If academics really want to combat the rise of UKIP and the extreme right, we have to be prepared to leave our comfort zones. An academic approach simply isn’t enough.
It’s been encouraging to see so many academics campaigning against Britain’s new swing towards the far right in politics. Staff at Sheffield and Birmingham have highlighted the flaws in UKIP’s economic policies, whilst my twitter feed is often awash with academics decrying xenophobia and the stigmatization of immigrants. But is our opposition working?
A couple of days ago I stumbled upon a twitter argument between an academic and a UKIP supporter. The disagreement itself concerned whether BBC was biased towards the left or the right, yada yada yada. The debate is not important here. What caught my eye was the UKIP supporter’s response to some statistics used by the academic to make his argument:
My first response was to laugh. Let’s face it, it’s funny, especially to academics. The entire framework of our careers is, for the most part, based around evidence leading to conclusions. Our evidence and statistics are not always perfect, and there are strong voices criticizing the insular nature of academia which sometimes doesn’t allow the buds of new, exciting, challenging knowledge to flower. However, I think a lot of individual academics would at the very least like to think that their views would change according to evidence. It is (or it should be) the bedrock of academia itself.
I was stopped short in my lols by one twitter responder. Whilst I and everyone else retweeted and laughed, Michelle Brook pointed to a deeper issue, one which constantly hangs silently over my head and those of many other academics:
Out of touch? I thought at first. Surely I’m not out of touch. I read newspapers, I watch the news, I’m on twitter, facebook, all those things. I watch the TV debates, hell, I even read the comments beneath daily mail articles sometimes! I know *exactly* how idiotic these right-wing UKIP nutjobs are, they won’t even listen to reasonable argumen-
And that’s where I stopped. Because this is precisely the point at which most academics would stop. When someone simply refuses to listen to our evidence and our reason, we give up. In the words of Mr UKIP’s academic opponent, “There’s nothing more to be said.” What’s the point? we think to ourselves, as visions of a modern-day King Canute feebly commanding the waves of stupidity to turn away rush through our minds.
But what if we’re doing it wrong? What if the value we often place on hard evidence and statistics isn’t shared by everyone in our society? What if, as Michelle Brook says, we’re simply out of touch? Don’t get me wrong here, evidence and statistics are damn important, and quite rightly should form the foundation for knowledge. But what we can’t do is just throw information at people and expect them to change their minds, because it simply doesn’t work. We may win the arguments, but we don’t win people.
People base their politics on far more than just statistics and evidence. Our beliefs are formed by our upbringing, our family, our friends, our religion, our geography – the list goes on. Can we really quantify values? But, as academics, we rely on evidence and statistics to change our collective knowledge. The problem is that we rely on this method so much that we try to apply it to political debates and then get frustrated when it doesn’t work.
What we’re asking (or really what we’re demanding) people to do is enter into our world. We’re demanding that they play by our rules, adopt our academic values of evidence and statistics which, lets face it, we don’t always base our political outlooks on either. It would be great if these things did change people’s minds; sometimes they do, but in the instances where they don’t we need new tactics. So, how about we leave our comfort zones? How about we use methods other than stats? We can appeal to values, to real-life stories, to the abstract ideas of right and wrong – things which we sometimes shy away from in academia because we know how troublesome they can be. These probably won’t be enough either. To be honest I don’t really know what the best strategy is, and I really really welcome any suggestions. What I do know is that anyone who has seen the damage extreme right wing politics has done to the world needs to campaign against it.
I really don’t like UKIP. I don’t like the politics of fear. I don’t like a party which pretends to be anti-establishment when it’s actually in the pocket of millionaires. I don’t like anyone who measures a person’s value according to the country of their birth. I don’t like a party which wants to increase the amount we spend on killing foreigners but scrap all foreign aid spent helping them. I don’t like anyone who would stigmatize people with HIV live on television. I don’t like a party full of people who want to leave Africans to “kill themselves off”, call Islam satanic, blame floods on gay marriage, and tell Lenny Henry to “emigrate to a black country”. Perhaps most of all I hate how these horrible things don’t seem to do UKIP any damage – their supporters just seem to revel in scandal, congratulating themselves on being ‘politically incorrect’. That’s why its so important that we find out how to do it right. How do we really change people’s minds?