Last week Stephen Woolfe, UKIP MEP and favourite to be their next leader, was punched and hospitalised by a fellow UKIP MEP. The responses to the story weren’t pretty. One BBC report, published as the story was breaking, included these comments:
It was SHOCK!! the first time he’d done a morning work for 12 years ! And the first time he’d been in the chambers !! Poor sod, should’ve stuck to the usual UKIP lunch of 4 bottles of expensive wine and missed the morning meeting !!
Bloody health tourists
Probably shocked at the size of this pay cheque for doing fk all
All of these were comments were posted in the first twenty minutes after the story broke.
Responses on twitter included
FUCK HIM he’s a fascist who does a lot of actual harm
‘divisive rhetoric’ is exactly why i hoped Steven Woolfe didn’t wake up
There is humour to be found in the situation – not least that the name of the man who threw the punch is named Hookem. And as the journalist Ian Dunt has noted,
Thing I can’t get over in Woolfe story is that sober, on a weekday morning, they agreed to fight, removed jackets, walked outside together, had a scrap, then went back in and voted. It’s not like they were drunk, or even at the height of the argument.
But there’s a difference between on the one hand noting how surreal the situation seems the day after the event, when it became clear that Woolfe would live; and on the other making jokes about a man who seemed to be seriously ill, or even hoping for his death.
This kind of story always tends to bring out the worst in political opponents. We have seen, on different stories, rightwingers joking about putting up electric fences at the border to electrocute immigrants. Neither of those examples are typical of how horrible the group as a whole generally is. It’s just that people have a tendency to think it’s okay to behave nastily to those they disagree with.
Politics is obviously a high-stakes matter. There’s more reason to feel hatred towards a person who you believe is contributing towards making the world a harsher place than there is to feel hatred towards someone who plays for the wrong sports team. But the fact that the stakes are so high means that there is all the more reason to behave with decency and respect. It’s easy to spend all our time arguing against straw-man definitions of our opponents, definitions of our opponents as nasty or smug or lazy or racist. But these broad definitions usually either don’t represent real people, or only represent the nastiest part of our philosophical opponents.
To use Steven Woolfe as an example, the MEP is a passionate backer of grammar schools,
despite experts such as the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher warning of the consequences, and Theresa May’s plans being backed up by anecdotal evidence rather than anything more thorough.
We believe that Steven Woolfe is a dangerous man, but also that he is an honourable man, whose intentions are good. We see him as a convincing and persuasive supporter of ideas that we believe will make Britain a worse, more unequal place. But hoping that he dies is not the way to elevate our politics. When we seek to defeat those we disagree with, we must seek out the best in ourselves, try not to lash out, but to find the arguments that poke holes in our opponents’ points. Or, if the facts dictate, accept with humility that we were wrong, and construct a new world view.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our views are correct – that we’re the good guys, and other people are the problem. The headline of this article is a deliberate exaggeration of this common tendency.
It’s easy to hate our perception of ‘the other’, whether that’s lazy foreigners bypassing the immigration process to leech off our resources,or opportunistic politicians inciting the masses for their personal gain. It’s easier to hate and mock than to give our opponents the benefit of the doubt. But the latter path is necessary if we’re to work together to build a better world.