Trevor Phillips has written an excellent piece for The Times about the assumption, distressingly prevalent just now on the Left, that demolishing an opponent’s character is an adequate way of responding to that person’s arguments.
Moral condemnation pre-empts any attempt to understand what your adversary has to say. It becomes impossible to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a proposition advanced by, for example, Boris Johnson, because you have already declared him, on the basis of a few unacceptable phrases extracted from a huge body of journalism, guilty of crimes so severe he does not deserve a hearing.
As Phillips remarks,
“It’s forbidden for Labour Party members like me to describe Johnson as anything other than a racist and an Islamophobe, but while he is guilty of many distasteful acts I think I can say with certainty he is neither of those things. In fact, it’s this kind of brainless tribalism that has got us into our current mess.”
“Brainless” is right. There is a laziness about this approach. It becomes an excuse for neither thinking, nor seeing, nor hearing. The pleasures of self-righteousness are preferred to the effort of trying to understand another person’s point of view.
We all do this to some extent. Many of our judgments are made instinctively, or on the basis of experience, and have to be. We tick the box which says we have read the terms and conditions because only then can we buy the railway ticket.
At a more elevated level, Edmund Burke defended, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, the value of traditional beliefs and prejudices:
“You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we [the English] are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame on ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”
It seems to me that it is in this spirit that Jeremy Corbyn holds true to the socialism he imbibed in his youth. He knows he is not gifted enough to invent some new creed – which of us is? – and he believes there is wisdom in the tradition to which at a tender age he devoted himself heart and soul, and of which Ralph Miliband and Tony Benn were more eloquent exponents.
There is a sort of humility in Corbyn’s approach, and also an often justified suspicion that those who want to shake his faith are by no means his friends, and intend to lead him into false paths, where before he knows it, he will find himself tricked into defending capitalism, colonialism, the United States and its allies including Israel, the enslavement of suffering humanity by corporate interests and a world ruled by a hereditary caste of expensively educated plutocrats.
But such attitudes can end in the ludicrous situation where certain words or affiliations are considered, quite automatically, to disqualify someone like Johnson from receiving a fair hearing.
These terms include “free-market”, understood to mean exploiting the workers, “privatisation”, understood to mean defrauding passengers, patients, tenants etc, and “Eton”, understood to mean the offensively unfair chance for blockheads to acquire such a head start in life that they end up running the show.
Someone should compile a glossary of these terms, modelled on Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas.
But perhaps we all have a yearning to suppose that we in some way belong to a superior group – a better family, school, football club, pub, regiment, town, county, political party or nation – and are entitled to look down on those outside it.
And when so many forms of discrimination have been outlawed, there may be an incentive to cling all the more fiercely to those which are still allowed.
Much the greatest damage is done, not to those who find themselves regarded as beneath contempt, but to those who are themselves so contemptuous they can no longer arrive at a true assessment of anyone who disagrees with them.
Johnson has been made to work his passage, but one cannot pretend that in the end he has been held back. He may have derived advantage from being underestimated by those who supposed that because he went to a famous school, he must be incapable of understanding the modern world.
Corbyn, trapped in a blinkered and reactionary form of socialism, is more truly to be pitied – unless, that is, he too has been underestimated, and is about to surprise us all.