I have a former work colleague who is happy to watch people arguing partisan politics online for hours on end. Me, I couldn’t do it, it would drive me insane. But so she tells me, she has spotted an interesting trend. Something interesting is happening in the Brexit/Scottish independence debates.
We all know the script. Usually, it is the conservative/defending position that takes the more aggressive stance. The opposing side is the ‘enemy’. Although generally speaking, the progressive position plays less dirty, with repeated exposure over time, both sides can become as bad as each other.It is now standard practice for political campaigns to use paid agents provocateurs to veer public opinion in their favour or away from where the discourse might naturally flow. These campaigns also act as magnets to organic trolls acting out their fear of the unknown. You can always tell which ones are which. The paid trolls give themselves away every time in their sheer stamina and consistency in their use of poltical jargon. It is laughable to think that only the Russians could be capable of such a thing!
The organic trolls, however, are real people. Sad, maybe. Bitter, maybe. But real nonetheless.
And this is where tentative change is occurring.
Taking an argument about COVID resrictions in the UK as an example, the engagements might start with the usual mudslinging but if the time is taken to interrogate the reasoning behind certain assumptions and postions, what becomes clear is that a) the ‘troll’ is acting on misinformation, a misapprehension or a misunderstanding b) they genuinely believe what they are saying c) they are over the moon to discover that they have the wrong end of the stick and d) they are really just scared and want someone to take the time to listen to their concerns. The overriding theme is loneliness.
Of course there are maldoers and idiots among them, but contrary to popular misconception (promoted by the media I have to say), the majority of these bitter, angry people are as sensitive as you or I, they have just learned to process their emotions differently. In the rush to embrace other disenfranchised parts of the community, such as ethnic groups, women or the LGBT community, the old mainstream was pushed to one side by the progressive elites.
Obviously, there are individuals out there who have figured this out and who are willing to take the time to engage on a more human level with their political opponents. They are not engaging from a position of moral or intellectual superiority but as equals. Friendships are forming. Some are meeting in real life over coffee.
I am writing this because I feel strongly that our brothers and sisters across the Pond need to be reassured that this is how it is done. Not by Washington, not Westminster – just us.
Reunifying a divided population is possible but it has to be undertaken in a sprit of compassion – at the grass roots, on an individual level. It is less about finding common political ground than about rediscovering our common humanity. If we can do that, the politics will do just fine.