Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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27/07/2011

Pacman vs. Pastman

I watched this encounter between Jeremy Paxman, of BBC Newsnight fame, and Stephen Lennon, a leader of the English Defence League with dismay as it points to some of the bigger issues with politics, and wider society, that we now face in 21st Century Britain.

Starting with Jeremy Paxman. I don't think he has ever moved out of the shadow of his infamous encounter with Michael Howard. He has become so defined by his aggressive interviewing style that he has in fact become a caricature. A good interview is one that sheds light on the interviewee's opinions, experiences and underlying beliefs - recent viewing of Paxman suggests he repeatedly fails to achieve this. In his focus on the process of interview - namely, playing the condescending, bellicose anchor man role - he loses sight of the product.

Paxman is in many ways a symptom of the way political debate in this country is pursued generally. The most common mode of debate seems to now involve quoting selective soundbites at your opponent, exaggerating opposing ideas as 'threats' (by implication, to be eliminated) and generally attempting to discredit your opponent personally.

Moving to Stephen Lennon and the English Defence League, I am hesitant to join in the chorus of voices seeking to simply ostracise him, his group and the views they claim to represent. Firstly, because I follow the George Orwell's line of thinking, "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." Our democracy needs to remain open to as many voices as possible, no matter how unpalatable or uncouth. I firmly believe the most effective way to challenge extremist, divisive opinions is by exposing their flaws to a healthy dose of facts and reason. Secondly, speaking as a libertarian, because I think this demonisation of the EDL is indicative of how our Establishment systematically silences grassroots movements (of whatever ideology) who challenge their stranglehold on power - and in doing so, exacerbate the sense of alienation and disempowerment amongst the public (particularly the growing underclass), in turn giving rise to even more extreme, anti-democratic forces.

Having said that, I do take issue with the English Defence League's manifesto and methods. I was once advised that in organisations going through change there are three types of resistance; 
  1. Rational - consisting of arguments as to why a proposed change is idealistically wrong and/or pragmatically unworkable.
  2. Political - opposition to a proposed change by those who risk losing power and privilege if it goes ahead.
  3. Emotional - an instinctive reaction to change based on an (often nostalgic) attachment to the perceived status quo mixed in with a fear of the unknown. 
Arguably this model can be applied to our public discourse about the rise of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural societies and the onset of globalisation. It seems to me that the position of EDL is by and large a sectarian and nihilistic one, that for all its protestations of being rational, finds roots primarily in a distorted, fear-ridden view of societal change and a sentimental craving for a mythical England of yesteryear.

Furthermore, Stephen Lennon and other EDL leaders - for all their talk of peaceful protest - have a clear association with football hooliganism. It's hard not to get the feeling, when you see video footage such as this, this and this, that Lennon et al are organising  EDL marches for a similar 'Saturday buzz' to the one that has driven matchday violence  - rather than any real commitment to ideals. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Which takes me back to one of the first Quaker meetings I attended where there was discussion (in the peculiar Quaker way) of the spontaneous youth protests for democracy across the Middle East and NUS marches against the socio-economic policies of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government (some of which had involved rioting) - and how inspiring it had been to see young people so passionate about change, "flooding out of their temples to put their beliefs into action." An elderly Quaker gentleman rose from his seat to remind the congregation that the fight for noble ideals and the challenging of the old order ("speaking truth to power"), no matter how passionately pursued, should contain a measure of civility. I think this is a Quaker principle that Britain would benefit from.

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