How has debate become so toxic?

How has debate become so toxic?

I find it extraordinary that in a country where education, and higher education, reaches a larger proportion of the population than it did in my childhood, the tenor of debate and conversation has become so debased and divisive.  Instead of raising the quality of discussion, we have ended up with people picking up a headline or soundbite from news, newspaper or social media and acting as if they know everything about it, when in fact it turns out that people have seldom read the whole article, let alone the report, book, or listened to the debate to which they are referring.

This happens often and, most recently, in relation to the report on race by Dr Tony Sewell and his team.  Commentators are comparing him to Ku Klux Klan, to Nazis and to slave owners.   As the report is written almost entirely by people of colour, if white commentators were to say this we would, most certainly, be called racist.  But these commentators are not all white and Trevor Phillips, writing in Monday’s Times, regrets that more white voices have not joined the fray.  Well, here I go and people may say I have no right to comment but I believe, perhaps mistakenly, that I live in a country where free speech is valued.  Also I have lived in the UK since 1954 and in London since 1968 so I have seen a lot of changes with my own eyes.

The furore began even before the full report was published.  The viciousness of the pushback has been vitriolic and, in my view, abhorrent.  Especially as even those who have been interviewed on the radio have admitted that they have only read ‘parts’ of it and, as others have articulated, that the report is far more nuanced than critical comments would suggest.  As the report itself argues “too much of public debate is ill-informed or uninformed”*.  That doesn’t stop people blasting off their emotional opinions.

What I genuinely don’t understand is why people of all ethnic backgrounds can’t give credit where credit is due?  Sure, there is much more to be done on racism and, contrary to what one hears, the report states this several times over [e.g. ”Outright racism still exists in the UK.”*].  However, the problem is that people seem to assume that if one praises the steps that have been taken, then one is at the same time suggesting no more needs to be done.  This is illogical.  It isn’t what the report says.  But it is a tendency that the statistician Hans Rosling in his book Factfulness termed the ‘negativity instinct’**.

Rosling related that when he quoted statistics demonstrating that progress in some field had been achieved, his audience would assume that he was saying that everything was fine, when he was saying no such thing.  The principle he asserted, which I totally agree with, is that if people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing will work and lose confidence in the project.  If this is the case, they can lose hope in progress and give up the effort, which helps no one.  Hope is essential.  Measuring progress not only gives us hope but can also identify next steps.

The voices criticising the report seem not to want to acknowledge that progress has been made.  Perhaps they hold vested interests in the status quo of the racism debate?  Perhaps they are the more radical BLM supporters who actually want to end capitalism, dismantle the police and other institutions?  But, as the report states, this kind of “over-pessimistic narrative” could be in danger of “alienating the decent centre ground, a centre ground which is occupied by people of all races and ethnicities”*.

I don’t know.  All I know is that the UK is a very different place to the country I grew up in during the 1950s and we need to acknowledge that progress AND, at the same time, identify what we can all do to improve things further for all those who live in this country.  “Bias, bigotry and unfairness based on race may be receding but they still have the power to deny opportunity … if we are to build trust in institutions and organisations, we must be willing to investigate evidence of racism and be prepared, as a society, to root it out.”*  For this to happen we all need to work together, in collaboration and cooperation, not division.  It benefits us all.

Since the 1960s we have seen the Equal Opportunities Act, we have diversity policies in organisations, we have interpreters in the NHS, legal and social systems to help those who cannot speak English.  Children in schools now celebrate Eid, Diwali, Ramadan and other ceremonies, not just Christian ones.  In fact, there is such sensitivity around this that the nativity play itself has been in danger of being cancelled.  A friend of mine was the only black Jamaican girl in her class at school in 1964.  If anything, those statistics have reversed in certain areas. 

Is there more to be done?  Of course.  But for those of us who have seen these changes, please can we recognise progress where it has been made?  No business would survive if it never gave honest feedback about what needs to be improved.  Equally, it is essential to give feedback about what has been done well.  Identifying best practice enables an organisation to support behaviours and actions that build successful models of progress.

I am a woman, so I represent roughly 50% of the population yet we are still also being discriminated against but I would never deny the progress that has been made in my lifetime to the position of women.  Is there more to be done?  Of course.  But women are far less ‘institutionally’ discriminated against than they were when I was young but there is still work to be done, especially, it seems from recent reports, among the young and their peer groups.  And in this there are responsibilities on all sides to adapt and work towards a better world.

So, on race, I can see that the way history is taught needs to be balanced, but not skewed.  I don’t personally understand how it is helpful for young black children to have all the history of slavery kicked up in their faces now?  How does it make them feel about themselves?  How does it help them to feel a part of our now very diverse community in the UK, many of whom have also suffered terribly?  It seems to me that having this brutal history revived could well undermine their confidence rather than help them to feel they have as equal and empowered a voice as others in their classes or universities.

Why not point out to them also all the many role models who have made it into senior positions in our society rather than rub their noses into what isn’t going well, or what happened 200 years ago?  We have, if I can use the acronym one more time before, hopefully, it is ditched, BAME mayors, MPs, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Cabinet ministers, celebrities, lawyers, barristers, musicians, television presenters, senior doctors and consultants, senior managers and leaders within both the public and private sector, specialists on that bastion of Britishness, the Antiques Roadshow.  Don’t let’s forget this progress.  Don’t let’s dismiss it.  It means something

If we are all silenced, cancelled or whatever you like to call it, because should we dare to speak up we are subjected to rape threats, murder threats, ludicrous associations with evil people, accusations of sins we may not personally have committed, then all debate is over and we are in a dictatorship of the unelected, just because they shout louder and say the most extraordinarily insulting things.

I don’t believe this helps the cause of those who have come to our country and wish to live here with the open and equal opportunities that we continue to attempt to create.  I believe it helps us all if we acknowledge the progress that has been taken and then agree between us, in a creative and consensual way, the steps that need to be taken to gain further improvements.

Racism is, or has been, a human response to difference.  It happens everywhere and it swings both ways.  Most agree that there is less discrimination than there was, and many enjoy rich relationships with people from different backgrounds.  There has to be a will for change and integration from all parties.  If people are criticised by their own community when they attempt to integrate, for example in joining the police force, then this has to be openly discussed in order to find alternative approaches.

I don’t believe any marriage would survive if both parties kept pointing fingers at the wrongs that had been done between them in the past.  There are many and complex details behind the headlines and soundbites and we need to understand them in order to find better solutions to what holds people back, whatever their background.  We need to recognise people for their character and contribution rather than the colour of their skin.

Let’s build on progress, not enflame a war of division.

*quotes from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, The Report, April 2021

**Factfulness, Hans Rosling, Sceptre, 2018

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  • Lois Clymer on Apr 08, 2021 Reply

    Goodness, that was well written, Helen. I’m impressed, and very much in agreement. Hope all is well, and much love.

  • john bonallack on Apr 07, 2021 Reply

    Hi Helen – well analysed and quite right; it seems the criticism comes from one direction, too predictably, not allowing discussion. It is a shame.
    There is another way to see this – for race read difference. Have you read Douglas Murray ‘the Strange Death of Europe’? I requote here a sleeve comment
    “… his pessimism about multiculturism is so well constructed … it is almost uplifting. .. ”
    and his argument is essentially that incoming cultures are perceived to be trying to change the deeply established beliefs and customs of European society with resulting inevitable conflict.
    I think myself that everybody having a voice and the majority not really thinking deeply enough is producing Babel – and the Old Testament tells us what happens next!

    • Helen Whitten on Apr 08, 2021 Reply

      Thanks John. Yes, I think there is fear of change, fear of being overwhelmed and losing what was, and not without reason. But fear is not a good motivator. At the same time the whole political correctness thing makes any honest discussion fraught with difficulty. Far better, I think, to name the fears, address them openly and with compassion, and talk with as many parties as possible about the society we want to create, and how to achieve it. I try to remain optimistic…!