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Divided We Stand?

There may not be as many laugh out loud moments as usual at the moment, but I had one inadvertently on Sunday morning when I was flicking through the BBC news website, where they show a copy of the front pages of the main national newspapers each day.  The Mail on Sunday is about the last paper I would buy, given the choice, but perhaps I have been wrong all these years and it turns out all the hostility they have generated was meant to be ironic – though I rather think it was not. 

The headline that made me emit a guffaw of choked laughter asked the question: ‘What HAS become of the tolerant Britain we love?’  It was printed across a picture of a man wearing a baseball cap and a face mask throwing a punch at a man with dreadlocks in his hair.  It may have been meant to suggest it was a fight between a white man and a black man in an argument over a statue, but a closer look suggested both men were white.  It could still have been an argument about a statue, of course, because there are plenty of them going on just now, but that did not seem to be the point.

The Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, despite their differences at times under the recent respective editorships of Paul Dacre and Geordie Greig, have been newspapers that have caused much disharmony over the years, with their criticisms of immigration, their hostility to Europe and, in all honesty, everything foreign.  They have promoted a consistently right-wing, divisive agenda where the only important life metric seems to be the value of your house.  I therefore think there is a perfectly reasonable answer to their own question.  One of the key factors in there being even less tolerance than usual is that divisions have been consistently stoked and provoked by papers like the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail – for example, when they criticised three High Court judges over a decision about Brexit with the headline ‘Enemies of the People’.  Where is the tolerance there, I wonder?

It is a myth, of course, that Britain, any more than other countries, has some glorious utopian past where everyone knew their place in society, everyone rubbed along swimmingly, and the humble poor man doffed his cap to the lord of the manor and thanked his god for being allowed to show such deference.  For example, I have recently been talking to some of our Year 11 pupils who are thinking of taking history next year.  We are looking at the seventeenth century and we got on to the topic of the plague of 1665 that struck in London, killing thousands. 

The theatres and pubs were closed, and people were forced to self-isolate if they had symptoms, although it was a rather more brutal experience, with doors nailed shut and red crosses daubed on buildings to indicate a sick family.  Meanwhile, the rich were able to leave the city and decamp to their country estates, thereby significantly increasing their chances of survival.  As the Great Fire of London blazed the following year, the ‘tolerant’ citizens of London lynched any French people they came across, wrongly blaming them for what had happened.

One of the many myths we often hear regurgitated is from the Second World War, when it is claimed that the ‘Spirit of the Blitz’ made everyone rally round and pull together to defeat the threat of Hitler and the Luftwaffe.  While there is truth in the conclusion that the bombing of civilian populations in times of war makes the people under the bombs more likely to unite and resist the threat with greater determination, the pictures of cheery East End folk singing ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ in tube stations while sheltering from the bombs is hugely misleading, and conveniently ignores all the crimes and misdemeanours that were going on in the blacked out towns and cities all over the country.

If you want a really pessimistic assessment of our species, you could try reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, where he writes that people are by nature illiterate and innumerate, quantifying the world by ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘many’ and by rough estimates.  They understand physical things as having hidden essences that obey the laws of sympathetic magic or voodoo rather than physics and biology: objects can reach across time and space to affect things that resemble them or that had been in contact with them in the past.  They think words and thoughts can impinge on the physical world in prayers and curses.  They underestimate the prevalence of coincidence.  They generalise from paltry samples, namely their own experience, and they reason by stereotype, projecting the typical traits of a group onto any individual that belongs to it.  They infer causation from correlation.  They think holistically, in black and white, and physically, treating abstract networks as concrete stuff.  They are not so much intuitive scientists as intuitive lawyers and politicians, marshalling evidence that confirms their convictions while dismissing evidence that contradicts them.  They overestimate their own knowledge, understanding, rectitude, competence and luck.

It does not get much better, I’m afraid, when he goes on to say, ‘The human moral sense can also work at cross-purposes to our well-being.  People demonise those they disagree with, attributing differences of opinion to stupidity and dishonesty.  For every misfortune they seek a scapegoat.  They see morality as a source of grounds for condemning rivals and mobilising indignation against them.’  All of which sounds remarkably like the behaviour of the tabloid press in this country for years. 

Pinker was highlighting these deficiencies to make the point that, despite all our failures, we are still not beyond redemption, with the right leadership addressing the right issues.  Although we are often  an intolerant and divided species, fearing strangers because we are hard-wired to be tribal and distrusting of others, we are also capable of the most exceptional achievements in art, science and humanity.  Progress is always possible, and progress has been the overwhelming story of the history of the species. 

We must hope that the extent of the crisis caused by the pandemic can be the catalyst for genuine change across the world, from the climate to greater equality – both racial and economic.  However, we must also study our history to help us recognise that change can be slow to come, too easy to resist and often ends up being unfulfilled.  We have the power to make a difference, but do we have the will?  As Nelson Mandela said, ‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate then they can be taught to love; for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’

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