What we think we think

With the general election coming up, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time talking to people about politics. Not just about the various candidates and their parties, but about what these parties stand for and the vision of the future that they are painting for our country. Yet the more people I talk to, the more I become convinced of one simple fact. None of us really know what we think about anything. We just think we do.

Let’s take an example. Thanks to the recent referendum on our membership of the European Union, one of the big issues – for politicians and newspaper editors, at least – is immigration. Living in a small town in Somerset, this isn’t really something that has a particularly massive impact on us here. But it doesn’t stop pretty much everyone having strong views on it. Which is fine, of course. Everyone is entitled to their views. It’s just that they don’t always seem to know what those views are.

Conversations generally start along the lines of “There are too many immigrants here, Simon. We shouldn’t keep letting them in. We should be encouraging them to go home.” So far, so Daily Mail. Nothing too extreme, just a mild dissatisfaction with immigration policy. And we’ll ignore the issue of exactly how few immigrants there actually are in any particular part of the country and the positive economic contribution that they make to our society, because those are facts and these conversations aren’t generally about facts.

And so rather than going all Richard Dawkins and throwing some kind of embarrassing middle-aged tantrum, I start to ask questions.

“My wife’s German and she’s lived in the UK for over twenty years. Is it OK for her to be here?”

“Oh, of course. I didn’t mean her, Simon. She can stay.”

“And what about the Pakistani family that runs the shop by the hairdressers? Should we be sending them home?”

“I know them. They’re really nice. You know I didn’t mean them, Simon.”

“So who did you mean.”

“Well, you know. Immigrants.”

At this point, the conversation can go one of two ways. The person I’m talking to can have a sudden epiphany moment, in which they realise the contradictory nature of their position and agree that, actually, immigration isn’t really such a problem after all. Frankly, this doesn’t happen that often.

Alternatively, they start yelling at me. Calling me a liberal elitist snob who thinks he knows better and should just shut the hell up and let the Tories extricate us from the European Union and lead us nobly onward to the land of milk and honey. This happens quite a lot, though admittedly people generally don’t use those exact words.

I’ve had similar conversations on a broad range of policy issues, from benefits (we should cut benefits because they’re all scroungers, though your sister the single mother can keep her child benefit and my uncle who hurt his back falling off a roof is, of course, perfectly entitled to his incapacity payments) to schools (teachers are a bunch of lazy shirkers, with their short working days and long holidays, though my kids’ teachers are absolutely brilliant and it’s terrible that the school has had to stop music lessons because of the budget cuts) to climate change (global warming isn’t really happening, it’s just a bunch of scientists getting worked up, but the weather’s been really odd these last few years and my allotment’s not doing half as well as it used to).

Everybody I talk to has opinions about things. But the deeper our conversations progress, the more apparent it becomes that what they actually think isn’t at all what they thought they thought.

The problem here is that none of us like having our opinions and beliefs challenged. It makes us question not just what we think, but who we are. And that can be deeply uncomfortable. (It’s called cognitive dissonance, apparently, and it’s an actual thing.) Which is why people tend to avoid such discussions in the first place or, if they find themselves in one, turn on their heel and walk away. Or start yelling at me.

But it’s vitally important that we do challenge our own beliefs. Whether that challenge comes from within or from some bloke like me at election time. Because it is only through such challenge that we can get to their heart of what we truly think and believe. And so I’ll continue to talk to people about politics, no matter how uncomfortable it may be for all of us. Let the yelling commence.

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