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Whatever happened to a simple “I don’t know”?

Forget nuance and don’t even think about changing your mind, says Sali Hughes – public debate has become a bear-baiting sport with zero tolerance for uncertainty

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By Sali Hughes on

#MeToo – is it entirely good or uniformly bad? Russia – evil or misunderstood? What about rape culture? Please sum up your thoughts and feelings for me in three concise minutes. And the British judicial system – are you unequivocally for it or wholly against? Do you wish to allow in all immigrants indiscriminately or refuse them all without consultation because we’re full? I’m afraid I’m going to have to rush you before we go to the weather.

It’s hard, isn’t it? The only certainty most people could claim is that, with the exception of gin and rollercoasters (no, yes), a black-and-white position on most things is pretty pointless and usually stupid. And yet these, more than ever, are the extreme, simplistic positions sought by television, radio and newspaper producers preparing items on the complex, nuanced and expansive issues of the day.

Think about it. When was the last time you heard two pundits on mainstream television or radio news with even the slightest bit of leeway or self-doubt in their opinion? And this, it seems, is exactly what the programme-makers think we, the punters, want. Adversarial debate is how we handle things now. Forget nuance and a hint of reservation, and don’t even think about changing your mind. Black/white, yes/no, for/against. In order to have integrity and conviction, your position must be entrenched, absolute and hostile. It’s like having a boyfriend you love, but who you wish wouldn’t be such a idiot when drunk and who can’t manage his finances for shit, and your friends telling you you’re either going to have to dump him or marry him, love. Vote now.

I was recently asked to appear on the radio to discuss female actors’ decision to wear black during the Hollywood awards season, to show solidarity for the #MeToo movement. Was the protest good or bad? What would it possibly fix? Well, nothing, is the answer. It was one small gesture to make headlines, making it impossible for showbiz journalists, whose biggest draw is red-carpet gowns, to avoid mentioning the systemic and prolonged sexual harassment of women in Hollywood. It was something – just another piece in a jigsaw. It wasn’t everything and nowhere near enough.

Why engage in thoughtful, considered debate when bear-baiting is so much more entertaining?

This opinion didn’t fit the brief, apparently. They’d already booked someone from the right-wing press who ABSOLUTELY HATED the whole thing, thought it complete and utter nonsense, and so the natural counterpoint would be someone who thinks the red-carpet protest was unimpeachable and flawless.

Why engage in thoughtful, considered debate when bear-baiting is so much more entertaining? Conversations conducted as sport, usually without any intention of solving problems or possibility of reaching constructive consensus, are good for ratings and mirror a divided nation post-Brexit vote. But how many people in real life are as entrenched in their positions as the rent-a-gobs on telly and radio, who probably see way more grey off-screen than they’re allowed to acknowledge?

A black-and-white, unmovable position is not the default in most people, because any adult with a modicum of self-awareness knows that it’ll trip you up almost every time. As an atheist, I spent my youth quacking on idiotically about how organised religion is the root of all evil and yet here I am, at 43, co-helming a non-profit group tackling hygiene poverty, speaking frequently to vicars using Church of England properties to bed down homeless people for the night and to house makeshift food banks for local people – atheists, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and agnostics alike. As little as six months ago, I was unilaterally delighted and thrilled that the Doctor in Doctor Who was to be a woman, until I realised my sons had lost one of the only entirely positive, pacifist male role models on telly, and lo, my feelings remained positive but ever so slightly conflicted. It’s almost as though the world is messy, complex and inherently problematic.

If real life were a tabloid phone poll, most people would be forced to spunk 38p on “I don’t know”. Unless faced with the local pub bore, the vast majority of us have normal conversations in which opinions ebb, flow and evolve. I was recently at a party when my friend Colin said he didn’t believe in positive discrimination, that the best person should always get the job. I said I agreed, but what makes that person the best for the job – the training, experience and responsibility more readily afforded white, male people than others? How does that ever change without positive discrimination? He said, as a white, working-class, gay man, he’d busted a gut to develop his career and found it hard to be classed as privileged. We talked, we reasoned, like sentient beings capable of change. John Humphrys would have sooner cut to the shipping forecast than endure another word.

The implication is that if one is sitting on the fence, then one must be ignorant and uninformed, when in fact, the more you know, the less sure you feel about anything

Many real-life conversations begin with “I’m not sure” and yet, on air and online, every day brings new referenda, where pundits must ink a tick in one box as though committing to a podium on Runaround (one for the millennials, there), while a breakfast TV host infinitely less charming than Mike Reid shouts at them to get a bloody move on. Social media doesn’t help of course – and is probably at least partly responsible for the phenomenon elsewhere. The implication is that if one is sitting on the fence, then one must be ignorant and uninformed, when in fact, the more you know, the less sure you feel about anything. It’s usually nonsensical for anyone to come down hard on either side of almost any worthwhile debate.

Conviction is admirable, but ironclad certainty isn’t really working. “Balance” is now about giving a platform to any extreme-right bigot with a big enough following of St George’s flag avatars on Twitter. And don’t you dare call yourself a Labour supporter unless you unquestioningly cheer on every last utterance from Jeremy Corbyn – you’re either with him or against him. White supremacists, communists, Holocaust and climate-change deniers, birthers – these are just differences of opinion now; it takes all sorts to make a world! They’re just “telling it like it is” (being an anti-social arse), “fearlessly saying what everyone’s thinking” (blaming everyone else for their bigotry). Their combative, dogmatic online discourse, exploited by the media’s disingenuous quest for “balance” (viral shares and clicks), has moved the goalposts so far apart that the new battle is no longer even between left and right, conservative or liberal – it’s between everyday moderate and lunatic extremist.

Most of us can’t be absolutely sure of much. That is the joy of being a human being – to learn, adapt, reconsider, accept, stand true to one’s own beliefs while acknowledging there is often weight and value in another viewpoint. If only the media would concede that, very often, the correct, relatable and populist answer is simply: “I don’t know. Can we talk it through?”


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