There is a right and wrong way to talk politics.

On Monday the 29 March, David Lammy gave an outstanding example of how to engage in a political debate with a stranger. If you have not seen the clip, I recommend you do. An elderly white woman named Jean, called into his LBC radio show and entered into a debate with him over whether he, as a Black British man with Guyanese roots whose parents came to Britain in the Windrush generation, was in fact ‘English’.


Lammy shows us how it’s done

At this point, it would have been easy to become angry and dismiss Jean. Instead, Lammy gave an articulate, historically grounded and balanced argument for why he did consider himself English, despite Jean’s opinion.

Let’s be clear, there is no correct or incorrect way to respond to racism or prejudice. As a white person, it should go without saying that it is not for me to judge how a person of colour should respond to Jean’s comment. The point here is that by responding in the calm and measured manner that he did, Lammy turned what could have been a very short, or heated debate into one that gave listeners a chance to learn something and, maybe, change their minds. It is not about whether Jean changed her mind about David Lammy’s Englishness; the important point is that, maybe, some of the thousands that have now listened to the clip did. If we seek to persuade rather than quarrel, opinions can change and change can happen.

So what’s the problem?

In recent years, politics has become more divisive. On social media, hate speech, verbal abuse and disinformation have become widespread, making political discourse seem at times more like all-out warfare. This issue spans the world. From countries such as the USA, Brazil, India, and here in the UK, the focus has increasingly shifted to how individuals communicate with each other on social media. Importantly, researchers, members of the media and the public have begun to wonder why such discussions so frequently become personal, abusive and toxic. In this environment, it is tempting to see politics as a struggle between right and wrong, between the corrupt and the pure; but this sort of thinking only rationalises and legitimises the demonisation of anyone who takes a different stance.

Why should we care about this?

Why is the way we talk about politics important? This question concerns all of us, especially since key debates over the importance of political education are taking place in Parliament. The recently announced All-Party Parliamentary Group on Political Literacy (APPG), includes politicians from across the political spectrum and experts from universities and organisations like Shout Out UK. The APPG is a significant indicator that political education is starting to be taken much more seriously by politicians.

The purpose of the APPG is to ensure that the political literacy of young people has a central role in the reinvigoration of British democracy. Political literacy means learning about democracy and our role in society. It also means learning about the innate power that each of us has as a result of living in a democracy, and the bonds that we’re able to form with like-minded individuals. When we discuss politics or current affairs, either in person or online, we are engaging politically. The language we use is important here. Language can mean the difference between projecting negativity, through stereotyping and discrimination, or positivity when we are considerate and respectful of one another. Lammy showed that even when someone says something offensive or racist, the argument is won by informed reason, not anger.

How can we engage better with each other?

If we really want to see the world around us improve, we must consider what the purpose is of engaging in political discussion. Instead of mocking those who disagree with us, our aim should be to get our view across, to identify those we agree with, and to confidently challenge those with whom we disagree.

Too often, it’s easier to become frustrated with those who do not share our views. We may think there is something wrong with them, or that they lack understanding of the ‘facts’. We may even think that such people are stupid, close-minded or ignorant.

This sort of polarisation is widespread in Britain. Recent research has shown that on average, around 40 per cent of British people see those who voted differently from them in the Brexit referendum as ‘hypocritical’, ‘close-minded’ or ‘selfish’. This translates to an unwillingness to respect and engage with individuals that think differently from us. But if we fail to engage with those who share a difference of opinion, we’re never going to change anyone’s mind or expand support for the policies and issues we care about deeply.

We can all learn something from David Lammy and Jean’s conversation. Politics is not about talking your opponent down. It’s about expressing your unique viewpoint in a way that shows you also understand and respect another’s.