Against the Grain: The ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of Talking About Politics
Jonny Griffiths and Morgan Wellington
It wouldn’t be an outrageous claim to say that over the past several years mainstream political debate has been tilting steadily towards the right, and aspects of far-right ideology and far-right talking points have become more commonplace and have at times been the driving force of ‘the discourse’. In some ways this is understandable, the Conservative Party has been in power for around a decade, while in The States Trump has generated endless controversy, so it makes sense that left wing politics has taken a primarily oppositional role particularly within the scope of parliamentary politics. However, it appears that this trend has become somewhat pervasive in ways which are arguably concerning for the general public and the terms of their political engagement.
With the political agenda in the UK having been set by the right for this extended period, general political discussion has shifted to accommodate this, and we are at a point now where moderately left wing political figures such as Jeremy Corbyn are considered ‘too radical’, and even fairly politically centred issues have become ‘oppositional’ as shown by the footballer Marcus Rashford’s petition to extend free school meals into the holidays being strongly rejected by the current government. Traditionally, talking about your pay, taxes, and communism have always been considered ‘taboo’ despite them very much being political issues. The fear is that this body of political topics which shouldn't be discussed, or appear to be ‘radical’, is growing in a way that can stifle open and effective political speech.
In comparison, the Brexit process has been a constant source of debate, a movement that’s origin can be greatly attributed to UKIP and some of the more far-right members of the Conservative Party. Furthermore, there has recently been a reignition of concerns over refugees entering the UK, where much of the debate has centred around some of the very unsavoury takes of right-wing political figures. In response to this, the Home Secretary has proposed some measures alarmingly similar to the concentration camps that the US currently operates on its southern border. Of course, we cannot escape the fact that the pandemic has taken centre-stage of political theatre for the better part (ha ha) of the year, but even here the political response has been entered into on right wing terms. The idea that the safety and economic wellbeing of ordinary citizens has to be balanced against the interests of those who profit from normal functioning of society has been entertained as a legitimate starting point. Moreover, the granting of contracts for the provision of key resources such as PPE and effective test and trace systems to private entities with financial ties to the Conservative party has been widely accepted without too much more than a slap on the wrist from some media outlets and political figures.
So what’s the real problem here, and what is to be done about it? The problem is that the orthodoxy of right-wing politics is becoming pervasive in a way that casts both the left and the centre in oppositional roles, with limited scope to engage in proactive political discourse while despicable far-right ideas and policy become legitimate talking points. This can be seen in the ‘debate’ surrounding the treatment of refugees mentioned before, as well as the willingness of the current administration to condemn the teaching of anti-capitalist ideas and the politics of the BLM movement in favour of ‘balanced’ and ‘less radical’ political ideas. In this way, the growing right-wing hegemony on political discourse is an increasing threat to free speech principles and to the effective operation of our democracy. If the left and the centre are unable to be proactive, provide ideas for change and establish these ideas in the public consciousness then public discourse, which is so crucial for democracy, will begin to stagnate. Problems such as rising levels of inequality, unemployment and homelessness in the wake of the pandemic and the ever-looming threat of climate crisis that current world leaders are seemingly unable, or unwilling, to resolve will remain.
There isn’t an instant solution to this trend but there is something that we can all do right now which is actually very simple, and that is to talk about politics. Particularly learn and discuss left wing ideas and policy as they provide ‘oven ready’ alternative viewpoints that the mainstream debate sorely needs, if not to correct it, at least to invigorate it and pull the debate back towards the quote on quote ‘centre’. Getting people talking about alternative ideas and being politically engaged is hugely important to effective democracy and tackling the issues which don’t seem to be getting addressed.
Bringing these things up can seem like a daunting task, as while building political awareness activity is important, it isn’t the sort of thing most people want from their casual conversations (which is part of the problem). So to help, Jonny is going to talk about how he has found doing just that, and provide some reassurance and advice about engaging in lively political debate with family, friends and co-workers.
SO you want to talk about communism? Or at least some left leaning ideas like maybe: worker unions, defunding of the police and freedom of movement? Well talking about these ideas with friends, family or colleagues isn’t always easy since, as pointed out above, they are normally considered somewhat taboo. However, we have to start somewhere and as a person who regularly annoys all his loved ones with this sorta thing I’m going to give you a rundown on how I think it is best to go about it.
Start with your family or close friends
Everyone’s family situation and friendship circles are different but these are the circles most likely to listen to what you have to say and are a great way to build your confidence in talking about these topics. I started with talking to my parents, who for context self-identify as “centrist”. I’m not really going to dwell on the shouty back and forth I ended up having with my dad between “If I put the money in to start up a business I should get most of the profit” and “No just because you start a business doesn’t mean you can exploit the labour of the people you hire” but instead talk about how I found this experience. Firstly, it was frustrating, having a back and forth where we both made the same point over and over again, but also in a way I found it quite reassuring. My online interactions with leftist talking points had given me the impression that I was going to just be dismissed on the grounds that my ideas were too “radical” or for talking about politics in general. But I found that talking to someone in person forces them to take what you’re saying more seriously, especially when that someone has to spend time with you and can’t just log off or fuck off somewhere else. Graduating from friends and family I started talking a lot more with…
Talking to co-workers
Talking to people that I don’t interact with outside of the work environment about left politics brought back that anxiety from before about them just calling me an ushanka wearing, Lenin loving demon blooded communist and then executing me on the spot for my devious thought crime. Because of this I avoided talking to co-workers about it in front of my boss or in ways I thought were too brash. I didn’t just rock up and say “Hey what do you think about abolishing the landlord class and nationalising various institutions?” I’d normally wait for the classic “what did you do with your evening?” or “what did you get up to at the weekend?” and then I’d mention I’d been reading some leftist article/book or watched a video about whatever topic I want to bring up. Much to my delight and surprise my co-workers were content to engage with and talk about these ideas despite how little they are talked about in mainstream traditional media.
While I don’t think I’ve made socialists out of any of my fellow coworkers I have encouraged them to engage more in politics and gained confidence in talking about my ideas because I know they do not consider them to be outlandish. This has also taken away some of the fear of talking about these things in front of my manager because in the back of my mind I was worried these ideas might lose me my job but now I know that my co-workers would, if not defend my positions, defend my right to think and express these positions.
Final two things
Firstly, I work in an industrial chemistry setting with a longish training process (about 3-4 months) so I think in my circumstance the idea of being fired for having strong leftist opinions is actually very unlikely because the turnaround cost for firing and replacing me is more difficult than a retail worker. If you do work in a job with high turnaround I would advise more care when talking about unionising or any ideas that oppose the financial interests of upper management.
Secondly, be prepared to have something to say on the USSR if you are talking about some of the more radical points even if that thing is “I don’t think it’s worth talking about” everyone I’ve spoken to about this who is old enough to of been alive when the USSR was around has at least mentioned it. This doesn’t mean that everyone will bring it up but probably worth having something to say.
The point we’re driving at here is that we think it is important for you to engage in politics and be more critical about what is considered “normal” and “acceptable” discourse. If you need some places to go for talking points we have left a few bits and bobs just below. Hope you’re having a lovely day :)
Novara media a UK based left wing media group: https://novaramedia.com/
The Young Turks an American progressive youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheYoungTurks?app=desktop
Thought Slimes video on landlords: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2EWQ4v9wbA
Philosophy tubes video on the housing market: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qihG6AGjkRk