Can We Stop Blaming Everyone Else?

Consensus, cynicism, debate and the need to restore faith in the political

 Although there is not always a great divergence between the two main parties in terms of
their policies, political discussion in Britain is often rancorous and polarised. Are we, rather
than being divided by serious issues, simply failing to find consensus because we mistrust
one another and refuse to listen to each other, preferring a lazy habit of blame, suspicion
and cynicism? And does this result in a failure to make political, social and economic
 There are limitations in the argument for consensus. It can, among other failings, lead to
complacency and to the exclusion of views which happen to fall outside of the consensus.
However, some bad things can also come from the absence of consensus, and this article
will seek to describe them, as they manifest themselves in current political debate and
opinion in Britain, with some reference to how certain habits of thought and in
conversation or argument, on a personal level, perhaps influence how we tend to form our
 We have in Britain, a pretty vigorous political debate, in parliament,  in the media, and
then on the internet and at the personal level. Views are often held strongly and expressed
forcefully. People of all classes and levels of education commonly have quite decided and
distinct views on a range of subjects. Many people can give their opinion readily on almost
anything, while others are reluctant to voice their opinions or even to form any for
themselves. Some people are happy to voice opinions that they have not thought about
very much about but have heard and agree with, and sometimes voice them forcefully,
and have the impression they thought of them themselves. To a great degree, the range of
thoughts we are likely to adopt as our own opinions, is determined by our social
environment, by what is current and acceptable. In politics and related subjects, (and of
course the range of these related subjects can be very wide) people's opinions often fall
along certain familiar demarcations, one of the most common being what we call left and
right wing, or conservative and radical. There are many pairs of words which we think of
as opposites which might be used in the same way as right and left.  In parliament the
Opposition to the government is part of the checks and balances that sets limits to the
power that can be wielded by government, and ensures proper scrutiny of their actions; In
the media, on television in particular, it is felt that pitching opposing views in vigorous
opposition to each other is the best way to provide for “debate”, confrontation is  believed
to be the best way of scrutinising ideas and opinions. It also makes for entertainment, just
as in the drama world we are taught that drama=conflict. When people discuss politics the
strength of their own ideas is easily matched by their dislike of what they think of as
contrary ideas to their own. Sometimes it can seem as if peoples opinions are formed
mainly in opposition to other ideas rather than around actual proposals of their own. Being
in opposition to things we dislike can give us a strong sense of our own identity, curiously

Opinion In Education
 In education too, opinion is highly prised and there is some confusion, certainly in the
minds of children if not teachers too, about the nature of opinion and its potential value
relative to knowledge. De-constructionism, especially when it filters down to school level in
a garbled form, has cast doubt on he very possibility of knowledge, while the design of the
syllabus and the teacher training manual has cast doubt on the value of knowledge itself in
a classroom. The result is that in many ways knowledge is less prised than opinion. There
has been a good intention to make people able to think and form (informed) opinions,
which because the informed  aspect has been forgotten, has led to almost its opposite, so
that some pupils are left with the contradictory impression that opinion itself is as good as
knowledge, and that all opinions are of equal value. To many school pupils the mantra that
one opinion is as good as another, has led to a fatal misidentification of bigotry and closed
mindedness as some form of egalitarianism. It is the same thing as mob rule, it leads to the
extinguishing of reason and fairness...and of toleration itself, as the strongest not the best
opinion asserts itself.  A well-intentioned pursuit of toleration and the understanding of
others has resulted in its corollary - bigotry.  The break of the link between knowledge and
the formation of opinion releases people from the requirement to listen to others people's
opinions, for if all opinions are as good as each other, then we may as well stick with our
own held opinion and disregard the other person's. A belief that all opinions are equal
doesn't seem to stop us forming opinions and holding our own more strongly than other
people's. It merely confirms to us that no-one has the right to criticise us, or question our
views. It may mean that we cannot question anyone else's but it needn't in practise mean
that we need take other people's opinions into account. It can be consistent with living as
we think fit and riding roughshod over other people. This of course is not the intention in
the teaching, it is the opposite of the intention, but is a result of a mistake in the thinking
behind it.

Scepticism – And Poverty
  We live in a period of widely felt scepticism about our political system and those who are
part of it. That scepticism is applied to everyone;  the government,  MPs, judges, civil
servants, the parties, their leaders and members,  right down to anyone who expresses an
opinion in public or even in private. The British have perhaps always tended towards
varying forms of scepticism, in their philosophy (including a sceptical limit to scepticism
itself) and in their attitudes to politics. It sometimes stops us following big dangerous ideas,
it is perhaps related to our well developed sense of humour. It can't be said however to
have necessarily led us to always making the best political decisions and choices. While it is
a useful and certainly amusing tool in the political debate, it cannot on its own, if it is on its
own, lead to wise choices or to constructive discussion and the understanding of ideas.
 Scepticism about politics is partly the result of the exclusion of large numbers of the
electorate from the wealth and prosperity enjoyed by the majority. The minority, and it is
a very large one, have not seen enough progress in their material conditions to rationally
warrant belief in the system in which they live, neither the economic nor the political. If
you are poor in a society which seems to speak of wealth, and speak of fairness, your
conclusion is likely to be one of some scepticism. If the broadest and loosest understanding
of the word 'democracy' suggests more than just being able to vote for and dismiss your
government, then the 8 million or so who are paid only subsistence wages, are likely to feel
disappointment and lack of faith in that system. When that system, in other words the
party system which forms the policy part of it, fails to offer even hope of significant
improvement, then we can expect scepticism to grow and spread. And that scepticism
eventually includes that very central idea of voting for and dismissing your government.
Whatever your feelings about the EU, the facts concerning its lack of democracy are plain
for all to see, on its own website, by its own admission. The success and acceptance of the
EU, in which 450 million Europeans lose the power chose and dismiss their government,
(as the EU government is not elected or dismissed by the European elections) show that
many people do not care about that right, are sceptical of its  usefulness.
 The reason for the continuing poverty of large numbers of us, in other words, the
continuation of glaring inequalities of material wealth, can be the result of a number of
things. It can be because we think it is a necessary part of our economic system; it can be
because we think it is a necessary part of our political system, and we would like to keep
both of them at that cost; or it can be because after reasoned debate we have concluded
that it is best that way for some other reason, (such as it is an unavoidable part of natural
or moral life and shouldn't be interfered with); or it can be because we would like it to be
otherwise but can't agree on the best way to change it; or it can be that we cannot discuss
it except symbolically – in other words when we are discussing it we are actually arguing
about something else, arguing about who each one of us is; in other words the politics of
identity. It is likely to be a mixture of some of these.

Identity Politics
 In politics where one's own identity is the real subject, we are chiefly intent upon
identifying ourselves as someone who holds the right sort of opinions, the kind of opinions
we think we ought to have, or would like to have, or would like other people to think we
have. To achieve this we don't have to think for ourselves beyond correctly identifying
what those opinions are, which opinions suit which identity, and match them to the one of
our choice. This process also involves identifying who the typical enemies are to the typical
set of opinions we aspire to having, and begin to hate or dislike those people. One
extension of this is to deliberately identify anyone who opposes us or holds a different
view, as something far worse than they actually are. If someone is a Conservative and we
don't like Conservatives then we call them fascists. If someone is a Labourite and we don’t
like Labourites we call them socialists or communists, and so on. Or we attribute to them
the negative characteristics we associate to people who hold opinions of the stamp we
dislike. This process is very widespread, we are all guilty of it. It comes from a real dislike,
it comes from suspicion and fear , and mistrust. In a society where political opinions (if not
policies) are polarised, there is likely to be a lot of mistrust.
 Political opinions generally held in Britain are arguably far more polarised than the
policies of the parties we vote for. This might be because one or more of the parties we
vote for doesn't offer us the policies that match our opinions. It might alternatively be
because there is no strong link between what we say and what we do, or what we say
others should do, and our ability or determination to make that happen, which might in
turn come from a lack of real conviction. It might be because we speak or think rashly but
vote more sensibly (for lack of choice). It might come from a failure to form ideas of
sufficient coherence to find their way into the manifestos of major political parties likely to
hold governmental responsibility. Rashly held opinions don't easily find themselves into
policy, luckily. In other words, maybe we get better parties and policies than we deserve,
not worse. Many people think our political parties are not worthy of us, the truth might be
the contrary.

Cynicism And Blame
 We like to blame other people. That is part of relying on rashly held and formed opinions,
sometimes based on little more than bigotry of one kind or another. Blaming other people
has become the pass-time of a population sometimes lacking in idealism or ideas. Blaming
other people is a symptom of being powerless, or feeling powerless. Blaming other people
is a symptom of anger, and of cowardice and dishonesty. It is of course a symptom of
failing to or refusing to, see our own faults. It is the fantasy that replaces responsibility.
The ballooning of 'conspiracy theory' about more or less anything, is the last pitiful refuge
of the fantasist in us who refuses to face the truth, because the truth is too unyielding to
sense and feeling and reason; it represents the flight of those cannot fight. It offers us a
world where there is an unlimited supply of other people to blame, a scapegoat for all the
wrongs or circumstances that afflict us, for every unanswered question that confounds us;
it creates a moral shape of instant satisfaction where there is no doubt only secrecy; it is
where certainty meets the unknown; in it is superstition and suspicion that defeats
enquiry, that undermines and defeats virtue and honesty and all the necessary weapons
against unjustly wielded power, the very enemy it seeks to attack. It is a symptom of the
general habit of blaming others rather than facing our own responsibility, of seeing the
enemy in The Other.
 It is this habit of mind that is at the centre of some of our failings politically, as a nation.
Despite all the vigorous discussion, and strongly held opinions, and the healthy innate
scepticism, many people feel as if they are not being heard. We chose to blame other
people rather than expect ourselves to make useful suggestions, or even to form
reasonable coherent opinions. Are we failing to make political progress, and to deal with
our political and economic problems because we are not listening to one another?

What Constitutes “ Serious Debate”?

 All too often, as anyone knows, political debate on television or elsewhere, involves the
parties knocking bits off each other, and trivial attempts to discredit each other. One could
be forgiven for thinking that the purpose of this kind of political debate was to do precisely
that, discredit your opponents. Whole elections are sometimes fought on little more than
that. Such a method of argument, at the very least,  distracts from the necessary and
important aspect, to present and explain ideas and policies.
 This sort of article might here give up a plea for a better, more serious political debate,
based on arguing the substantive matters. But I would like to go one step further. I would
like to suggest that even “serious debate”, as it is usually understood anyway, is not
always the best way to find answers to difficult questions. Because “serious debate” is
often trial by combat, rather than by examination. In combat, factors other than the most
germane can determine the outcome. Justice does not determine the outcome of combat
whether it is physical or argumentative. Trial by intellectual or argumentative combat is
not much more logical a test of ideas than trial by combat was ever a test of right or wrong.
It is easy for a bad idea to defeat a good one in combat. Even in courtrooms, governed by
the judicial process, which in Britain is based on combat, cross examination and legal
trickery can sometimes make a liar out of truth despite the pains that are taken to ensure
that all the available evidence is heard, and that anyone who has something to say is able
to say it. Such safeguards are not made in political debate outside the House of Commons.
In televised debates and discussion programmes, for example, very strict constraints of
time are among the main determiners; speakers can say whatever they can in the very
short space allowed for each subject and then the debate moves on; a victorious point is
made if it trumps the opposing speaker in some way, and it rarely matters how. A victory
in a television“debate” or discussion, (especially those where the audience take an active
part) is determined and judged by all sorts of factors extraneous to the substance of the
points discussed; it is often to do with how the speakers “come across”, with presentation,
with seeming, with their ability to satisfy an audience, outwit and out-shine their
opponent, to seem on a personal level trust-worthy and confident, fluent. Aside from their
superficiality, those elements rely also on the sympathies and prejudices of the audience,
or of the national mood. A popular fool can easily defeat an unpopular wise man in these
sorts of 'debates' and 'discussions'.
 Of course people can sometimes see through these obscuring clouds, and can make good
judgements, but it is hard to see how any of these factors actually help.

 When the defeat of your opponent's idea, and the triumph of your own is the main
intention, Truth itself is likely to be the loser of the debate. For indeed no idea is perfect,
and many neglected ideas have something of use about them. Argumentative combats
don't necessarily discover the good or the bad in ideas. After hearing a combative debate
one is left with a feeling of frustration and injustice, as well as a sense of futility and
hopelessness, as if the truth will never prevail; greater tolerance usually seems further
away than it did before the debate, and deeper understanding can seem an impossible
dream, to be achieved in some rarefied environment rather than something that can be
found by Everyman.
 There are usually, in politics, at least two ideas in a debate at one time,  debate per se
cannot fully accommodate either of them, the form of debate sets the one against the
other, and each idea survives or falls according to how they withstand hostile attacks in the
time and in the manner allowed. Better circumstances for explaining and developing an
idea are when there is a willingness on the part of the interlocutors to listen to, and if
necessary assist in, the exposition of the idea. Imagine that, imagine a politician on TV
trying to explain his ideas or policies, and the other politicians asking him questions about
them, and helping him to develop them, to test an idea and see if it works. They might ask
difficult and testing questions, but most importantly, they would allow him to answer
them, and try to make the idea work as far as it can work. In such circumstances, it might
be possible to find and develop ideas that might be useful, no matter whence or from
whom they originate.  If the purpose of debate was to find the solutions we need, surely
this would be the best way to do it, for each idea to be given a chance to be explained in
full, without the need to be fending off attacks while doing so.
 On TV especially, it is commonplace to see two , (or more) ideas getting a bad hearing at
once, because they are in conflict with one another, instead of seeing one idea at a time
explained properly. Indeed, on the  Newsnight  format of programme, the typical way of
presenting someone’s views is to confront them with someone else with diametrically
opposed views in the hope of  a particularly bad-tempered exchange. Typically nothing is
learned or gained; passions are inflamed and mutual understanding and tolerance seem
further off than before.
 The trial by combat has has gone so far that even when a politician does have a chance to
speak on his own without detractors present, he spends much of his energy on a defensive
and sometimes deceitful response to anticipated criticisms. The fear of unfair criticism and
ridicule has made politicians seemingly unable to concentrate on the requirement upon
them to come up with ideas. The long habit of being tested by the often misleading and
trivial practise of the media, has made them what we could term defensive, afraid of
exposure, preoccupied with protecting themselves from attack. This has gone so far that
we can now see in political parties an inability to frame their policy proposals for an
election with anything else in mind than propaganda for their election bid. Convincing the
electorate out-weighs the need to find solutions to problems facing the country, which
come a poor second place. It might be argued that this problem is inherent in democracy,
however it would be more accurate to say that democracy can be undermined by parties
who allow the short term interests of their party to lead them to forget their purpose to
serve the country. When the political process is reduced is this way, anyone involved in it
is afraid to abandon the tricks for fear of losing. It is like estate agents using falsifying
lenses for their photos to make the rooms seem bigger; once the practise takes hold each is
afraid to abandon it in case their houses seem small. Intervention is necessary, we need to
renew our grip over what we are doing rather than let ourselves drift into unreason and a
degraded political system.

Is It Reasonable To Suppose That Political Ideas Can Be Discussed In This
 Does a non-combative way of discussing political ideas mean anything more than either
politeness or fudge? Well, to start with, if politeness means listening to and giving a fair
hearing to people with ideas different to your own, then additional politeness in politics
might be constructive, and the benefits of that have been mentioned above. Would it
merely mean that distinctions between one thing and another were fudged? No, I don't
think so. On the contrary, more accurate and careful and unbiased consideration of ideas
(which of course this is about) would make for clearer and more accurate distinctions to be
made; it is pre-judging that blurs distinctions, it is a failure to listen and understand that
makes false distinctions, and misses real ones. The suggestion here is for better more
accurate discussion of ideas, instead of making decisions based on prejudice and misplaced
anger or resentment, or on simple misunderstanding. Making clearer distinctions certainly
doesn't result in making everything, making ideas, seem the same. It has the opposite
effect, we see differences clearly when we know better what things are.
 Take for example the main difference between the Labour and Conservative positions at
the upcoming election (2015); the question of whether or not to borrow to increase
government expenditure, in order to create growth in the economy. The two sides are
pretty diametrically opposed on that question, and the people too seem to  completely
trust one idea or the other. The first thing to say about it is that neither side knows for
sure if their own idea is going to work. They believe it is, they hope it is, but they don't
know. They don't know because in economics you cannot with confidence predict all the
outcomes. If we could we should surely be better off than we are, and free of unexpected
events that plunge us into difficulties. By extension of course, they don’t know that the
other side's idea
isn't going to work. They ought to hope it could. They ought to be in eager
discussion with the proponents of it, to find out if it would be more likely to work than their
own idea. Perhaps they have done, but we can doubt it.
 Secondly we could say that each idea has certain attendant difficulties and side-effects.
These ought to be known by their proponents. But does the knowledge of these effects
enter into their own way of discussing them and presenting them to the public? No, they
don’t. That is left to the opponents, whose cries are derided and dismissed. Both sides say
that the other side are fools or worse, Labour are painted as profligate and the
Conservatives are called cruel. Neither side are willing to credit the other side with good
intentions, (the same as their own, to solve the economic problems). It took Labour some
time to even admit that their intention, to increase government spending and end the cuts
made by the government, meant they would make further borrowing, to in fact increase
the current rate of borrowing. This is now out in the open and insofar as the electorate
understand the simple limitations to increased borrowing , the “debate” is able to take
place. When they are asked about this, Labour reply that the government too is
borrowing, and  imply that this means that it is insincere in its determination to reduce the
budget deficit. And so it goes on. The Conservatives say that Labour created the debt and
that if elected they would do the same again, borrow money and create debt. On the face
of it that is true, although it needs some additional facts; the spending was made suddenly
by Gordon Brown in 2004 after years of restraint and balanced budgets, because he was
frustrated at having done nothing yet to alleviate poverty; for a Labour government that
is and should be regarded as a serious failure. For the country, for the poor, it meant the
difference between hardship and alleviated hardship. And despite what people like to
think, many Conservatives do care about the plight of the poor; they could easily
acknowledge the partial desirability of Labour's borrowing despite its unhappy effect on
the national debt. The spending proposed by the Labour party is for an entirely different
purpose; it is intended to create growth in the economy. It wouldn't cost the government
much to acknowledge both these relevant facts. That wouldn't prevent them from pointing
out that  it is debatable whether spending based on borrowing would work, or if it would
merely add to our problems by further adding to the debt; Also, that it is not to be taken
for granted that considering our debt to income ratio, further loans would long be available
to a British government  on reasonable enough terms. Labour too, when they criticise
government cuts as if they were devised merely as a way of making life hard for the
population, could acknowledge that the government's purpose in making spending cuts is
to reduce debt which is, at least in many people's view, dangerously high, and that the long
term aim is that it will reduce debt, and enable recovery. They might also acknowledge
that in fact the cuts are not aimed at the poor, and that the government has in many ways
tried to avoid their impact upon the poorest. (When any government makes spending cuts,
as even Labour governments have done, they will always affect the poor to some degree as
much of government spending is to alleviate poverty)  That wouldn't stop them from
arguing that recovery might be helped by government spending and in their view growth
is impeded by a shortage of money, that they believe can be eased by using borrowed
money. The government could reply that growth would not be helped by the growth in the
public sector, as would be generated by government spending, but by the private sector.
And so on.
 All these propositions and answers can be questioned and further explored. It might be
fruitful, in terms of the debate, to examine thoroughly each proposal. Of course there is
nothing to stop newspapers and broadcasters doing that, but I would suggest that it is
important for politics, for democracy and people's faith in it, that politicians are seen to
participate in the attempts to examine each of the two proposals, and indeed any others. If
they don't participate then they are likely to look as if they are beneath, not above, the
real debate such as it is, taking place in the media. It is an
examination they should be
leading, whereas they are leading the
debate, by each one being as partisan and polarised
and unyielding in their position as it is possible to be, neither side engaging with the other
while the debate goes on elsewhere. Rightly or wrongly, this gives an impression to many
of the electorate, of untrustworthiness. This is because as each side is un-nuanced and
exaggerated in its criticism of the other and speaks untruths from that position.  People
are left with the feeling of “not knowing who to believe”, as if they are faced only with lies,
and indeed that is partly the case.
 Therefore, in this very important question, it is the polarisation of the politicians'
positions, that seems to obstruct rather than lead or help, the examination of the problems
in the economy. Their conduct of the “debate” leaves much of the electorate bewildered
and angry. Nothing is explained to them, and the atmosphere of bad faith created by the
un-nuanced bickering between politicians prevents any such explanations being given. The
result is that on a personal level, person to person, as might for example be noticed on the
internet, there is a crudeness and descent into blame and rebuttal that is the enemy to
understanding or enquiry. The danger of this is that the political process fails to deliver the
best results. And that means if fails to deliver the best possible policies. It means that as a
country we follow a path based on our collective inability to engage with each other in a
reasonable way and together find the solutions we need. Collective stupidity you might call
it. It should be added that this is not solely or even chiefly that fault of the politicians
themselves as we, by our own conduct and habits, ensure that we get the politicians we
make necessary or likely.
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