I like cats. On the other hand, I don’t like dogs. I realise that that this is probably a subject even more divisive than Brexit, but bear with me.
Of course, although I don’t particularly like dogs, I don’t object to them in principle. Nor do I object to dog-owners. And whilst I’m clear about my own preferences, I quite accept that others may not like cats*. Yet in our discussions across the Brexit divide, and even within our own movement, we often seem to adopt binary positions equivalent to ‘cats good, dogs bad’.
The risk with this, though, is that far from battering down our opponents with the force of our arguments, we further alienate them and entrench their positions. I’m much more likely to be hostile about dogs and their owners if one is jumping up at me and barking, whilst the owner says “He’s only being friendly”, is unapologetic, and perhaps implies that it’s somehow my fault.
Equally, I probably won’t change the opinion of someone complaining that cats are using their garden as a toilet if I just talk about how cute cats are, and that “at least they try and bury their poo”.
Disagreeing isn’t the problem- it’s the immediate “but…” defensive reaction that often seems to escalate disagreements. Acknowledging the right for someone to hold an alternative view seems to be the better start, although difficult to do sometimes. Of course this won’t work with the most hardcore of believers, but we’re not really trying to persuade them.
The same problem occurs within our movement in the argument over whether we should immediately press for ‘rejoin’, or to adopt a more incremental approach. One of the most tragic aspects of our campaign over the last few years was the bitter disagreement between those wanting to stop Brexit completely, and those wanting to secure the best possible deal, but not fight Brexit itself.
I will stick my neck out and suggest that if we had not had these disagreements in the early stages of the campaign, we may have been able to persuade enough MPs to secure a far better deal than the one we have now (albeit one that was worse than remaining in the EU), even if we couldn’t ultimately stop Brexit.
I don’t pretend to understand all of the issues, but both a full-on rejoin campaign and an incremental approach seem to have some merits, so let’s not get ourselves into opposing camps based on the purity of our approach. Not all ‘rejoiners’ are naïve dreamers ignoring reality; whilst those advocating an incremental approach aren’t all ruthlessly cynical and dangerously close to accepting Brexit.
Then we have the problem of judging people’s characters. Even if I can’t quite understand why they prefer dogs, I don’t think that dog owners are evil. I certainly won’t like them if they don’t pick up their dog mess, or fail to control their animals, but that’s about behaviour rather than something fundamental in their character.
As I pointed out in my previous article, most people probably feel that they are better than the previous generation, so being judged will feel particularly harsh. There are difficulties with this approach, though. I feel uncomfortable with letting people off the responsibility for enabling what has happened, even if they may have had reasons for voting ‘leave’ that made sense to them individually.
A “nothing to do with me, guv” approach seems particularly irresponsible, and doesn’t show any sense of insight or acknowledgement of different views. Perhaps we need to work out a way of highlighting responsibility for the current situation without being too judgmental, and this could be a good area of discussion for campaign strategies.
As I’ve suggested before, the way to overcome these entrenched views is to focus on values which as many people as possible can share. I might not like dogs, but I can probably appreciate their affection and loyalty as pets; the skill of a well-trained sheepdog; or the bravery and usefulness of a search-and-rescue dog. And on these shared values, I can perhaps build a civilised discussion with even the most fervent of dog-owners. Maybe I can even persuade them why I don’t like it when their pet jumps up barking at me.
It’s easy - and understandable - to fall into this sort of binary thinking, and perhaps the scars will take time to heal. But tactically it won’t get us anywhere, when we could have a good chance to change public opinion.
We need to develop a more inclusive narrative; or we may find that our local dogs’ and cats’ homes each develop a militant wing!
(*They are, of course, wrong 🐈)
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe (or our pets)