Nuance, Debate and Retrievers

23 June 2022

Nuance, Debate and Retrievers

Different Strokes

by Mike Hampson

We have two dogs in our home, a golden Labrador and a Retriever. Both are good natured, gentle and easy to look after but the Labrador spends much of her time looking for something to eat, even just after she has been fed; it could be the bark used to cover the garden beds; a patch of wild flowers carefully sown became an expensive (and hopefully tasty) salad for her; if she hears the fridge open she comes tripping into the kitchen, and on walks she has her nose to the ground and scrapes up fragments of all kinds of things. The retriever on the other hand is much more chilled out; yes she looks for her food at the allotted feeding times but other than that she will happily sit and stare out of the window, or lie in the garden gazing into the small wood behind our house for hours on end contemplating what goes on in there, and on a walk she would rather play with squirrels, or try to, than scavenge for rabbit droppings.

I got to think about this difference in their outlook on life after an unusual minor falling out among friends in an email group the other week. There is much talk about how the internet and social media have made debate and differences of opinion much more polarised, heated and toxic in recent years, but I think that technology has only hastened the speed and size of audience rather than made the actual differences any more extreme, or black and white; and with that speed we no longer have room for nuanced and considered debate. A tweet only has so much space, so building a case has to be done succinctly and also has to be eye catching. As a result we classify people very quickly; you can be Right or Left, Racist, Woke, Transphobic, Homophobic, Tory scum or a Leftie, and once labelled as such, any number of views are attributed to you, generally without any attempt to obtain a rounded picture of your opinions.

There is no question that the media help to create an exaggerated view of the sense of difference. News and Current affairs programmes, trying to claim balance, often have two people with diametrically opposed views to ‘debate’ topics of the day, with a tendency for the discussion to be between extremes. This in turn normalises sitting at one end of the spectrum or the other.

As I write this the Railway workers strikes in Britain are attracting extreme talk, Union leaders are branded Marxist and railway bosses Fat-Cats, with shareholders of the railway businesses seen as creaming off huge profits. Surely it is time to focus on a search for common ground and areas of agreement to temper the discussion; that may not make for good listening or viewing ratings, but it is the standard approach to any structured form of negotiation.

It was probably always thus. Once the Earth was believed to be flat, and the scientists proposing otherwise were vigorously denounced; similarly with the theory of evolution which challenged the theology of the time. But, in time, balanced arguments won through and became the accepted norm. Once disagreements would probably have been resolved by an assassination, a war or an arranged marriage of convenience, with all sides sticking firmly to their version of the truth. So yes we have had heated debates for many generations with far worse outcomes than receiving a lot of abuse on social media.

The truth is that people have more in common than not, but the climate today escalates things so quickly that there is no time to explore or find that common ground. If we could all be a bit less Labrador, focussed on our single minded outlook and a bit more Retriever, observing quietly what is going on in the wood, we might better understand others viewpoints before jumping to conclusions by tagging them with a label. And if we do have to label ourselves as either Labrador or Retriever at least both are good natured and loyal.

tile photo: Angel Luciano on Unsplash

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