I suppose it was only logical that one of the minds behind D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better – also known as Tony Blair’s theme song in the 1997 general election – should hold a centrist worldview that absolves Conservative MPs of guilt for their many crimes against the UK’s population.
So it should be no surprise that Professor Brian Cox would take issue with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s statement that he could not be friends with a Conservative politician after the cruelty of their austerity policies over the last eight years.
Here’s what Mr McDonnell said:
"I can't forgive them for what they've done… I've never seen human suffering like this."
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on why he won't be friends with the Conservative party.
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) November 21, 2018
To me, it seems unlikely that Professor Cox saw that clip. More plausible is that he read the LBC tweet quoted below – “After John McDonnell reveals he couldn’t be friends with a Conservative, Iain Dale asks: do you struggle being friends with someone of the opposite political persuasion?” The context – that it is a decision reached by observation of the human suffering caused by the Tories – is missing.
Still, the conclusion to which the professor is drawn seems incongruous. Here’s what he wrote:
If you struggle to be friends with someone of the ‘opposite political persuasion’ then it seems to me that you believe a one party state is the way forward – because the only ‘good’ people are people who agree with you. Certainty suggests hubris – doubt suggests wisdom. https://t.co/2JWCMhBhZf
— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) November 21, 2018
It is a huge leap of logic to suggest that denying friendship to a politician who intentionally causes suffering is equivalent to wanting a one-party state (like the Soviet Union). It is also an example of thinking in absolutes – Mr McDonnell wasn’t saying the only good people are those who agree with him; he was saying he, personally, cannot accept that there is anything good about the suffering inflicted needlessly on innocent people by the Conservatives. Personally, I’m with him.
In the interests of fairness, it is worth reporting a YouGov poll which states that an “overwhelming majority” (of the 1,000 or so people the organisation asked) said they could be friends with someone who has a different political view.
John McDonnell has said he could not be friends with a Conservative, but only 3% of Brits say they also couldn’t be friends with someone who has a different political opinion to them – 82% say they could be https://t.co/xc8FnggOlH pic.twitter.com/rUcsTgaEs5
— YouGov (@YouGov) November 22, 2018
But it doesn’t say they could be friends with a politician who had inflicted huge suffering on people they know, so is it entirely appropriate to this case?
When a person of Professor Cox’s standing makes a blunder, Twitter pays attention – and his comment attracted a wealth of stinging responses.
Was it a dogpile – an instance in which many people attack someone over a wrong or offensive post because that person is an easy target, or to gain popularity points? I don’t think so. The criticisms of Professor Cox were largely reasonable attempts to show him his error.
For example, Sarah stated: “The issue for many right now Brian is that the game has changed over last 8 yrs (& particularly th last 3) of Tory rule. While you’d be having a friendly debate with Tories about your political differences, this degradation is happening to millions.”
I would never befriend a Tory. It doesn’t make me intolerant – the thought of having to be friends with someone who supports things like arms sales to Saudi, or austerity, and many other things, just makes me nauseous.
— aleesha (@a_leesha1) November 22, 2018
“Bootstrap Cook” Jack Monroe was a little more biting: “If you struggle to understand why that ‘opposite political persuasion’ is not a clever dinner debate but a real harmful ideology that is killing the vulnerable in society, then it seems to me that your wealth, celebrity and privilege are occupying the space your heart should be.”
And perhaps Socialist Voice can be forgiven for the implication that Professor Cox has lost his principles: “Dear Professor Brian Cox,
“Tory MPs laughed and brayed in parliament as they voted against giving nurses a pay rise. Some nurses are now using food banks.
“So, please excuse those of us who have principles and strictly refuse to collaborate with the enemy.”
The suggestion may be more understandable if taken in connection with the exchange that Another Angry Voice discusses, below. After suggesting that Mr McDonnell would deny a voice to anybody who disagreed with him, Professor Cox then did exactly that to a commenter who disagreed with him:
1. We must respect other people's politics and be their friends, even if they're extremists who actively create extreme poverty, impose misogynistic economic policies, and discriminate against disabled people.
2. How dare you challenge my political worldview. You're blocked! pic.twitter.com/t4HJfBXibL
— Another Angry Voice (@Angry_Voice) November 22, 2018
Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, Professor Cox failed to realise his own behaviour resembled his argument far more than Mr McDonnell’s.
At the end of the day, this contretemps won’t matter to Professor Cox. He has a large fan base that is undoubtedly very forgiving and his career won’t be harmed.
But we may hope that, next time, before he jumps to insupportable conclusions, maybe he will take the time needed to consider all the evidence.
Like a scientist.
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