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5 July 2013

Heresy of the week: British politics is too clear cut

These days it is fashionable to accuse our fence-sitting, consensus-hugging, compromise-loving politicians of being all the same. 

David Cameron would have a two word answer to that: “Len McCluskey”. George Osborne, meanwhile might reply “Ed Balls”; Michael Gove,“Christine Blowers”; Iain Duncan Smith, “Owen Jones”; Boris Johnson, “Ken Livingstone”; and Theresa May could trump the lot with “Abu Qatada”.

British politics is characterised by real differences on important issues and it is juvenile to pretend otherwise. Indeed, it could be argued that in many ways, our political differences are too clear cut – and that far from sitting on the fence, we’re all too ready to hurl unthinking abuse from one side of it to the other.

In a thoughtful piece for Slate, Ian Leslie makes the case for more ambivalence in politics:

  • “Ambivalence refers to the state of experiencing conflicting beliefs or feelings simultaneously. The prefix ambi means both; the suffix valence derives from the Latin for vigor and refers to the attraction or aversion felt toward something. Someone can feel a positive or negative valence. Or both.”

Ambivalence is not the same thing as soggy centrism. Rather than looking for the middle way, it recognises genuine dilemmas – seeing the pros and the cons of contradictory options without pretending that they can be reconciled.

Take the issue of the capital punishment. One can place such a high value on human life as to be sickened by the very idea of state-sanctioned execution, while at the same time seeing murder as uniquely deserving of the ultimate penalty.

Nor is ambivalence the same thing as apathy:

  • “Someone in an ambivalent state of mind is experiencing an excess of opinion, not an absence of it. An ambivalent person may feel very strongly about the subject at hand without reaching anything like a coherent point of view on it.”

Ambivalence should not be regarded as an easy option either. Ian Leslie cites Dutch research in which students were required to consider the issue of a controversial employment law:

  • “One group read a briefing that made a strong argument against the law, while another received a briefing that made both cases with equal force, a standard experimental method for inducing a state of ambivalence.
  • “The participants were then told they would be asked to choose a position and were given a few minutes to think about it. All the while, electrodes attached to their heads measured the moisture in their skin.”

The students in the ambivalent group “literally sweated over their decision.” As one of the reesearchers explained “if you believe two things at once and you’re forced to give one up, then you will experience a sense of loss.”

That’s why seemingly simplistic political narratives are so attractive. By only exposing ourselves to one side of the argument, we can sink back into a comfortable cushion of certainty while congratulating ourselves on taking a principled stand.

Such univalence is the enemy of genuine debate not its friend. At best what you get is a slanging match in which neither side learns anything from the other; at worst one side dominates, effectively shutting down debate altogether  – which for many years is what happened on immigration issues and the question of Britain's membership of the European Union.

Instead of regarding anything short of absolutely certainty as a weakness, Conservatives should therefore look kindly on upon the ambivalent. If nothing else, an open mind guarantees an open debate.


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