In defence of opinion

SEBASTIAN FULLER ST ARROMAN thinks dismissing others’ political opinions is ultimately silly, and reckons we might gain something if we learn to listen.

Cambridge Union debate intelligence lasagne opinions ukip

You can usually read a few words of an article and realise where it is heading.

Political opinions, however, tend to be something a bit more subtle. Good friends of mine – my beloved college wife, even – can turn out to have political views wildly different from what I would have ever anticipated.

What a wonderful thing then, that the students of an institution founded on the spirit of free thinking, education, and most importantly, debate, can discuss the ‘minor trivialities’ of who is in charge of our country in such a casual scenario as over a plate of what was actually really nice lasagne.

This is a nice lasagna

This is a nice lasagne

If universities are known for anything besides drinking, it’s encouraging debate and lively new ideas. Student groups can have great influence, and here is where many of our great leaders formed their ideas in the first place.

“The thing you’ll love most about university is the things you’ll be exposed to,” my uncle once said to me, before rambling on for twenty minutes about his English Literature roommate that gave him enough lectures on the subject to inspire a lifetime of fanatical devotion to Dickens in the man that had rarely read a book beforehand.

When the pair were first lumped in a room together, my uncle would zone out whenever his roommate talked about all the books he was studying. Every now and then though, he would hear a line, or a paragraph, or a chapter that he loved. Hold on, he eventually thought to himself, maybe I should give Dickens a go.

The story about my uncle is actually (and very conveniently!) absolutely true, but even if it weren’t it would serve as a perfect analogy to what a lot of people don’t seem to have quite grasped:

Sometimes, in an argument, one party can only say, “Actually yeah, you’re completely right.”

Of course, such a sudden concession is rare, and usually surprising, and could often be kept silent in the interest of not wanting to back down, having already called the other person frustratingly dense in the heat of the moment. But the concession is still there. That person then has to go away and think about that point. Sometimes, days later, they could return with a counter argument. Sometimes they could return with a further question. Sometimes, they could return with an apology.

I was not born with a fully developed set of beliefs. I was raised by a mother and a father on opposing sides of the political spectrum, who always encouraged me to think about things for myself. I would hear their views after asking them questions and I – fancying myself a rebellious youth – would pointedly disagree wherever I could. And that’s all I would do. I often came out of these exchanges patting myself on the back for having done such a good job at disagreeing with them, having done very little at all to try and absorb anything they were saying. I wasn’t disagreeing, I would only realise years later, I was dismissing.

It was only when I came to Cambridge, and grew more aware of the radically conflicting political views held by my peers that I was ever forced to think about what mine actually were. Dismissing was easy. Disagreeing was not.

My political views have changed a lot during my two years at Cambridge, and have not at any point been a fixed thing. In fact, I would be surprised if they did not remain dynamic. They’ve adapted to the questions that I have been asked, and that I have been unable to answer. I have often been illuminated by a policy that I had not considered, and I am grateful every time someone confronts me with something I cannot answer. I am grateful because that’s how people learn.

I care about other people’s opinions. Especially my friends’. I’ve done research, but I am sure that other people may have considered things I haven’t, or bring a new perspective to the table. I also care about how these opinions will, when put to a vote, affect our country.

Isn’t the point of politics to try and find the correct answer (or the closest we can to it), to try and govern ourselves as best we can, for the benefit of all? That is why I am so shocked that, at Cambridge of all places, many students think that a discussion of UKIP’s undeniably dramatic politics makes you a complete bore.

Lunchtime discussions and voting UKIP don't always end well

Lunchtime discussions and voting UKIP don’t always end well

Perhaps the problem here is not that debate doesn’t change anything, but that we shame instead of praising anyone who changes their mind during one.

The idea that we should go on fighting our corner to the bitter end is a damaging one, and restricts growth and intellectual development for everyone. Of course, debates won’t always end in consensus, but if they can, why do we think of one side as a loser for conceding their point of view rather than praising their bravery for changing their point of view?

Especially if it’s only a matter of friends discussing beliefs around a meal.

And if I’m wrong, and debate really never changes anything, then why did no one tell me that before I bought my Union card?