individual to hold at the same time.
  • The first cause of much of the bitterness we see in political discourse at the moment is peoples willingness – or perhaps desire – to assume that there are easy answers to complex questions
  • Secondly – and possibly fed by the first – people are happy to believe that those who disagree with them are either stupid or ill-intentioned – either way to believe that those who they disagree with are lesser than they.
  • So what do I recommend that you – the voters of tomorrow – learn from the failings of we, your elders.
  • Firstly – as one of my great heroes Desmond Tutu says . . .you must learn to disagree respectfully
  • I heard of people breaking friendships because of the way others had voted, of colleagues refusing to work with each other, even couples divorcing
  • My wife, a woman who – rather foolishly many people think – has chosen to spend the rest of her life for me, disagrees with me on almost every major political question – but that does not define our relationship and you should not let such disagreements define yours
  • You must also be informed. Now I agree with the quote from Thomas Sowell here but perhaps not for the same reasons as Sowell who I suspect wants people to be informed so that they can make the ‘right decision’.
  • For me, being informed is about understanding the different sides of an argument – because, if your experience is anything like mine I find the more I know, the more I doubt – and that is not a bad thing because even once I have made up my mind, it means I can see that same argument from the point of view of someone who reached a different conclusion – that means I can understand that person and I am more likely to treat them with respect rather than to consider them either stupid or as having malign intentions.
  • Being informed though does require effort and choices – and one is to think about where you get your news from – and social media – increasingly the choice of many – is a poor source of information
  • Partly this is because the world is complex and issues aren’t given the treatment they need by tweets, snapchat stories or Instagram pictures.
  • It is also because much news on social media is ‘fake news’ – misinformation – simply not true
  • But for me he biggest danger is that in entrusting social media to produce the news and views we see and consume is to hand it over to an algorithm – algorithms which – to make big corporations money – show us what we want to see – stories which confirm all our biases, prejudices and values – an echo-chamber which doesn’t challenge us but panders to us . . .
  • This retards our growth . . .and leaves us intellectually stunted
  • I found myself in such a position not so many years ago – reading one paper which told me what I wanted to hear and never having my views challenged – I now force myself to read both these papers – with their often diametrically opposing views
  • So – to summarise –
  • Appreciate that – for most of us – there is far more than unites us than which divides us
  • Challenge others but do it respectfully – don’t assume those who disagree are somehow lesser than you . . .
  • and most importantly allow yourself and your beliefs to be challenged
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