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Our surprise is part of the problem

10 November 2016 by superlative

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog post. It’s now November 2016 and we’ve just had a US presidential election, a few months after the UK’s referendum on its EU membership. In case you’ve been living in a cave, on Mars, with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears: we voted to leave, and Trump won.

Both of those still feel odd for me to say, particularly the Trump one, and not just because he’s completely ridiculous and implausible. It’s because they were both a huge, confusing, terrifying surprise. I knew they were both possible, I’d seen the polls, but I didn’t really think either would happen. I thought people would be sensible, would see why one choice was obviously better than the other, and the votes would go (in my view) the correct way and then we could forget all about them.

I was wrong. Twice.

And that’s the point of this post: almost everyone I know was completely surprised. The morning after each vote, all my friends were stunned, shocked to their core, and worried for their futures. How can this have happened? How can we all have been so wrong and not seen any of it coming? There has been a considerable amount of discussion of this in the media since, and it’s only now that I’m coming to understand some of it.

For a long time, ten years or more probably, an educated, fairly intelligent middle class has shaped a lot of our society. I belong to that group, and so does virtually everyone else I know. And because we don’t mix with anyone else, or hear their opinions, it is a complete surprise to find that a large number of people, enough to carry a popular vote, disagrees with us. These well-meaning, middle class folk have discussed and decided what they think is best for everyone else – what poor people need and how they should be helped, for example – but without really talking to them or knowing what they’re really worried about. It turns out it was things like immigration and the very feeling of disconnection from the establishment and the decision-making process that we’d somehow missed. Oh but immigration is actually a good thing, immigrants pay more in than they take out, we need immigrants to do certain types of work, and it is noble to welcome refugees – those are basic truths, therefore everyone knows them, they can’t possibly think any differently, we assumed. But we were wrong – not on the issues, but on what we decided was the obviousness of them. Even where people acknowledged that others disagree, we either discounted them as stupid and wrong or didn’t want to debate it and convince them because ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’, even when it’s demonstrably incorrect.

It applies as much to the left as to the right. Whether you think we should help people by redistributing wealth from the rich, or whether we should help them by giving them the opportunity to work their way out of poverty, it still ends up being the same thing – people talking loftily to similarly-minded people, on the left or on the right, and not hearing anyone else. Not those we’re discussing, and certainly not anyone who disagrees with us.

We exist in an echo chamber of our own opinions. If we don’t like someone else’s view, we unfriend them on Facebook or block them on Twitter, and then tell our friends about the crazy people we’d just had to disassociate ourselves from. Only from family members do we tolerate it, and even then with a degree of embarrassment and quiet ridicule. We don’t buy newspapers that we don’t like, and think less of someone if they post an article from one of them. We seek to hear only what we agree with.

Then you find yourself where we are now – votes haven’t gone our way, and we’re horrified and waving ‘not in my name’ placards. And to be clear, I genuinely do think both the Brexit vote and the US election went the wrong way and will be damaging to both countries. But these votes will continue to go ‘the wrong way’, for one side or the other. Our countries will continue to be deeply divided, and that is harmful to all of us. I don’t see a way out of the present situation, not until we reach some kind of large-scale conflict or catastrophe that causes us remember our similarities more than we remember our differences. That’s a scary thought, and it is how we’ve ended up at war in the past.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I can do about it. I can try to expose myself to more differing opinions, but there won’t be all that many given my friendship group. More difficult than that in some ways is the fact people don’t really want to have a discussion where they disagree. It’s uncomfortable to us and makes us think we don’t like each other because of our differing points of view. We don’t seem very tolerant of debate any more. I’ve always said I’m slightly right of centre in my politics, liberal but right of centre, and I’ve always struggled to have discussions with any left-wing friends because they find conservative views abhorrent and I find left-wing views stupid. So you just don’t talk about it, or we limit conversation to the liberal views we all share and skip lightly over anything else. I can only think of one person who has happily talked to me about such things, and walked away not annoyed or incredulous that we disagree. I still thought they were wrong afterwards, but neither of us took offence.

It’s going to be a difficult time for our countries. 2016 has already been unpleasant. I don’t want to see us slide towards fascism and isolationism. If anyone has any great ideas for how we can bring our nations back together, well, I’d say now is the time to hear them.

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