In a superb column for the Scottish Daily Mail (which you can find online here), Chris Deerin implores us to see the big divisive issues of our time from the other side’s point of view. Nevertheless, I’m going to start off by disagreeing with him – specifically over the following passage:
“If we’re honest, most of us think the worst of others too often and too quickly. And when we make the wrong call about someone, we stick with it. Yet all this jars with a lesson we relearn every day — most people are fundamentally decent and generous, and doing their best in the face of the challenges and burdens that life presents. That’s certainly how we’d like to be seen ourselves.”
This is a self-refuting argument. If “most people” really were “fundamentally decent and generous” then “most of us” wouldn’t “think the worst of others too often and too quickly.”
And yet Deerin’s main argument still stands because whether you think that humanity is basically good or fundamentally flawed, the conclusion is the same: we’ve no right to view ourselves as essentially better than the people who disagree with us.
With the Scottish referendum campaign entering its final stages, Deerin takes issue with those who think that “given… how these things have played out elsewhere in the world” the debate has been civilised:
“…this is to judge us beside the genuinely troubled, the ethnically fraught, the militarised — the oppressed and their oppressor. This is not who we are or the company we keep: it is a ludicrous comparison. We should instead weigh ourselves against ourselves — against the peace, prosperity and stability that have largely defined us. Against the solidarity and empathy that have knitted us together.”
There is more to civilisation than the absence of barbarity – and in the course of the referendum campaign that extra something has been damaged:
“I’d say the referendum has split our little nation quite savagely. It has built walls around us and between us. As the Yes campaign has wielded its chisel and crowbar – the tools of separation – and the No blowtorch has soldered and welded in response, structural cracks have appeared. Failures of empathy and solidarity are visible all over.”
Whatever the result later this month, a repair job is in order:
“If there’s a Yes vote I’ll be truly gutted – I’ll have lost not just the argument, but my country; I know those on the other side will feel the same if it’s a No. But either way we’ll all still be Scots and we’ll all still be democrats…
“Now is not the time to deny each other the benefit of the doubt – in fact, it’s never been more important precisely because it’s never been harder. So, empathy and solidarity, the effort to see your opponent’s inner nobility: we’re going to need a great deal of it all in the months ahead.”
A referendum on British membership of the European Union is a receding prospect. Still, we’d do well to learn the lessons of the Scottish campaign, because the issue won’t go away and the divide runs right through the heart of the Conservative Party.
In urging both sides to assume the best about each other, I must declare an interest – which is that I hold an outrageous and unpopular position on the issue – i.e. I’m genuinely undecided. Whether we stay in or get out, I believe Britain will face serious dangers as a result.
Certainly, I’ll have all the more respect for anyone on either side who admits that the choice is not an easy one, but a genuine dilemma.