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Monday, 16 September 2013

Think about it

I was talking recently to an acquaintance about an aspect of the sex industry that had been in the news. A local authority in England had proposed that men who were ‘kerb crawlers’ should have their driving licences revoked as a way to deter them from chasing prostitutes. My acquaintance expressed the view that the kerb crawlers should indeed be punished by law and that the punishment should not only be strict, but highly visible. “Take their driving licence away from them” she said, “then name and shame them in the press.”
Fair enough, I thought; she is perfectly entitled to her view. But when I asked her a couple of straightforward questions about the possible consequences of these actions, particularly as they related to the income, welfare and life prospects of the women who were currently working on the street, her firmly-expressed views started to unravel.
Once she had been nudged by a few gentle ‘what ifs?’, this person started to change her opinion quite dramatically until -within a few minutes and entirely of her own volition- she had moderated her views to the point that she had started to advocate a regulatory framework supporting the rights and the safety of sex workers, allowing the women and their clients to go about their business in relative peace within ‘properly-licensed’ premises.

I’m not relating this story in order to illustrate my ability to get someone to change her mind on a tricky topic; I’m relating it to show that an intelligent person appeared to have very firm views on an issue, yet those views had clearly never been exposed to examination, had never been challenged with so much as a fleeting thought about what that issue might look like when viewed from a slightly different angle. In this case, the individual concerned had never considered the possible consequences of getting what she thought she wanted; that is, the law to support her gut reaction to kerb crawling. She considered it a distasteful activity and wanted it discouraged or even outlawed. Something, she thought, had to be done about it. But her idea of that ‘something’ changed more or less as soon as she started to think about it.

On an all-too-regular basis, I hear (or read, via social media) folk espousing views that sound like they have been formed by a process which has managed to avoid even a modicum of thought. Some of us seem content to adopt ‘off-the-shelf’ sets of opinions which take no cognisance of the possibility of ambiguity, nuance or subtle degrees of complication on any single issue. Depending on which politicians we like or dislike, depending on whether we read the Guardian or the Daily Mail, these easy-fitting, off-the-shelf opinions stop us considering the possibility of nuanced positions on the EU, the NHS, climate change, Syria, the economy, Scottish nationalism or a host of other topics.

It might be over-egging the pudding to claim that independent thought is actively discouraged, but with huge black holes of dogmatic consensus on the left and right, each exerting a massive gravitational pull towards rigidly-held orthodoxies, it would appear that prickly intolerance is now the default position for lots of folk.
But to have any hope of developing a mature cultural discourse, one in which dogma would be recognised and rejected as a feeble weapon on the battleground of ideas, we’ll need more folk to escape those gravitational pulls, more folk to resist those illiberal impulses.

In short, we’ll need more folk to start thinking about stuff.

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