Why politics needs more in-betweeners

Human psychology makes people suspicious of opposing perspectives, but seeing both sides of an argument is not a weakness. 

Andy West
20 July 2016

Class migrant Don Draper, from Mad Men. Credit:

Last year, something happened that forced me to think about the links between social mobility and democracy—I threw up. I had cooked some pasta for lunch, but in hindsight it was too much. I felt full halfway through but carried on, each mouthful making me more nauseous. When I finished, I washed up my plate, put it on the draining board and rushed to the toilet where I was sick.

My housemate came into the bathroom to see if I was ok, so I explained what had happened. “But why did you keep eating” he asked? I gargled some mouthwash, spat it out and said, “You can’t waste it.” My attitude to food goes back to my grandfather who grew up in an orphanage. When I was a child and didn't want to finish my dinner, my parents didn't invoke starving children in Africa—they pointed to him. The psychological legacy of this invocation remains with me today: leaving food feels like I’m dishonouring his hardship—like a betrayal.

Grandad was still present with me as I kept on eating, but being sick evoked a deeper question. Life is comfortable for me today, but my early childhood was peppered with social troubles: bailiffs at the door; constant visits to prison; the repercussions of heroin on my family. I spent my formative years learning the logic of deprivation, but applying that logic doesn't work for me now. So what do I do with the tension that exists between my past and my present—and what does that tension mean for my social and political identity?

I’ve watched how other class migrants deal with this question. In the TV series Mad Men for example, the central character, advertising executive Don Draper, cuts all his ties to the world he was born in and changes his name. Elsewhere, the English celebrity and millionaire Paul O’Grady declares “I still consider myself working class. I know my circumstances have changed dramatically since I was growing up back in Birkenhead. Now I live in rural Kent in what I suppose people would call a posh house. But it's still in me." Where O’Grady is homesick, Draper is sick-of-home. I can feel both of these emotions, sometimes simultaneously.

I remember feeling sick-of-home early on, when making a family visit to prison on Christmas Eve. I knew I’d never survive if I got put away like many of the men in my family. Just the stale air inside the prison building made it hard to breathe. Then a few months ago I went to a foodie dinner party in London, where I noticed my sickness of home was still inside me. This time it manifested itself in my angsty attempts to eat more slowly and keep to polite conversation.

Then on the way back to my flat I felt disturbed by how easily I was able to fit in at the party, and I became homesick. I called to mind my childhood: those bailiffs, that prison visit, covering my nose in the bathroom to avoid the acrid smell of heroin. Those things were disturbing at the time, but post-dinner party I held them with tenderness, as if they were precious fossils.

I move between being homesick and sick-of-home like this all the time, and it’s made me an awkward ‘in-betweener.’ The truth is, I can never go home and I can never quite leave it either. To be an in-betweener is to be like Janus, the Roman god with two faces, but I haven't found this to be an unadulterated curse. In fact, it’s been mind-opening when it comes to political exchange.

The ethics professor Jonathan Haidt explores why ‘good people’ disagree so much about politics and religion. His research shows how human psychology makes people suspicious of opposing perspectives—we are too inclined to decide that someone who thinks differently to us is selfish, stupid or insincere. When those on the right say ‘community’ the left hear ‘tribalism;’ when those on the left say ‘social liberties’ the right hear ‘degradation of tradition.’ Instead of actively exploring how to live together despite these differences, left and right are hermetically sealed off from one another. For example, in 2012 a report in the Atlantic magazine suggested that more Americans would rather their child marry someone of a different skin colour than someone of a different political persuasion.

I’m prone to the stubbornness that Haidt warns about in his writings, but being an in-betweener has forced me to be less rigid than I might otherwise have been. In the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in June 2016, for example, I voted ‘Remain’ while others in my family voted ‘Leave.’ In the echo-chamber of young middle-class Peckham in London where I live, my friends were trying to figure out why the ‘precariats’ of the north-east and Wales voted for Brexit even though it was against their economic interests. ‘Because they’re stupid’ was one common answer. I could never say that—not because Brexit didn't hurt but because it would feel like one more betrayal. 

Just like Janus whose faces can see in two directions at once, the in-betweener can see both sides of an argument in politics. As the Roman god of doorways, Janus also carries a set of keys. Never sealed in one place, he knows things that can’t be heard inside the echo-chamber. In the same way, democracy needs people who share the keys to different political mindsets and can work as in-betweeners. My history has split me in half, but the number of keys I hold has doubled. For me, home is a place of both attachment and distance. I’m indoors and outdoors at the same time. Likewise when it comes to Brexit, I’m both an insider and an outsider to my own political group.

This explains, for example, why I didn't join the effort to disrupt neurobiologist Adam Perkins' lecture in Feburary 2016 at the London School of Economics. Perkins’ book The Welfare Trait argues that families who receive long term state benefits are a production line for dysfunctional children who develop the same employment-resistant personality traits as their parents. Increased benefits, he claims, lead to increased childbirth amongst those who are receiving them.

Therefore, the state should cap benefits at a level that minimises reproduction among the long term unemployed in order to reduce the amount of children who suffer personal damage as a result of being born into disadvantage. His thesis is unflattering about the culture in which I grew up—it might even be seen as offensive. But the conviction of belief required to ‘no platform’ Perkins would be unnatural for me as an in-betweener. 

Hard convictions come naturally to people who are either indoors or outdoors, not those who are in-between. Being an in-betweener has shaped me to suspend my judgments for a little longer and to remember that Perkins’ views are as real to him as mine are to me. Conflicted between two worlds, I’d be alone in an empty silence if I blocked out all the voices I disagreed with.

Instead, I’m with those who had faith that a conversation with Perkins might deliver some surprises and could lead to a rewarding enquiry. To block his platform a priori on the grounds of his politics demonstrates a lack of faith in such possibilities, but they are the very stuff of democracy. Perhaps this absence of faith was one of the things that kept Britain so polarised in the run up to the EU referendum.    

Last week I made lunch, and since I still get excited about eating I haven't shaken off the habit of piling too much on my plate. I was full with about a quarter of the food still left. Putting my fork down, I felt a slight prickle of survivor guilt, but I pushed my plate away. My history isn't something I want to be sick about.

I’ll always be somewhat alienated from not having a definite sense of home, but by accepting this fact I’m less prone to another type of alienation that comes with being marooned in one’s own gang, where the people ‘over there’ are always strangers.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData