If two cars reach an impasse in Britain, and one flashes its headlights to the other, it means “come on; I cede”. In France, it means “stay there; I’m going to push through”. Imagine the scene where a Brit in France or someone French in the UK gives or sees a flash and interprets it the wrong way, judged against the dominant convention in that place. There’s a crash, and both aggrieved parties leap out of their car, each thinking they’re in the right as they talk at each other, not only in a foreign language but from a completely different context.
Neither is right, neither is wrong; but both think both that they are right and the other is wrong, by sheer force of cultural conditioning. It’s not merely a question of perspectives, but of failing to realise that the lessons and values of your culture have been so subtly but fundamentally and perniciously codified into your worldview that you don’t think to ask if there could even be another perspective. What is this wanker doing? He flashed his lights for me to come on so I drove forward but then so did he and now there’s car on the ground and we’re both shouting at each other.
I think about this often.
I went to bed last night as Twitter was just starting to twitch with news of something happening around London Bridge, assuming that when I woke it would either have been jumbled mis-reporting or the latest in the capital’s history of terror attacks.
This morning, as we read and listened and reflected, my daughter was playing on some foam climbing blocks when she slightly overreached her balance and toppled slowly off, crying – mostly from surprise – when she hit the floor.
It is a trite point, but, curiously, a legitimate and profound one too, that ‘being safe’ doesn’t – rather, shouldn’t – mean that one must never come to physical or emotional harm; it means an environment wherein you are confident in exploring and playing and expressing yourself, knowing that if you overreach and come to harm, there is kindness, support and comfort.
‘Never coming to harm’ is a dangerous fiction, one that legitimises and excuses authoritarian behaviour and policies that actively damage those for whose lives you are responsible.
Vervet monkeys have a proto-language, a series of different calls they can make to warn the troop of a specific danger. The call for ‘eagle’, for example, triggers them to look up and to scamper for cover.
I’ve been thinking about the word ‘demagogue’, in light of the Brexit campaign and of Trump’s improbable rise. A demagogue is someone who builds power by appealing to emotions and prejudices rather than to reason, and it’s a word I knew but which had slipped from my mind.
As much as I find demagoguery distressing and worrisome, working as it does hand-in-glove with an unsettling and seemingly growing anti-intellectual rhetoric, I take comfort in the fact that we have a word for it. It says that, as a culture, we are on to you, sonny-jim. We recognise what you’re doing. We know its danger.
We might not all react in as sensible and predictable a way as the vervet monkeys do when one of their number shouts “Snake!” but at least we too have a word we can shout, because we’ve seen this slimy, venomous behaviour before.
I voted in the EU referendum to remain, and the turmoil and ugliness that has followed in just the few days since the result was announced further strengthens my belief that an outward-looking, collaborative, humanitarian approach is the correct one.
Though born in Scotland, I was living in England when the Scottish referendum was held, but had I been able to vote I would have voted to remain a part of the UK – for basically the same, broadly federalist reasons. However we choose to move forward – with the Scottish government stymying a UK government that has chosen to listen to the referendum, in order to hold the UK and the EU together; with Scotland breaking up the union but quickly joining the EU; with chaos; or with another path I haven’t envisaged – what I hope for more dearly than anything is that when the dust settles I find myself living in a country which is characterised by compassion, respect and a cheery, hopeful confidence.
I ask that as we navigate the coming weeks and months you strive to maintain a high standard of debate, and, whatever route we chose, that the destination is one which is welcoming, progressive and kind.
Thank you for your time and for your service.
Dear Mr Howlett,
My congratulations on your election as MP for Bath. My politics diverge from your party’s – in some cases quite sharply – on many issues, but I’ve been given no reason to think you’re anything other than a good man and a hardworking public servant.
As one of your constituents, I would like to highlight my concerns with two national policy proposals from our new government.
The Conservatives’ plan to replace the Human Rights Act with the British Bill of Rights strikes me as being driven by dogmatic, ideological and even jingoistic objections to Europe rather than by pragmatic concerns, and I am deeply worried that recusing ourselves from a charter that spells out and protects self-evident truths both further isolates us from the rest of the global community and has the potential to expose vulnerable people to harm.
My second concern is with the Communications Data Bill. As someone who works in the technology field, I believe the proposed bill won’t – can’t – achieve its objectives, and that the costs to our society would be too high a price to pay even it did.
I’d be grateful if you’d outline your position on these two issues, and if you support the government’s proposals then I would like to hear your reasoning. If like me you oppose them then I look forward to cheering you on as you do so.