Reclaiming the conversation

I was listening the other day to someone on a video online. He spoke about family. He spoke about personal responsibility. And he spoke about the need for a strong, resilient and just society. I can get behind all of these things. But he then segued into how abortion is evil and how anyone who thinks otherwise is going straight to hell.

As someone who thinks that the topic of abortion is actually a little more nuanced than this, I was already preparing myself for my fiery fate. Because the moment this American gentleman started talking about family, I just knew that sooner or later we’d be getting onto the list of things that should be punished with fire and brimstone.

Thinking about it afterwards, it struck me that we have this whole list of topics – family, faith, freedom and many more – that have become the almost sole preserve of those on the political right and that the rest of us step over like they were the third rail. There’s this whole conversation going on and we’re not a part of it.

I’m reminded in making this analogy of a scene in the West Wing, where the idea of reforming social security is likened to the third rail (the live rail on a railway network) and someone says that’s because if you touch it, you’ll die. And someone else remarks that it’s also because “that’s where the power is”.

Those on the right grasp instinctively the power of such deep-seated emotional themes. They use them to garner support and to galvanise their base. To create a sense of meaning and belonging, a flag around which their supporters can rally. Everyone else stands quietly off to one side, trying not to get shocked.

Meanwhile, those of us who – like me – aspire towards a sort of socially-liberal, left-leaning, progressive polity have a tendency to look down on this sort of thing. Perhaps we regard such matters as closed and the need for further discussion unnecessary. Perhaps we don’t consider them to be overly important in the modern world. Or perhaps we’re just not that fussed.

But I think it might be something more. I think we do care about these things. I think we do care about family and its role in today’s society. I think we do care about freedom and how it can be squared with the needs of the community. I think we care about all these things and more. We’re just not that good at talking about them. About standing up for what we think.

My idea of family may well differ from that of my right-wing friend on his YouTube channel. But that doesn’t mean that he’s the only one allowed to talk about family values. I may not be religious, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about faith. Hell, I’ll talk about guns if I want to. And we’d be in a much better position as a society if we could all talk about abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism and all the other things that push right wingers’ buttons without feeling that we’re committing a mortal sin.

Sure, these are all complex issues. And, despite what some on the right might have us believe, there are no clear-cut answers. But that shouldn’t stop us from asking the questions. It shouldn’t stop us from getting into the debate. Because to do so is to miss out on the opportunity for us to grow as a society. And we risk leaving the discourse to be driven by those whose vision of a just society may look very different to our own.

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