Why you should vote

With a General Election in the UK tomorrow that will likely change the way we live for a generation – either by delivering Brexit (Conservative) or re-nationalising utilities and transport (Labour) – most of the people I’ve spoken to have no idea who to vote for, and, therefore, have decided not to vote.

True, it’s a difficult choice – it can seem a little bit like choosing which plug socket to jam a fork into, because we’re going to suffer either way – but if you’re crippled by indecision, here are some things that might help you out of that deadlock.

The difference between left and right is one of opinion, not morality.

I am sick and tired of hearing this banal, simplistic dichotomy of left=good, right=evil; or, to put it another way, Left is right and Right is wrong. You hear all the time from celebrities, campaigners, news sources and anonymous internet users that if you vote Labour (or Democrat in the US), you’re a good, selfless person who cares about the poor and rescues drowning puppies, whereas if you vote Conservative (or Republican), you’re a selfish, uneducated, boorish racist who hates puppies and never tires of seeking out rivers to throw them into.

The world doesn’t work like that. People can’t be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ based on their voting preference, not least because there are really (realistically) only two choices, and picking one doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say and do, just that you disagree with them less than you disagree with their opponent. Rather than being a moral choice, that agreement or disagreement is simply your opinion on how a society is best structured.

Typically speaking, the Right, whether that’s Conservative or Republican, believes in individual responsibility and the free market. They think people should be rewarded for their efforts and punished for their failings; that independence, innovation and hard work should be encouraged, while dependence should be discouraged. They think a free market with the minimum of governmental oversight will give the consumer a fair deal based on the mechanism of competition, and that tax-breaks for the rich will make them spend more money and found new companies and invest in philanthropic enterprises, so the wealth will trickle down throughout society, and everyone will benefit. Essentially, they think people should be left to their own devices and all will come good.

The Left of Labour and the Democrats believes in collective responsibility and the regulated market. They think society controls who succeeds and who fails; that hard work is not properly rewarded and that society needs to take responsibility for your failings. They think the market needs governmental regulation because the mechanism of competition does not give the consumer a fair deal, and that tax breaks for the rich only make the rich richer. Essentially, they think the only way it will all come good is if there’s someone in charge making sure it does.

And that is the difference. True, some people who vote for the Right are racist xenophobes who hate the poor, and some people who vote for the Left are dyed-in-the-wool, hardline Communists, but that’s a minority. Voting Labour doesn’t make you a good person any more than voting Conservative makes you a bad one – it simply means you have a different opinion on whether the basic unit of society should be the individual or the group.

And as someone who sees himself as a political centrist, believing in some things from the Left, like the welfare state, and some things from the Right, like government non-interference, while simultaneously opposing things on both sides, I have no home.

It doesn’t matter who you as an individual vote for

As much as the UK champions itself as a democracy, really it’s just an elected dictatorship. Once somebody is in power, they can pretty much do whatever they want for five years, and no amount of protesting will prevent them from, for example, massively hiking up tuition fees or going to war on false pretexts. ‘People Power’ is only really relevant in an election year, and even then, your voice as an individual isn’t actually important at all, especially if you live in a safe seat.

Take my constituency of New Forest West, for example. Created in 1997, it has seen the Conservative MP Desmond Swayne win every election for 22 years. Voter turnout has been pretty consistent throughout this period: between 45% and 50% of the electorate. The least he has won by is a majority of 11,000 votes, back before the millennium. He won the last election by more than 23,000 votes. It doesn’t matter where I put that cross on my ballot paper, Desmond Swayne is going to win. My political power, as an individual, is zero. My vote has never had an effect on the outcome of an election, and likely never will.

But what about marginal seats? Doesn’t every vote count? No. The last time an MP was elected by a majority of one vote was 1910. Therefore, it doesn’t matter who you as an individual vote for. It doesn’t matter if you stay in bed and don’t bother. You, as an individual, have no say whatsoever.

But you should go and vote anyway

Democracy is a collective endeavour. While it’s true that your individual vote is unimportant, the individual votes add up. It might make no difference if you don’t vote, but if your household doesn’t vote, or your street, or your town, that makes a difference, especially in marginal seats. For politics to work for the people, the people have to engage with it, even if it’s simply to sully your ballot paper as a mark of protest. And while it’s true that deciding who to vote for in this election is particularly difficult, not least because the leaders of both the main parties come across as incredibly odious individuals, if you don’t vote when you have the chance, and after people have fought and died for the opportunity, then you don’t really have the right to complain about the outcome.

My fear is that, with so many people saying they aren’t going to vote because they’re undecided, this election is going to be decided by activists, the people with the motivation to go out and vote. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met many political activists who aren’t extremists, running down the other side while blind to the faults of their own. Do we really want those people, whether Left or Right, deciding our future?

The media doomsday cult

I never thought I’d reach the point where I want to look away from the world, but I’ll be honest: I’m the closest I’ve ever been to disconnecting the internet, avoiding the news, and switching channels away from anything other than the comforting banality of Murder, She Wrote reruns.

Sure, every generation thinks it’s the end of the world and humanity can’t survive, and they’ve always been wrong, but these days it’s like watching a slow-motion car crash – or a nuclear strike in treacle. An epidemic of stabbings and mass shootings; a British Parliament crippled by indecision and infighting; a narcissistic lunatic in the White House; innocents massacred in Syria; earthquakes and superstorms; protesters on every street corner; people at each other’s throats; families breaking apart; traditional morals disappearing; and to top it all, the planet is dying. False prophets, nation pitted against nation, wars and rumours of wars, moral decay, signs in the stars, and earthquakes: we’re practically living through the biblical End of Days.

Or are we? I’ve said before that the greatest threat to mankind’s future is the increasing polarisation of society – the division of people into mutually antagonistic groups. Man vs woman, black vs white, old vs young, rich vs poor, left vs right, us vs them, all couched in terms of good vs evil, and as soon as you call the other side evil, or less than human, it justifies whatever you do to them: lock them in cages, deny them their civil liberties, throw milkshakes over them, or acid, drive your car into them, or stab them or shoot them or blow them up. It’s divisive and it’s dangerous and it’s wrong.

We act as though, instead of working together and seeing what unites us, we should double down on the differences and shout at one another, everybody making noise but nobody listening. I’ve never seen a time where civilised debate has broken down into so much name-calling. People are traitors, fascists, Nazis, baby-killers; they’re bigots and racists and misogynists and xenophobes. The validity of their argument is not based on its internal logic, but on their skin colour, their sex, their gender, their sexuality. I refuse to listen to you because you’re a white, male, middle class, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied baby boomer; and I refuse to listen to you because you’re a black, working class, trans-female, lesbian, disabled millennial. And you’re evil, not me, it’s you, you, you.

And who has caused this? Everybody. It’s not Trump, not UKIP, though they’ve certainly exploited it as much as the progressives and the politically correct have. It’s all of us. We’ve allowed it to happen. Every time we pick up the Daily Mail or the Guardian; every time we share some random, unsourced, unverified claim on Facebook; every time we argue with somebody on Twitter; every time we demand someone loses their job and their livelihood for having a different opinion to us; every time we question the truth of a message based on the gender or age or colour of the messenger; every time we click on a political video on YouTube; every time we feel satisfaction when someone on the other ‘side’ is embarrassed or humiliated; every time we engage with a book or a TV show or a movie that supports our ideology; every time we buy into this ‘us and them’ rubbish; and yes, every time we vote for people who not only accept but exploit and heighten these divisions, we are part of the problem.

But being on the ‘right’ side feels so damned good, doesn’t it? Fighting the good fight against the evil enemy, we’re all heroes of our own black-and-white morality play. Because this kind of thinking doesn’t allow for shades of grey, or for the people on the other side being simply that – people. People with thoughts and feelings. People who have beliefs formed by their experiences, by their frailties and their fears. People who are sometimes right, often wrong, but are no more evil than you and I. No. The people on the other side are evil monsters. That makes far more sense. And it means we don’t have to think, to consider whether there are other arguments more valid, or more convincing, or more just, than our own.

And while we’re all responsible for the anger resonating around our societies, I think the media plays a massive part in catering to these base instincts. As we all know, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. Human nature being what is is, we love what stirs our passions, and those negative emotions – anger, fear, jealousy, hatred – feel much more potent, and long-lasting, and somehow more ‘real’ than joy, and hope, and comfort. We even try to justify it in intellectual terms, as though clever, educated, informed people are aware of the world as it really is, and only the dumb, the ignorant, and the ill-informed can be happy. That’s a load of bull.

The media is full of misery because misery sells, and despite claims to journalistic integrity and impartiality, the news is an industry that lives on sales and clicks. The world is incredibly complicated, far too complicated to provide an easily-digestible soundbite for the Six O’Clock news. You can’t provide balance, or nuance, or explain the limits of what we can and can’t predict, or the reliability or likelihood of economic, scientific, or geopolitical projections. It’s far easier to sell narratives that play into good/bad dichotomies of selfishness, greed, murder, exploitation, and the rape of the natural world, than admit that there are positives and negatives to everything, it’s all about balance and compromise, and the influence of this on that is not something we can accurately measure.

The bottom line is that optimism – feeling safe – does not sell papers. But what can kill you, what can scar you, what can make you fear for your future and your family’s future, and what erodes your faith in humanity, is what feeds the media industry. Be afraid: Britain is trapped in Brexit deadlock; there’s a madman in the White House; we’re in the middle of a crime epidemic; and the planet is dying! Be afraid. Don’t miss the next news report! You need to know what’s going on!

Little by little, you disappear down the rabbit hole, and you lose your way back to the light.

So instead of turning away from the news, I think we should seek out the good, the positive, the hopeful and the optimistic – those things that tell us we’re not dying, it’s not as bad as all that. Let’s all stop hating each other and see what unites us.

Here are some news stories you might have missed, because they couldn’t feed into the doomsday cult we all seem to follow:

1. Warfare is at historically low levels. The number of people killed in international wars dropped from 65,000 a year in the 1950s to 2,000 a year in the 2000s despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, from 1989 to 2005, campaigns of mass killing of civilians dropped 90%. There aren’t more wars these days; it just feels like there are because during Vietnam, Cambodia and the Iran-Iraq war, we didn’t have 24-hour news channels and social media showing us every atrocity in real time and sensationalising it for clicks and likes.

2. Global poverty levels were cut in half between 1990 and 2012, a phenomenal improvement to people’s lives in terms of both income and standard of living. And this isn’t just in some countries or continents, but across the entire globe. It turns out that globalisation, the process by which the West exploits the labour and resources of the developing world, actually provides benefits for everyone, but that doesn’t fit into the us/them, rich vs poor paradigm.

3. Every objective, academic, statistical source you consult will tell you the same thing: the crime rate is falling. It rose during the 1980s, peaked in the early 90s, and then dropped off rapidly and has continued to fall year on year. In the US, using FBI statistics, violent crime fell 51% between 1993 and 2018, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics records a 71% drop for the same period. In the UK, according to the Office For National Statistics, violent crime peaked in 1995 and then fell two-thirds by 2017. While it is true that the drop-off appears to have stopped in the last couple of years, and certain types of crime (such as knife crime in the UK) have increased, crime levels are still substantially below the levels of the 1980s and early 90s. Anybody claiming we are living through a violent crime epidemic is doing so for sensationalism or political gain.

4. Despite all the dire predictions and catastrophising, there are more polar bears today than there were 40 years ago, and far from dying out, they’re actually increasing in number. Indeed, they seem remarkably adaptive to changing conditions. Why? It would appear that thinner ice gives them easier access to seals. The effects of climate change are incredibly difficult to predict, and talking about it in terms of good and bad denies the reality that some will benefit and some won’t.

5. According to NASA, the world is literally greener today than it was 20 years ago. Thanks to tree-planting programmes in China and agricultural programmes in China and India, there are an extra 2 million square miles of green leaf area, an equivalent size to the entire Amazon rainforest. As Rama Nemani is quoted as saying, ‘Once people realise there’s a problem, they tend to fix it.’ Since it is also the biggest manufacturer and installer of solar panels, China is not simply the mass-polluting monster it’s made out to be in the press, but that wouldn’t keep us all living in fear.

6. The ozone layer is repairing itself. It’s got a long way to go, but thanks to the global community’s efforts to remove CFCs, last year it was 16% smaller than in 2006.

7. By 2018, 101 cities drew more than 70% of their energy from renewable sources, up from 42 in 2015, with 43 powered entirely by ‘clean’ energy. The idea that we’re doing nothing about the environment is at best ill-informed and at worst a deliberate lie to stir up the rage of the young against the old, and the have-nots against the haves.

8. Chinese scientists have developed a new strain of rice that grows in the desert with diluted seawater, meaning global food supplies will be far more stable.

9. The Belize Barrier Reef is no longer endangered. This was thanks to the government of Belize imposing a moratorium on oil prospecting around the reef and implementing protections on coastal mangrove swamps.

And I could go on and on. But you get the picture: there are plenty of reasons for optimism, but only if you go out and look for it.

You know what is getting worse? The suicide rate. And that is the very definition of the victory of pessimism over hope.

There’s a reason for the rise of populism. There’s a reason Trump was elected, Brexit happened (or didn’t). The proliferation of social media, the echo chambers of increasingly divisive left/right media, and our own morbid relationship with seeing the negative in everything has crippled us into cowering intransigence. We’d rather find safety among our own tribe, where everyone thinks just the same as us, and score points against the evil, bigoted, Hitlers on the other side, than reach across the divide and find a solution.

And who benefits?

When people are lost, they’ll follow anybody who claims to know the way.

Even if it’s over a cliff.

The Problem With the World Today

I don’t normally get political or socially conscious on this blog, but damn it, I can’t hold back anymore. Not after the conversation I had with my three-year-old this evening when an Indian gentleman appeared on the TV.

‘Look, daddy!’ my daughter cried. ‘What’s he got on his skin?’

I frowned, unable to see what she was talking about. ‘He hasn’t got anything on his skin.’

‘It’s all black!’ she said.

Ah. The penny dropped. Since an early age she’s been exposed to people of many different ethnicities, but this is the first time she’s mentioned it.

Knowing my response might impact her view of the world, I phrased my words very carefully. ‘It’s not black, it’s brown,’ I replied. ‘That’s just the colour of his skin. It’s perfectly normal.’

‘But, but, he’s a boy!’ she said. ‘He’s supposed to be white!’

As you can imagine, this threw me through a loop. ‘What do you mean he’s supposed to be white?’ I demanded. ‘Who told you that? And who do you know who has white skin?’

‘We do,’ she said.

‘No we don’t,’ I replied. ‘Our skin is a kind of pinky peach colour. Why do you think our skin is white?’

She ummed and ahhed about this, and then started pointing out other people on TV, and saying, ‘He’s white,’ and ‘She’s black,’ depending on their ethnicity.

‘People aren’t black or white,’ I told her. ‘People have different skin tones, from very pale like ours through olive and bronze and all shades of brown to very dark. Like people have different coloured hair and different coloured eyes, people have different coloured skin too, but inside we’re all the same.’

I could have dismissed it as simple childish curiosity, but what really disturbed me was that she somehow knew the manmade categories of white and black – skin tones that rarely, if ever, exist in nature. I have deliberately never spoken to her about race as I want her to treat people as individuals, not as belonging to one group or another. Once you start lumping people together into groups you begin to assign values and assumptions to those groups, and that’s why I’m so determined that she takes people as she finds them – especially living in a county that at the last census was 98% white. The fact that even kids as young as three are arbitrarily dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘ them’ is indicative of the world as a whole, and, I have to admit, makes me fear for the future.

I recently commented on a blog called Pointless Overthinking that asked readers to suggest the biggest problem facing humanity right now. I didn’t have to consider my answer because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for months.

In my opinion, the biggest problem afflicting society right now – in the West, at least – is polarisation: the division of people into discrete, competing and mutually exclusive categories. While this has always been a problem, the last five years seem to have launched us into a face-off with one another that has reached truly frightening proportions, from the level of the individual right up to that of government and state. It isn’t good for any of us and it really needs to stop.

We live in the age of Black Lives Matter, of Fourth Wave Feminism, of #MeToo and MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way); Donald Trump and Women’s Marches; Brexit and Trans-Acivists. Every day we hear about patriarchy, white privilege, rape culture, mansplaining. We’re increasingly being divided by our sex, our skin colour, our sexuality – even whether our genitals match our gender identity. We’re being put into boxes, stripped of our individual identities and judged on the basis of arbitrary characteristics that don’t really mean anything at all.

These days, you’re either left or right; a bleeding-heart Democrat or an evil Republican; a racist Brexiteer or an unpatriotic Remoaner. You’re an oppressed person of colour or a privileged white person; a female victim or a male rapist; a trans or a cis. And instead of reaching across the divide and trying to understand the other side as people, all we’re doing is throwing insults, and spreading hatred, and treating whole categories of people as though they all share the same opinions, the same values, the same attitudes and beliefs.

People blame Trump for this polarisation, but it started before him. He wasn’t the cause of it, but a symptom of the growing divisions that are pushing everything to the opposite extremes and leaving the middle ground empty. People are mostly reasonable, rational if complex beings, and should be treated as such, but instead of finding what we have in common, we’re using terms like racist and sexist and transphobic to reduce people on the other side to simplistic bogeymen. Calling somebody a Communist while they call you a Nazi isn’t going to build bridges – quite the opposite, in fact.

What I don’t understand is how we got here. How did social categories – those things I was brought up to believe were unimportant – become so damned important again? I thought we were beyond the male/female thing, the white/black thing, the straight/gay thing. I thought we’d reached a point where we judged people by who they are rather than what they are. But apparently not.

That’s why we have books like Why I’m No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race: white people are unable to understand racism because of the colour of their skin. And why men are frequently told they are not allowed an opinion on abortion because of their sex. And why the voices of cisgendered individuals are often marginalised, even within the LGBTQ+ community, because of their gender identity. In a society that everywhere tells us not to judge a book by its cover, we are everywhere judging and being judged by our covers. The rich individualities we hold inside are being ignored.

The circus of the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing over the alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford by Brett Kavanaugh shows just how divided we’ve all become. Instead of the solemnity and seriousness with which such an allegation should have been treated, it became the focal point for all the  various polarised tensions that exist today, an explosion of anger and judgment and partisanship, of emotion and categorisation. The truth of what happened to those people all those years ago seemed less important than what they represented and how they could be used to score points against the other side.

And there is the truth of today’s world. Political discourse these days is about demonizing the other side and reducing the wondrously individual entity that is the human being to a mere cipher for everything you hate. ‘Us and them’ is alive and well in a day and age intelligent and aware enough to know that such a division is not only dangerous, it is untrue.

So how about we stop treating people as men and women, straights and gays, blacks and whites, trans- and cisgenders, evil this and evil that, and start treating one another as people again? All sides, left and right, male, female, woke and still asleep – you’re all equally to blame. Try explaining your point of view to one another, instead of simply shouting, and try listening to what the other person has to say, instead of hearing only what you expect to hear.

It was 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr had a dream that his children would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their characters. Those words are as resonant today as they were all those years ago. I will continue to teach my kids to take people as they find them. I just hope that others will show them the same courtesy in return.