Oliver Cross: Pointless debating if there is no hope of common ground

Robert Winston in full flow.
Robert Winston in full flow.
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THIS WEEK I wasted several minutes of ear-time listening to a pointless radio discussion between an MP whose name I can’t remember and Dr Professor Lord Robert Winston, a man so multi-faceted and distinguished that I can’t quite remember exactly what it is he does.

The MP is a great believer in homeopathy and Lord Winston isn’t, so BBC Radio 4 thought it would be an inspired idea to put them together on the Today programme in the hope of provoking what the great Mrs Merton – as realised by Caroline Aherne - used to call ‘a heated debate.’

Some chance. Public figures, such as MPs and distinguished academics, know better than to shout at each other in a stimulating way and have rehearsed their arguments past the point of any possibly spontaneity.

The Radio 4 debate went, in essence, like this: ‘Homeopathy is nonsense’, ‘no it isn’t’, ‘yes it is’, ‘isn’t’, ‘is’, ‘isn’t’, ‘is’... and so on until John Humphrys, with a barely-disguised sigh of relief moved on to the sports news, the point being that useful debates can only happen between people who half-agree, not between people who inhabit different planets.

This divide was evident in another Radio 4 documentary this week, the very depressing Olive Wars. The BBC’s shrewd and thoughtful Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen explored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as expressed through the cultivation of olives – which turned out to be a very poignant perspective because olive groves are an integral part of the landscape in a place where olive branches, as symbols of peace and reconciliation, aren’t much in evidence, even though some olive trees have been continuously tended for 4,000 years or more.

One aggressive Jewish settler leader, born in Brooklyn and understandably embittered by the fact that his daughter had been killed in a Palestinian gun attack, deliberately herded his goats into areas where they could chew on the fruits and branches of Palestinian olive trees.

Jeremy Bowen didn’t argue with the man or invite a Palestinian olive grower to debate the point with him, because the settler’s view was that the Torah gave him divine permission to act as badly as he liked in what he considered to be his land. 
There was no prospect of successfully contradicting 
that.

Similarly, it’s a waste of time to argue against homeopathy, astrology, flying saucers, wild conspiracy theories or any beliefs which are so immune to reason that two tonnes of evidence won’t shift them a millimetre.

In fact, the real debating arena, made up of people who might change their views in response to rational arguments, is very small and - I’m beginning to think - limited to those who think in the same sensible way as I do, the rest of the world being mad.

But while it’s easy to dismiss crazy preachers who blame hurricanes on homosexuals or right-wing American Republicans who think Barack Obama is a foreign-born Muslim, we won’t get very far if we limit discussion only to people we agree with.

I’m generally a lefty and have now become, because the left, in the form of the Labour party, has turned sharply to the right, a little to the left of lefty, but only by default.

I still think it’s best, for the greater good of the nation, for Britons to talk among themselves, and I know quite a few right-wingers who aren’t stupid or malicious and who might contribute creatively to a debate about where we go from here; here being a land of low incomes and shabby public services according to me or a land of opportunity and efficiency according to them.

Whatever, we need to talk.

l

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