how the death of real tribalism has led to a dearth of real debate

I was at the Guardian Membership event this week with Jeremy Hutchinson and Alan Rusbridger.

Both extremely sharp minds, of course – but Hutchinson displayed the bravura of his hundred years over a hundred minutes of often biting humour; coupled – equally I must say – with a grand and inspiring show of the sincerest humanity.

I tweeted many of my impressions that night, though one thing did puzzle me: it wasn’t streamed live.  Afterwards, a friend suggested that perhaps this was because a lawyer was involved, and – of course – the hall was filled to the gills with people of the same profession.  Where a lawyer goes, so do the precautions of their profession perhaps?

Whatever the reason, it was a grand pity that a record of the event doesn’t remain.  Hutchinson displayed a magnificent mind, at the peak of his carefully-honed stand-up-comic-like ability to deliver, quite deadpan, the funniest of expressions, to an audience quite ready to be tickled.

I expected to find the evening interesting; I didn’t expect to be so amused.

One thing in particular stuck out for me, however, and is the subject of today’s post: one of Rusbridger’s questions addressed the issue of the establishment – the establishment Hutchinson came from and yet spent his life consistently beating back.  From the DH Lawrence/Penguin obscenity case to Christine Keeler, the Dutch spy, Blake, and Duncan Campbell’s unmasking of the security establishment’s nomenclature, the bizarre crowding together of darkly interested parties at the highest levels of government seemed to faze him very little.

Yet it wasn’t all bad.  At fairly important levels, real political debate was sustained: if you were Tory, this didn’t mean you couldn’t discuss issues of intellectual import with your counterparts in Labour or Liberal circles.  And at the same time, certainly from the tenor of Hutchinson’s descriptions, the tribalism of sterile disagreement for disagreement’s sake seemed less patent than now.

After all, we’re always complaining of the current violence of rhetoric and posturing our politicians delight in exhibiting.

Yet I wonder if this was – if this is – really the case: I wonder, actually, if tribalism really wasn’t productively greater then than now; destructively less now than then.

Let me explain.

New Labour and Blair have been praised for much of their so-called socialism by stealth.  Nevertheless, surely one considerable downside was precisely that element of stealth: as triangulation drove parties and people to blur the lines of difference, so it became far more dangerous to engage intellectually with people outside your tribe.  Suspicion you might be on the point of crossing a line of betrayal has over the years increased the posturing and rhetorical violence already mentioned.

Paradoxically, then, it’s been the death of real tribalism – those times when a Tory was always a Tory, when a Labourite never contemplated any other set of values and political attachments, when a Liberal knew what acquiescing to would make them unliberal – that’s made it impossible for us to talk to each other in quite the same way.  It’s almost as if modern politics involves us all taking on the uneasy mantle of intellectual double-agents.

We are so essentially untribal any more, so alike in so many of our worldviews and mindsets, that the need to protest our innocence becomes evermore necessary – at the same as fundamentally futile.

If my voters may think that by talking and engaging with a Tory, I’m sending out a message of future allegiance, where’s the freedom to truly debate the essences of political thought?

Yep.  Tribalism, useful tribalism, is dead; and with it, through our own personal cowardice, a dearth of real political debate.

All we are left with is a society of the morally fearful, where engaging with other souls who think differently from ourselves is just one step too far for a five-a-day planet where everyone, but everyone, must act the same.

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One comment

  1. […] As one of my favourite websites shuts its doors to a more collaborative way of doing politics, unable to have battled successfully against the tide of cruel flotsam which Coalition politicking and austerity values have more and more brought our way, I remember another attempt by a thinker called Paul Evans to do something similar on the cusp of the 2010 general election.  His site was called Political Innovation, and it looked to cross political boundaries – much, perhaps, as a wider politics used to do. […]

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