Wanted: a solution to mutual incomprehension


In the US, as elsewhere, there is an incipient movement to reduce single use plastics. Plastic straws, which are handed out with every drink one purchases, are being replaced by paper alternatives – or no straws at all.

In response, the Trump campaign has started selling red plastic straws with TRUMP printed on them. So far, sales of these straws have raised in excess of half a million dollars for the campaign.

This is a microcosm of what is happening to politics almost everywhere: every issue of political debate has been transformed into a culture war of identity politics.

Being against any form of environmental regulation is now part of the personal identity of Trump’s base – as it is with supporters of Jair Bolsonaro. No kind of discussion is possible – or even desired.

Neither is the fomenting of culture wars the preserve of the political right – as many on the left and centre left seem to have convinced themselves. 
In the UK, the Labour Party is riven with its own internal culture war, with each faction disdaining the other.

Brexit has long descended into an ugly battle of identity politics – Leavers accusing Remainers of being anti-democratic, unpatriotic, traitorous fear-mongers; Remainers accusing Leavers of being ill-educated xenophobic racists hell bent on bringing forth destruction. 

A characteristic of identity politics is that each side fervently comes to believe that its own position commands the moral high ground and is unchallengeable. As with religious fundamentalism, any disagreement or challenge is interpreted either as a personal affront, or as a sure sign of moral turpitude.

Any hint of compromise is seen as selling out to the devil. 

The net result of such deeply-held convictions that become integral to one’s own identity, is that all sides, yes, all sides, end up descending into the political gutter, while blaming the other side for being the sole cause of all ills. 

Conversation becomes impossible and the social fabric becomes fractured.
That this is happening almost everywhere, and around almost every issue, is clear. The more important question is whether it is reversible and, if so, how?

Any and all ideas would be most welcome. We all desperately need them. 

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. nigel hunter says

    There is now a strong need for a ‘reconciliation party’.Archbishop Welby .could start it off in the UK background a start could be made.. If linked with like minded people of whatever.
    A start may have been made with the South Americans aiming to help Bolsonaro with the Amazon. If people who CARE about the World and its people get together unity could develop

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      True enough. If people can agree on what ‘caring for the world’ means. We may have reached the point where different tribes’ interpretation of that may be quite different – maybe even opposite.

  2. RDDVC says

    Dear Joe,
    I am fervent reader and supporter, so please appreciate that my question comes from a constructive angle: What do “you” think?
    Otherwise, my idea is: just start with a “why?” to break that vicious circle and never give up asking until you find a common ground…

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      My own view is that we have lost the ability and desire to listen and empathise with those who see and feel the world differently. As a result, most of our time is spent pushing our own point of view convinced of our own righteousness.

      Added to that is the individualistic culture that has developed since the 1980s. It’s all about what “I” want and what “I” believe. The sense of community, shared values and cooperative behavior has been driven out (though not quite everywhere yet).

      Politics has become a winner takes all game. And how our leaders behave sets the tone.

  3. Barry Cooper says

    Joe – I totally agree with you. I wonder if this is inevitable and unavoidable if viewed from the top-down? Especially if those for and against, whatever the issue is, are roughly “equal”. Viewed from the grass-roots we may disagree with each other, but rarely in the nasty “childish” ways those above us often seem to behave. Maybe the establishment has too much power!

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Agreed Barry.

      There is still a some sense of community at local level. Centralisation of power destroys that.

      This has always been one of the inevitable downsides of the centralized welfare state. It soon morphs into vicious competition for resources being handed out by the central powers. The sense of people in communities supporting each other and working together gets eroded.

      I am always struck how the sense of community persists in small town USA much more than anywhere in Europe where we take pride in our welfare state – or, to put it another way – where all sense of support has been contracted out to centralized power.

  4. Richard GD says

    The Enlightenment movement which has driven Western society since the 18th century and gathered momentum, is founded on science, reason and humanism. It appears to be under attack on all counts. We seem to deny science,. We refuse to reason, and certainly we are becoming less and less humanistic. Ok, I realize that these are platitudes, and it’s like describing the water to a drowning person. The reason I wrote the above, knowing it’s probably obvious to many, is to seek to understand the problem, as a beginning of an attempt to deal with it. We are seeing once again, the rise of ideology. Ideologies, like religions, are lethal. We need to promote the values of reason to combat ideology.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Richard, nice to hear from you. Hope to see you in October.

      You may be right. There is also an alternative – and opposite – viewpoint that goes like this:

      The Enlightenment-driven lionization of reason and science forgot that human beings are primarily emotional creatures overlain with some rational constraint – not the other way round (which is what the Enlightenment culture would have us believe). (We cover this perspective in our book “The Death of Liberal Democracy?”)

      What we are seeing now is political leaders who have realized that and are weaponising our emotional nature to create warring tribes. And they are successful.

      Appealing to reason may not work given the essence of human nature.

      Yet humans are also, in evolutionary terms, collaborative creatures. All our successes have come from our ability to collaborate. Can we re-kindle that by appealing to our inner natures?

      We also need to bear in mind that everyone becomes aggressive and isolationist when stricken by fear. Striking fear into people, blaming others for the problems, and then pretending to offer perfect solutions is a well developed political approach for demagogues. It’s now coming back into fashion given the mounting social, economic and environmental issues we are facing.

  5. Stephen Gwynne says

    It is generally remarked that times of crisis brings people together so what is strange about the current cultural crisis is that it appears to be tearing people apart.

    Part of the problem from my point of view is that labels have now replaced individuals. So instead of a person who voted leave it is a Leaver. Or instead of a person who identifies sexually with the same sex is now gay.

    Labels seem to be the basis of identity politics with the consequence of depersonalising a person of their diverse interests and concerns into a single characteristic.

    So perhaps a starting point is to hold the person in the radical centre from which are attached multiple perspectives and concerns. So a remainer is instead a person who prefers to remain.

    This idea can be extended to include what we say. It seems to me that it has become common parlance to omit “I” from our opinions and judgements, so that I think leaving the EU is a mistake becomes leaving the EU is a mistake. The latter becomes a kind of mantra that makes a subjective opinion seem more objective.

    Overall, it would appear that in both cases, what is actually subjective is somehow made objective. The subjective person becomes an objective characteristic and the subjective opinion becomes an objective statement.

    So perhaps a deeper question is why people who turn to identity politics feel the need to hide behind objectivity and in the process depersonalise (or desubjectivise) both themselves and others. Why are people afraid to use “I” in their spoken sentences and why are people reluctant to see the person before stating their opinions.

    Eg. “I think people who voted leave are mistaken in their beliefs” is so different to “Leavers are stupid”.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Thank you Stephen

      That’s a good perspective. ‘De-humanisation’ of your opponents is a well known route to justifying all sorts of despicable activity. It’s much easier for people to say dreadful things about, and do unspeakable things to, a faceless enemy rather than to other people.

      The ‘objectivity’ part is, I suspect, a crude way of trying to convey the notion that your own position is right, moral and unchallengeable rather than what it really is – a purely personal opinion with which reasonable people may well disagree. It’s the same when people wrap their opinions in technical or scientific language. It’s a big signpost saying ‘cannot be challenged’.

      The sort of language that you suggest could well have mitigated the mess we have got ourselves into. But we are there now. The language of aggression against the inhuman other has, sadly, become established and become the common language within the different tribes.

      How do we reverse that? is it even possible?

      I sure hope so. It needs leadership. But I don’t see any existing leader on any side of the debate that has not him/herself got caught up in the same dirty mud wrestling. Lifting ourselves out of the mud is going to be hard.

  6. Stephen Gwynne says

    I think what the culture war and identity politics is about how current understandings of free speech facilitates superiority and inferiority which in turn facilitates the patronisation and condescension that underlies much of the culture war and the identity politics that underlies it.

    To deal with what I think is a growing threat to social cohesion, I think speech needs to be distinguished between free speech, unfree speech and hate speech.

    I think free speech should help to enlighten one another whereas unfree speech, I think tries to subjugate one another and hate speech tries to harm one another.

    I think these different types of speech reflects different possible human relationships with free speech representing overarchy, unfree speech representing holarchy and hate speech representing hierarchy.

    Talking with.
    In free speech we value and respect the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of other people because we value and respect our own.

    Talking to.
    In unfree speech that value and respect is to varying degrees lost and the compulsion towards superiority and inferiority begins. This leads to patronising and condescending behaviour which creates stress, conflict and loss.

    Talking at.
    In hate speech there is no value and respect and superiority and inferiority are established ways of living which causes harm, loss and damage between one another.

    So, I guess, to resolve the culture war and stop identity politics traversing from free speech into unfree speech and hate speech, essentially we need to value and respect ourselves.

    At a moral level, perhaps we need to constitute and institutionalise the distinction between free speech, unfree speech and hate speech.

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