Discussing the EU referendum debate yesterday I came away with two home truths – two lessons I’d been slow to take on board.
One, personal attacks and slights. It’s easy to get carried away and turn a rejection of a policy or approach into an attack on an individual proposing that policy. A dismissive phrase ad personem damages your argument, because it diverts attention away from the case you’re making. And if others around you don’t share your feelings about that individual, they won’t be won over.
I’ve been highly critical of some right-wing Tories, and the Tory press. In my eyes justified – but it’s arguments that matter. Doubting the competence or integrity of those who take a different view (from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove downwards) doesn’t help my case and will not change minds.
Zen Master Dogen (writing in 13th century Japan) has useful words on the subject:
‘Even when you are clearly correct and others are mistaken, it is harmful to argue and defeat them… It is best to step back, neither trying to defeat others nor conceding to mistaken views. If you don’t react competitively, and let go of the conflict, others will also let go of it without harbouring ill will. Above all, this is something you should keep in mind. [My italics.]
In other words, we don’t live in an ideal world. But avoiding competition and conflict if you can will serve your case much better.
The other lesson relates to a specific subject, immigration. Talking to a friend (she herself supports staying in) I was confronted by her experience working two days a week in a local doctor’s surgery. The great majority of nurses and staff support the Leave campaign, and do so with a real passion.
Competition for jobs from immigrants is a key issue, and some have been directly affected themselves. Older workers feel that immigrants who are younger and willing to work for lower wages are taking their jobs. Parents argue that the children of immigrants are putting pressure on the availability of places in the schools of their choice. In other words, the argument for them is not intellectual or academic – broader considerations about the national economy, the European ideal, trade deals – all are secondary. (Housing is another issue they might have raised.) They are affected at a personal level.
And I, recently retired, am not.
They were not issues that came up talking to teachers and staff as a (retired last year) chair of governors in an local secondary school. But I haven’t since my own children’s primary school days talked at my length to parents, and I think many would have very different views. Not necessarily favouring the Leave campaign, but I’d have heard much more about the pressure on secondary school places.
Why are the polls suggesting a close vote on 23rd June? Yesterday reminded me why that is.