“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts”, said the British philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Despite this having been said some 80 years or so ago, it seems to more accurately describe the political realities today than at any other time in recent memory.
Today, the cacophony of certainty has infected political debate and all but eliminated the notion of engaged and open-minded discussion.
It has squeezed more moderate opinion – to the detriment of all.
We see this in how politics plays out on social media. If you’re not ardently pro or anti, there’s little point getting involved in the debate. Sometimes, this drifts into abuse.
We see this in Claire Kober’s resignation as leader of Haringey Council citing “bullying” and the months of bitter deselection battles in which “moderate” councillors were picked off and replaced by Momentum-backed candidates.
We see this in the debate around Brexit where both ardent remainers and fervent leavers are obstinate in their refusal to learn and accept another’s point of view.
Vince Cable’s recent statement in which he said older generations voted to leave the EU for “nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink” is a just another stark reminder that such unthinking certainty persists.
Such certainty is insidious.
If it continues, we’ll stop listening to those we disagree with. Many evidently have already. The echo chamber will create ever-narrower policy options. It will make our political arguments – and our political parties – ever more extreme.
Unthinking certainty doesn’t always reflect reality. Most situations and decisions are neither black nor white. They are much greyer.
Getting to the right answer means being ready to explore the issue properly. Being ready to be wrong. Being ready to look for the best in opinions you may not immediately identify with.
As T.S. Elliot wrote, between the idea and the reality lies the shadow.
And our politics needs to reflect this. We need to be open to critical discussion. To make the best of every situation. To listen to others, and the evidence. To make a rational, reasoned response.
Theresa May’s Mansion House speech was a welcome change in tone. Noting the benefits that can be gained by leaving but also accepting that some things are going to be more difficult.
Let’s hope this prompts others, on all sides of the political divide, to reassess their unthinking certainty.
A version of this first appeared on Bright Blue