A Saturday in pre-Brexit Manchester
Saturday. Piccadilly Gardens and Market Street. Brexit T-minus 41 days.
There are few places so eclectric and eccentric as this. On any given day there’s a different line-up of bands, musicians and dancers every twenty paces, the Muslims against Islamic fundamentalism, the militant vegans with their gory laptops and hockey masks, the Jevovah’s Witnesses silent and present as ever, and the street preachers who bring their arm-waving pamphlet-thrusting brand of Christianity to the cobbled inner-city.
All of this against the backdrop of the Arndale Centre and the constant flow of weekend shoppers trawling along the central retail strip. It is a market place of ideologies and performances, a giddy mix of fanaticism and consumerism.
Usually, Ruth and I only pay passing attention to most of the goings-on around Piccadilly and Market Street. On this Saturday there was a dancer doing Michael Jackson, a small kid in big trainers playing something like “Wonderwall”, a beat boxer pumping our house music from her mouth and neck.
We loitered in Piccadilly to observe a gathering of placards and squeeling megaphones. There was a red and yellow communist flag, signs delcaring that racism must end, union flags, American flags, even a “Make Britain Great Again” cap, which doesn’t quite have the same ring as President Trump’s election rallying cry.
It felt like we had been sat behind behind our phones and our laptops for a long time. These were the kind of sights that you read about in the news. Often I feel that these debates and confrontations are far away, in another place. The way that we receive our news through the internet has kept many a conflict at a comfortable distance.
I have become to accustomed to conversing with people who will share in a knowing eye-roll about Brexit and the Leave vote. People whose views are generally sympathetic with my own. You can read everywhere about how the internet forces us into our own enclaves and echo chambers (such as in this opinion piece I wrote for the Mancunion a couple of years ago).
In this environment, where you rarely interact personally with the people who hold contrasting beliefs, I quickly come to build up a very particular image of the imaginary individual Leave-vote with whom I might debate. Against all their unfounded views and misquoted statistics I convincingly and lucidly unfold a a watertight argument which would make even the most hardened of Brexiteers capitulate to my forceful logic. All this takes place in the mind, of course, without the presence of said Brexiteer.
What Ruth and I were watching while we ate our falafel was the shouting of the internet as the shouting of real life, the conflict that we so often read about and imagine, the groups that we demonise or glorify, both yelling into loudspeakers.
It struck me as sadly representative of contemporary “dialogue”: he who shouts loudest, wins. In this case it was the group Stand Up To Racism and a smattering of communinists with their chants of “Nazi Scum, Off Our Streets” that drowned out whatever their opposition had to say.
We decided to let ourselves become embroiled in conversation with members of the English Defense League, though it wasn’t entirely clear if it was the EDL or some other populist movement. They seem to have modeled themselves on the French Yellow Jacket movement and wore reflective vests.
If you get the chance, I would highly recommend listening to people with whom you disagree. And I emphasise listen. There is nothing to gain by forcing your own politics onto someone else. Who has ever had a shouting match in the street and then suddenly turned around and thought, “you know what, you’ve convinced me”.
There is, however, great value in finding out exactly what people think and why they think it, rather than our perceptions of what others believe and the assumption that they hold those beliefs because they are “bad people”. As much as I contest the (mis)representation of and discrimination again migrant communities, asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, expatriates etc., it achieves nothing to write people off as racists or, that catch-all for those with abhorrent politics, “Nazis”. Such a term can only incite antagonism.
Still, even with a receptive attitude and the goodwill to hear out the opinions of others, it’s extremely hard not to feel the emotion rise in you over the course of a conversation, in a warm, thumping knot around your heart. You just want to grab a person and shake them and say, “but how will this idea of sovereignty change anything??”
All you can really hope to achieve in these exchanges is to have someone think about their own opinion for a moment. To ask them what they believe with genuine interest, and then follow up with some non-loaded questions, with the aim of better understanding an individual, not just preparing for the next attack.
To begin with listening also gives you a leg to stand on. At one point in an exchange, Ruth was cut off when she went to voice her side. She reminded him that she had spent the past few minutes hearing him out, which turned out to be quite an effective way to have someone take their turn.
A conversation I had ranged from debating the extent to which Communism has been responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths, the symbol of Yin and Yang, the masculinity and femininity of the political spectrum, and Scottish independence. We heard repeatedly that whatever happens, the UK will be better off once out of the European Union.
There’s only so long that you can debate with people without any structure or form. You just end up talking around terms, grappling with slippery definitions, and tripping over yourself trying to remember where the conversation all began.
Eventually you have to walk away from it, which is perhaps much easier for Ruth and myself than many others. Not because we are better able to live and let live than others, but because we are two white British people debating with other white British people. It’s easier to walk away when the stakes aren’t as high for oneself.
What struck me in all of this is how quickly we lose our own humanity when we deny others of theirs. There is a loss when people cry out to “keep them out” and “take back control”, and would retreat into our island mentality. There is a loss when desperate individuals are denounced too quickly as racists and reduced to readily available stereotypes.
On both sides in Piccadilly we witnessed something of the public discourse that erodes respect for our fellow humans. Regardless of political views, the greatest loss in all of this is the damage that we do to the personhood of each other.