Jo Cox, Public Service, and Civility in Public Life

By now many of you will be aware of the brutal murder of Jo Cox MP. My heart goes out to her family. Her husband has issued a beautiful and moving tribute with a call to ‘drive out hate’. Her family’s wish to make something good out of something so awful shows an amazing ability to seek justice and reconciliation rather than hatred and division. As we reflect on how best to accomplish these aims I thought that I might contribute a few thoughts on this topic. I welcome your response and practical suggestions as to how best to further this conversation.

I’ve been alarmed at the coarseness of UK public debate for awhile. Of course, there are long-term, repeat offenders like the Daily Mail and the Sun. Ed Miliband was subject to a vicious, coordinated campaign of “othering” and character assassination by the press after he came out in favour of Levenson. Many people I know either delighted in the pillorying or ignored the blatant attempt at cultural gerrymandering. The public debates at the last General Election didn’t so much see the careful parsing of policy plans and their implications so much as old-fashioned witch trials. A telling point, supposedly, in the public debate was when a women who owned a company in Leeds repeatedly yelled “I just don’t trust ye!” over Mr Miliband’s vain attempts to explain his policy platform. Of course this attitude in favour of snide condescension was exemplified over the years by the sneering awfulness of Jeremy Paxman. Every interview was designed to be a confrontation, not a conversation. Paxman had a monopoly on virtue and the politician being questioned must be deliberately evading an honest admitting of abject failure. Every night. For decades.

Now we have everyone to the Right of Chairman Mao being denounced as “Tory scum” by someone or other; the Right of the Labour Party denounce the Left; Cameron plays the Islamophobic card against our new Mayor of London; Boris adds to his litany of outrageous rhetoric seemingly weekly; and Farrage makes a living out of channeling the most sordid depths of our collective national id. But we get the politicians we deserve. Focus groups see a lack of any kind of respect for politicians. Politicians are deemed to be self-serving, on the make, and unacquainted with basic norms of decency. So much of our political class is content with cozy deals around appointing donors to the House of Lords, fiddling expenses, or soliciting donations with little regard to democratic transparency. The problem comes in our reaction to it: rather than look to politicians who seek to abolish or reform the Lords, take up the cause of election finance reform, or pay MPs more and simplify or abolish expenses, we simply say “poo to the lot of them”. This is a grave, grave error. And this language of venality, corruption, and quislings creates an intolerant political culture that leads to awful tragedies like today’s. It is on all of us to repair the damage we’ve contributed to. If we want the public servants that we need then we are going to have to act with the decency and civility that cultivates similar virtues.

I ran for parliament in 2005 because I was an idealist. I cared about public services, the war in Iraq, and constituent service. I spent countless hours delivering leaflets and trying to engage with the public because I believed in the ethos of democracy. I changed political party because I wrestled with my conscience and evolved intellectually (despite inevitable charges of being self-serving or convenience). I want to engage more with service in my community for the same reason that I have been blessed with some time and some ability, and I feel compelled to offer some of my meagre means to make others’ lives better. Considering Jo Cox’s educational background, potential earning power, and CV as a researcher at Oxfam and other bodies, my bet is that she too was motivated by leaving her community, her country, and the world in a slightly better condition than if she had lived for herself alone. Not that we would have acknowledged if she was being grilled on TV, denounced for some small comment about Blair/Corbyn/Cameron, or was lumped in with “those politicians”.

My Facebook has been swamped in recent weeks with broad denunciation of those with differing views on the questions of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. The issue is a complicated mixture of historical, economic, geopolitical, philosophical, cultural, and constitutional inquiry. I know extremely smart people on either side of the issue. I myself spent a long time torn as to how I would vote (I was going to blog about it today but am abstaining in honor or Jo Cox’s memory). Yet I have seen either side dismissed as “elitists”, “racists”, “Ignoramuses”, “willful self-harmers”, “economic illiterates”, “geriatrics”, “millennial dreamers” etc etc etc. This is no way to engage our rational faculties in order to publicly debate our fellow citizens. Each side claims to have patriotism on their side, but huge numbers of advocates of each side act with obvious dislike to hatred of those Britons on the other side of the issue.

So let’s make a pledge in light of what happened today:

  • Let’s address arguments rather than personalities
  • Let’s assume good intentions rather than evil intent
  • Let’s listen, pause, think, and only then speak
  • Let’s maintain the idea what whatever our conclusion, it could be wrong
  • Keep an open mind
  • Respect those who one debates with
  • When someone denounces “politicians”, remind them that if they are not offering themselves for public office then perhaps they should check their own arrogance
  • Don’t criticise unless one has a practical idea for how to do something better
  • Actively seek out intelligent comment from those inclined to disagree with you
  • Never take ourselves too seriously
  • Beware the clarion call of “common sense” or being seen to agree with people one wants to be associated with rather than something thought through from first principles with an active hunt for data that might go against one’s priors and not just a ego-fueled search for validation
  • Nobel Prize economists don’t agree on matters of economics. Science doesn’t always work to an idealised form of the scientific method. Historians disagree over fact and not just interpretation. There is very little in life that is worth debating and also self-evident. If you think there is then you have not thought hard enough about the issue.
  • Being a good person comes before “winning” an argument.

Blogs, facebook, and public fora in times of tragedy often descend into a need to be seen to be grieving as a way of demonstrating our own sensitivity, moral superiority, and righteousness. This might be yet another incident which simply sees the same dance we always see. Or we could reflect, turn the critical spotlight on ourselves, and actually grow as a people, a politics, and a country. It’s up to us.

Addendum: All of this might well read as incredibly superior than thou and Pharisaic. I am just as bad as most of you reading this. “Physician, heal thyself” is totally fair comment too.

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5 Comments

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  1. Lots to think about here. My key concern is that the attitudes you describe flow in from all sides: the media, politicians themselves, peers. It really is a barrage on all fronts. I assume that most people don’t know more than a handful of politicians, so I wonder where we could hope for leadership to emerge?

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    • I think it needs to come from us, what we consume, and campaign groups too. For example, I have been shocked that after each major recent macro-scandal in UK politics- donors in the Lords, election spending, expenses etc.- there has not been one major campaign group who ca channel public anger in a positive, reform-minded direction. Think about that- it’s amazing. You literally need one person who can make a good-looking website and a few policy suggestions and you’d be all over the BBC commenting on the topic. Yet everyone gives up. Let’s start with not giving up. By fighting fire with water, so to speak.

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  2. Genuinely great article, Simon.

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  3. Excellent article. A good prescription.

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