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I think libraries should terrify those of us who wade about in politics. A library collates the stories of all our great fuck-ups and displays them next to thousands of truths we don’t have time to learn. A library is a snigger: Think we did bad last time? Well how’re you gonna do any better when there is still so much you do not know?
This muddied water drowns, but we manage to hold our gaze above the surface. Politics can kill you or take away your livelihood, but somehow we manage to stumble brave with our opinions. Maybe this is just human arrogance, though there is a kinder explanation. There’s safety in being small. Politics accumulates millions of thoughts and that gives us hope, not because we can’t do much damage but because maybe that accumulation tends towards the truth. Maybe when we share stories we develop a common understanding stronger than individual ignorance. If our confidence is to be more than arrogance, we have to learn to listen.
In third-form Social Studies, I was taught that there are two types of statements. There are facts and there are opinions. A fact is a Truth, with all that capital-T truthiness it commands. An opinion is just an opinion: impenetrable, impermeable, just existing there unbothered. This was a stupid thing to teach 13-year-old Jade. Facts, we never know for sure; opinions, never so unfazed by the shifting face of reality. The 13-year-old’s constant defence – that’s just my opinion tho – is laziness. But while our vocabulary has changed, we still insist that the ideologies of others are unchangeable.
The idea that ideology is rational self-interest deserves some blame. For some reason this is associated with the Libertarian Right, but when the Left goes on about self-perpetuating power structures they’re making the same point. When we believe that our politics are bought by he who treats us best, we see no point in listening to others. It’s healthy, being aware that we tend to support policy which betters us. Be aware of your biases; check that privilege. But to abandon politics to fatalism denies it complexity. At least in a narrow economic sense, people often vote against their self-interest – see affluent Aro Valley Greens, see the conservative working class. Politics is expression of tribal identity, and tribalism allows us empathy. Besides, policies are often much too complex for narrow analysis of power, and that which empowers can still hurt – see masculinity and being a man, see income inequality and social sickness. We convince ourselves that our interests are ethical because we think ethics matters. That leaves us the opportunity to hear that they’re not.
I know it’s cliché blaming the internet, but humans need our ration of social discourse. Once, we were forced to take from those who surrounded us, no matter their beliefs. But we’re lazy, and it’s easier to talk when we won’t be challenged. The internet allows us to avoid critical self-reflection. Those who’ve moved from the provinces to Wellington will know the feeling. In small towns, you have to listen to everyone; in cities, you’re given a bubble. The internet is this on a planetary scale. It’s easy to talk only to the like-minded, but it’s not healthy. We need to start talking to the randoms who surround us.
But that’s difficult. Ideological bubbles develop their own language. Feminists talk about intersectional agency, conservatives talk about the fragility of the social fabric, libertarians talk super-economic rents. We develop shorthand for the discussions we’re used to, making our conversations inaccessible to those unaccustomed. We talk past each other, not knowing when we disagree and when we don’t. We ask different questions and find ourselves shocked when we hear different answers.
There is a solution, but it’s hard. It’s hard listening to numpties tell us we’re wrong. But even harder is really smart people telling us we’re wrong. Find good thinkers who pinpoint exactly the part of your social theory which is vulnerable: I promise you, they exist. If you’re right-wing, read Naomi Klein; if you’re left-wing, read Tyler Cowen. If you’re pro-war, read Chomsky; if you’re anti-war, read Hitchens. If you’re a liberal, read Douthat; if you’re a conservative, read Tumblr. Being told you are wrong by intelligent people hurts. But eventually it will make you stronger.
We don’t need to read Foucault or Hayek to know society is complicated. For politics to work, we have to combine our stories with the stories of others. If we ever do find social progress, it won’t be in this echoey cavern. It’ll be out there, out where you can ask a question and not know how you will be answered. Wading through the political mud is terrifying when we can’t know what our boots might kick. Our brightest illumination is that offered by others, people who can point exactly where we might be stepping wrong. They’re telling us, I promise, but we need to learn to listen.