Europe: in or out? Left wing or right wing? Welcome migrants or abandon them to their fate?
There are a lot of big questions out there at the moment.
As I browse through my social media feeds, these and other topics come up again and again, and a lot of people seem to have very clear views on where they stand on these issues.
There are people who strongly advocate getting out of Europe before we drown in a sea of regulation, lose our sovereignty and get sucked into an unwanted federal Europe; and there are those that say to leave would be madness leading to loss of influence, financial ruin and despair.
There are people who think that Nigel Farage is the best thing since sliced bread; and there are those who think that Jeremy Corbyn is the answer to the country’s prayers.
And there are those who see migrants as victims of an unjust and cruel world who deserve our pity, understanding and support; and there are those who see them as free-loading, unaffordable, potential jihadists who should be kept from our shores at all costs.
And these are just three of dozens of issues that swirl around the turgid waters of the internet on a daily basis. There are also the sticky questions of what to do about the NHS, benefit payments, religion, guns, climate change, nuclear power, defence spending…
The list goes on. And some people seem to have clear, strong and entrenched views on all of it.
Sometimes I envy those people.
Their certainty must bring a certain peace of mind: they can go about their business untroubled by doubt and inner conflict; they can shout their views from the rooftops, smugly confident in their own righteousness; and when a vote is required they can place their cross in the box without a single moment of indecision.
I entirely lack that level of certainty on virtually any subject.
Where they see black and white, I see only shades of grey.
Whenever an issue arises, I hear one side of the argument and, generally, see some merit in at least some of it. And then I hear the other side and I see some merit in that too.
I rarely either fully agree or fully disagree with either side. The choice often comes down to the least bad option.
It is difficult to feel passionate or confident about a standpoint like that.
So I envy other people their certainty, but I also worry.
I worry that if they think there is an obvious and easy answer, they don’t understand the question.
There is a quote attributed to Bertrand Russell: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”.
I worry that he was right.
When you see such confident views expressed on social media they are rarely expressed to encourage open discourse, discussion and debate, they are merely seeking like minded people to read it, agree with it and share it.
Facts and balanced argument are rarely presented, merely opinions which generally have their origins in self-interest, dogma and prejudice. If any sources are used to back up the viewpoint expressed they are carefully chosen to support preconceived ideas, or interpreted with a flagrant one-eyed cognitive bias.
Dissenting voices are ridiculed, vilified or unfriended.
Or worse: people receive death threats or, if it is a woman who has the temerity to disagree, threats of violent sexual assault or rape.
Why does any of this matter you might ask. Let those keyboard warriors rant away, who does it hurt?
But I fear it does cause harm.
In addition to the harm it does to those abused online, it also damages our ability to employ rational thought and engage in constructive dialogue; it skews public opinion; and it stifles the political process.
Let me unpick that.
I have already described the way that this behaviour stifles debate online, but that now seems to have become the norm offline too. More and more speakers have been prevented from speaking at universities in recent years just for holding views deemed to be unfashionable, unpopular or extreme.
But universities are not supposed to be safe from opposing views, they are supposed to be where such views are encountered, debated and considered, so that students develop good reasoning skills to help them see through the cognitive bias, distorted facts and bullshit that surround them every day.
And public opinion is skewed: inevitably, with the big, contentious issues, one side dominates the social media world. Not necessarily the side that most people agree with, but the side that shouts the loudest; the side that is most militant; often the side with the most radical views.
Being bombarded by one-sided views on social media day after day is going to wear people down. People like to belong; they feel uncomfortable if they hold views distinctly at odds with what often seems like the rest of the planet.
And the mainstream media pick up on the social media zeitgeist and report it as news, giving it more credibility and influence.
How long can the silent, moderate majority stand up against this tsunami of one-sided dogma?
And finally the political process is stifled. Whenever a political party, from either side, puts forward a policy, there is going to be a section of the community that disapproves. They may be a vocal minority, but they spew forth their venom on social media, attracting like minded people, and before you know it there is a huge outcry. And then the government does a u-turn.
You could argue that this is a good thing: democracy in action; the will of the people. But it’s not.
It is the will of the vocal minority.
And good or bad, to move things forward decisions have to be made and policies enacted. Sometimes these policies are necessarily unpopular, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are wrong.
So there we go, that is my rant.
Is there anything that we can do about it? I don’t know, it’s complicated, but I think we should debate the issue sensibly.
Am I right? Possibly, at least in part, but if you disagree prepare to be ridiculed, vilified and unfriended.