Politics for tired people

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The left is addicted to smartarse debunking. But arguments are won by telling human stories

Debates about immigration and welfare show that we can become so absorbed in displaying our own liberal cleverness that we forget the people we are arguing for. A dry recital of statistics will always lose out to anecdote and narrative. 

A Syrian refugee processing centre in Lebanon. Photo: Getty
A Syrian refugee processing centre in Lebanon. Photo: Getty

About 12 years ago, I was introducing myself to my new neighbours in the suburb of Pitsmoor, Sheffield. Pitsmoor then was broken sort of place, made up of condemned mid-20th century social housing projects and run-down Victorian terraces. My street housed a mix of dejected white locals like my neighbour, left behind by the death of Sheffield's industries; a few students like me, finding a cheap place to live; and the immigrants, including the man in the flat downstairs from me, a pleasant Nigerian nurse who worked at the local hospital and played extraordinarily loud trance music between shifts. My new next-door neighbour looked me up and down, sized up the extent of my intrusion on his home, and said, "At least you want to make something of yourself. At least you're not like them asylum seekers."

In 2002, "asylum seekers" was a dirty word, something you hissed. It did not mean: people who have struggled and suffered and hoped that the UK at last would be a country that was kind to them. It meant: people who came to take something from us. Pitsmoor did not have much that you could imagine anyone wanting to take. The park over the road was scorched with circular campfire scars and littered with dog shit and condoms, the dusty corner shop did packets of dry goods and economy bottles of cider, and the pub down the hill was outed as a crack den in one of the tabloids. The local church held a playgroup, and only three children went. Pitsmoor then was dying. The people dying there had two major complaints, which they would share eagerly at bus stops: firstly that people they didn't know and who didn't look like them or talk like them were getting the houses that nobody else wanted, and secondly that when they went to the doctor's surgery to have the maladies of their old age patched up, they were having to wait in line behind dozens of "them asylum seekers".

I haven't been back to Pitsmoor in a very long time. The resentments I heard there, though, have spread to become part of political common sense: too many people coming here, taking too many things from us, so let's stop giving them things, let's stop them coming here, let's send them back. The Conservative party is committed to bring immigration "down to the tens of thousands – rather than the hundreds of thousands we saw under Labour." Labour makes cursory nods to the "value" of immigration, but still stresses that it recognises "legitimate concerns" and criticises the government for failing to police borders vigorously enough. The Liberal Democrats charge that "Labour let the system get out of control". The mainstream has mimicked language that once belonged to the far right, and the provocateur role that used to be played by the comically appalling Nick Griffin has passed to the alarmingly acceptable Nigel Farage of UKIP, who says things like "this country, in a short space of time, has, frankly, become unrecognisable".

Nowhere in any of this does the political imagination conceive of those who come to our country, whether for protection or to work, as people. We do not treat them as people either. Throughout this century, the policy has been dehumanisation, from the petty humiliation of the short-lived voucher scheme that denied asylum seekers even the tiny freedom of cash, to the gross humiliations inflicted at Yarl's Wood detention centre. Here, women and children are kept under worse privations than most prisoners, despite being guilty of no crime. Here, sexual abuse is reported at endemic levels, as guards are alleged to take advantage of their stateless charges' absolute remoteness from justice. Here, a woman died last week. And from here, yesterday, a 19-year-old woman who has made her home in the UK, made friends, gained an education and helped to educate others – this young woman, Yashika Bageerathi, was deported last night, back to a country that she fled in 2011 to escape an abusive relative.

Yashika's name is notable. It's a rare thing to know the name of a refugee. In our so-called immigration debate, the left will chime in to junk the statistics of a right-wing talking point or to offer its own alternative cost-benefit analysis of immigration, but it practically never insists that we think about the individual humans who are brutalised on account of this strange national terror that someone might be getting something from us. It's a terror that dominates discussions of the welfare state too. There, as with immigration, the left has been thoroughly absorbed by debunking. Debunking, it is true, can be useful. It is also pleasurable. Demonstrating that your opponent is wrong – not just a little bit wrong, but utterly, clatteringly wrong beyond all reasonable bounds – brings satisfaction of the deepest kind. Pursued too far, though, it is politically disastrous, as Kenneth Burke described in his essay The Virtues and Limitations of Debunking:

"I think that the typical debunker is involved in a strategy of this sort: He discerns an evil. He wants to eradicate that evil. And he wants to do a thorough job of it. In order to be sure he is thorough enough, he becomes too thorough. In order to knock the underpinnings from beneath the arguments of his opponents, he perfects a mode of argument that would, if carried out consistently, also knock the underpinnings from beneath his own argument."

In the case of immigration, the left has sought consistently to debunk the right, but never to tell a different story. The right says that immigration costs money, so the left shows there is a net economic benefit. The right says that immigrants have no right to be here, so the left shows that in the majority of cases, they do. But in order to destroy the right's arguments, in every case the left has first accepted the implicit claim that immigration must be justified on these terms. The UK's immigration panic is sustained by fabrications and exaggerations, but the greatest mistake is to think that this was ever a crisis of fact when it is in fact is a crisis of sympathy. It is as if, having read Ben Goldacre's excellent Bad Science columns, the left walked away with the belief that carefully verified evidence would win in any argument, when the far more obvious lesson of data journalism is that the public doesn't care about data, and will not care about any issue until it has a human story and a human face.

Rallying accurate information is important, but there is a danger that we have become so absorbed in displaying our own liberal cleverness against the flattering backdrop of stupid racism, we forget the people we are supposed to be arguing on behalf of. The argument for immigration should be made in the most emotive terms. The justice of providing sanctuary and welcome to those who come to our country springs from easily explained concepts like friendship, safety and home: when we see immigrants as individual humans, not a nightmarish mass, then the right of someone such as Yashika to these things is as obvious as the right we recognise for ourselves. The them becomes us. It is past time that we in the UK looked in the eyes of those we have cast out, and began to see ourselves reflected there.