Students Get Radical And Get Violent
Mark Seddon is the former United Nations Correspondent and New York Bureau Chief for Al-Jazeera English TV. He reported from eighteen countries during that time, including North Korea, China, Haiti, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has interviewed, amongst others, Ban Ki-Moon, Lech Walesa, Tony Blair, Hans Blix, Michael Foot, Mia Farrow, and George Clooney. In a journalistic career spanning over twenty years, he has been Editor of Tribune and an elected member of the UK Labour Party's National Executive Committee. He has written for most British newspapers and many magazines, including The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Spectator, New Statesman, Private Eye, British Journalism Review and Country Life Magazine. For a number of years he was a Diarist at the London Evening Standard, and has also reported for, amongst others, the BBC and Sky TV. He lives in Buckingham, England.
Since voters long ago stopped believing in ‘promises’ made by parties at election time, politicians now make ‘pledges’. Pledges, as opposed to promises, are made to be kept. Pledges are like principles; firm, non negotiable, inviolable contracts with the people. Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, made a number of pre-election pledges, but none quite as emphatic as the one not to increase student tuition fees. He got out his pen and signed a pledge not to increase them at all, and just for good measure set out a timetable to abolish them altogether! Now they are set to rise exponentially. The average student of the future could be looking to have to fork out over £40,000 after leaving university – should he or she be lucky enough to land a job. Today, that ‘Clegg pledge’ on tuition fees has as much value as a Zimbabwean ten thousand dollar bill.
So spare a thought for all of those Liberal Democrats MPs, many elected in university towns such as Norwich and Bristol who can’t fall back on the upholstered comfort of a seat in a Ministerial car. What a life of purgatory and misery it must be for them, caught as they are between a rock and hard place, tramping ever more reluctantly through the lobbies in the House of Commons, faces contorted as if they had each swallowed a swarm of wasps. What must it be like for MPs, and councillors for that matter, whose life long trade in the pavement politics of promises for this and promises for that, has instead become a grinding existence of watching those same promises go up in smoke? Housing benefits? Cut. Child Benefit? Cut VAT? Up. On it goes, and many Lib Dem MPs have gone from being restive to downright rebellious in a matter of months. The question is; could this week’s angry student demonstrations be their tipping point? Take Portsmouth MP, Mike Hancock for instance. He now accuses his leaders of running a “dictatorship” over the party. Or what about Lib Dem poster boy, Andrew Lewin? At twenty three he was the party’s youngest candidate at the election, flush with the enthusiasm of that bright new morning pledged by Nick Clegg in all of those now far off sepia tinged TV debates. Now young Andrew says bitterly of his erstwhile leaders “they have swallowed a virtually unreformed Conservative agenda!” He has since torn up his membership card.
It was Tony Blair’s disastrous decision to attack Iraq that proved the tipping point for legions of traditional Labour supporters to say ‘enough is enough!’ But that was after six years of Labour Government. Many Lib Dem supporters are now saying ‘enough is enough’ after barely six months of Coalition Government. And for so many of those voters, who heeded The Guardian newspaper’s clarion call to support the Lib Dems, especially in university towns, the sense of betrayal is deeply felt. It is one thing not to be liked. It is quite another to be despised. To listen to Nick Clegg and Vince Cable flannelling around, excusing their tuition fees volte face, as the unenviable price of entering into a Coalition, begs another question. What sort of negotiators are they? Any union negotiator, who came away from the table with as few crumbs as Clegg and Cable have managed to scrape together, would be out on his ear.
Earlier this week, another former Liberal Democrat leader, Lord Steel, who does know something about co-habiting and negotiating with another political party, spoke at a Memorial meeting for the late Michael Foot in London. Steel never made the mistake of entering a coalition with Labour in the 1970s; he made a ‘pact’ with Callaghan and Foot’s party. A ‘pact’ is like a ‘promise’, in the same way that a Coalition is like a ‘pledge’. You can get out of the former, but you can’t escape the latter. Tellingly he said that “Michael Foot wouldn’t be very happy at some of the things Liberal Democrats were doing”. Translated, I suspect that means that David Steel isn’t too happy either. And for every David Steel, there is a Shirley Williams or a Charles Kennedy, champing at the bit, chewing on the carpet, digging their finger nails ever deeper into their hands.
To be fair, any junior party in a Coalition was always going to face a squeeze, and the Liberal Democrats are no exception. But it is the sheer speed and depth that the Lib Dems have plummeted in the polls that now has many MPs wondering if they can survive another General Election, without a formal pact with the Conservatives or by being swallowed up by the Conservatives altogether. Some forlornly pin their hopes on the promised referendum on the ‘Alternative Vote’, as a pledge their party can keep. But in a darker, tougher, more austere Britain, divided as it is now between the super rich and the rest of us, who next spring will really give a monkey about tinkering with the electoral system?
At the outset of the First World War, the great Liberal Statesman, Sir Edward Grey said "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time". Today, north of the M25, the street lamps are going out all over Britain as local councils brace themselves for the cuts. Of one thing we can be sure, it won’t be Liberal Democrat councillors who one day get to switch them on again.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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