‘Seeing red when we stop listening to one another’

Sunday 10th April 2022 11:01 am
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Dominic Cummings’ lockdown excursions
Dominic Cummings’ lockdown excursions (Unknown )

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MOTHER knows red as my favourite colour, so first day of primary school she slings a new red sports-bag across my shoulder. The Manchester United branding is incidental, but a die is cast; I have supported Manchester United ever since, undyingly and without question. I imagine a red Arsenal bag sat on the same shelf. A close shave and I take all opportunities to thank Mother for her inspired impulse that day. And today, if you ask what my favourite colour is, and though I am artistically drawn to a mature pastel purple, I still say red. I feel I have championed red for so long that my loyalty belongs to infantile red, so I say red, instinctively.

Nineteenth century cynic Gustav Flaubert — the author of Madame Bovary— dismissed instinct as no substitute for intelligence. Instinct seeks gratification, avoids discomfort, and as such should be confronted, treated with caution. Instinct rushes into morning sunshine. Better thinking suggests work now, enjoy the warmer afternoon. Instinct has its place in emergency situations, runs the implication, but rarely serves well when applied to matters of consequence.

Yet over the past few years instinct has gained notable attention. While accepting his party leadership, Boris Johnson outlined the importance ‘good instincts, proper instincts, noble instincts’ would play in his approach to governing, concluding Conservatives had ‘the best insights in how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart’. Conservative instincts that First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford later described as ‘viscerally reactionary.’ And if you remember, it was the ‘instincts of every father’ excusing Dominic Cummings’ lockdown excursions, apparently. Most recently, speaking of Brexit, Johnson claimed it was ‘the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom, every time’.

We deserve more credit. Our entrenched Brexit positions, so entrenched that opposing views became bewildering and frustrating, were not instinctive, but differing visions of sovereignty, trade, immigration, and so on. Brexit became a boring circular dispute in which everyone had already heard every argument, and almost all of us developed responses with which to rail against opposition. Responses so regularly repeated as to become instinctive.

Often-aired views on how to best manage Covid became similarly instinctive, but the various positions we held were not impulses. Our positions were forged in discussion, individual experience and by puzzling over an endless barrage of conflicting and unreliable information. Little wonder we weighed what we heard; little wonder we came to different conclusions on how to best manage a pandemic.

So, while repeated answers can become instinctive, polarised positions on both Brexit and managing Covid were considered. I met no one who could not explain why they held their view, and no one’s motive was instinct. We each knew where we stood, more importantly, we knew why we stood there. The trouble is that during both those overriding national debates, we stopped listening to opposing views (we knew them), stopped thinking about our words (we had said them before). And although this may have been excusable for relentless Brexit and Covid quarrels, a reliance on deaf instinctive answers has placed other important discussions in danger of sinking into similar bad habits.

And so, with looming Welsh local elections, it is time to park impulsive answers and to start listening again. To remind that change in context, experience, or information, can change the argument and as such the response. For opinions are not instinctive. Political persuasions are not as favourite colours or football teams, once found, fixed and irrefutable. Stiff challenges ahead demand better than this. Instinct rushes into morning sunshine. Thinking suggests work now, enjoy the warmer afternoon.


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