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A Magazine for Sheffield

Caricatures: Bursting The Opinion Bubble

Anyone who has been following the news recently, or not been keeping their head unusually deep in some sand, will have encountered opinions that they didn’t like, and people who, despite all shouting and insults, simply would not drop their opinions and adopt yours. Or maybe you tried actually to engage in a more sensible debate, and found that this wouldn’t help either, that even the basic facts that make the premise of a debate could not be agreed on. So why is political dialogue so difficult? The problem isn’t helped by the way we caricature other people’s beliefs. People on the left are seen as naive hippies with no understanding of economics and those on the right are seen as cruel and heartless, but these assumptions about people who have different beliefs don’t help us to have a sensible debate. It is compounded by the fact that, for example, when someone says to me that they want to attract companies here by lowering corporation tax, they probably mean just what they said, whereas I can’t help but hear them say, ‘Let’s reduce the money the rich contribute towards public services’. It’s hard to separate the associations we have between ideas, leading us to hear the bad implications in somebody else’s statements. In fact, the person I’m talking to probably supports public services too, but has a slightly different opinion on economics. These caricatures and absurd conclusions of ideas hinder the debate. Then there is the more recent trend of announcing that someone’s opinion is offensive, before refusing to engage with it any further, or criticising a politician who has ‘shared a platform’ with a person. Refusing to engage in debate with opinions you don’t like only serves to polarise beliefs further, if they cannot come together occasionally to discuss their differences. It isn’t always about winning the debate, but about constructing one with opposing ideas. The idea that you ‘normalise’ ideas by engaging with them is interesting, but is it worth the trouble caused by refusing to engage in debate entirely? The last point has me stumped. This is when people cannot even agree on facts. If a journalist has evidence that Trump’s inauguration crowd was small, for instance, then many Trump fans dismiss it as ‘fake news’, even though the evidence is there. And many people believe that a ‘fact’ is basically an ‘opinion’. If these semantics can’t be agreed, and if evidence is dismissed as fake when it doesn’t fit our preconceptions, then it’s hard to see how any dialogue can take place. Still, any discussion must be more useful than simply laughing at someone idiotic enough not to think the same amazing thoughts as you. I know that an opinion is, by definition, something that you think is truer than an opposing one, but I think it must be worth trying to respect beliefs that people hold. Bertrand Russell once wrote that, to understand another’s belief, “the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt”, but first to have sympathy with someone who holds that belief, and then later to re-adopt a more critical attitude. I’m not saying I’ve ever completely managed to achieve this, nor that you should have to put yourself in the mindset of every racial supremacist or conspiracy theorist you meet, but certainly it's worth remembering that most people are not that extremely different from us, so trying to do this process of understanding, rather than condemning our differences, can’t hurt too much. Just watch how the tone of the debate changes in the next political argument you have if you say ‘that’s an interesting opinion’. Or am I being naive to think that it will solve anything? Maybe I just fit into that leftist caricature after all. )

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