It’s been a rule I’ve cheerfully broken many times, but always with friends and family whose opinions I already know. Or at least thought I did.
Until now. Brexit was bad enough when my husband and I made a pact to feign deafness or try to change the subject quickly if things start to get heated.
We know that some of our friends and relations vehemently disagree with our own fairly pragmatic views about EU membership, but we don’t want to fall out with them over the colour of a passport cover. When we live in such uncertain times, is letting a principle lead to the death of a friendship really worth it?
Steering away from the subject is not always possible, sadly. And now the pandemic has divided the world yet further, and in ways that we seriously never imagined. The fact is, we don’t know what to do or say, because we’ve never found ourselves in this position before.
There is no rough guide. Even in a disaster movie, after the world has been rocked on its axis by some kind of mysterious plague, you don’t see the remaining members of the human race (probably saved by Gerard Butler) settle down with old friends for supper and end up getting kicked out over the vaccine rollout.
It’s already happened to me. One minute the assembled company was chit-chatting over dream holiday destinations, the next all hell had broken loose over the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
My host asked me if I’d been fully vaccinated. I said yes, with some hesitancy, because I’ve a blood disorder that makes me susceptible to deep vein thrombosis – blood clots being identified as an extremely rare, but potential side effect of vaccination.
I muttered I was nervous because I felt not enough research had been done yet into the long-term implications. A fair point, yes?
No. Not in this brave new world. I expected sympathy but instead got a lecture on why selfish jab refuseniks should hang their heads in shame.
I’ll spare you the details, but the evening went rapidly downhill and we were asked, albeit politely, to show ourselves out.
Another friend, a senior critical care nurse, tells me she’s lost several other friends since the start of the year; they’ve accused her of being part of a global health conspiracy so she’s had to curtail all contact for the sake of her own mental health.
What is happening here? Why must we constantly divide ourselves into binary camps, where the nuances of grey that make up balanced and logical viewpoints are obliterated in the urge to be right?
Some of this extreme posturing must be down to the sheer task of assimilating so much information. Perhaps tunnel vision is inevitable, but it doesn’t mean it’s right.
Dissent should be free and unfettered in a democracy. We only have to look at the Taliban’s unequivocal takeover of Afghanistan to see where shutting down open debate can lead.
I’m paid to state my case in print, but I’ve always found it quite uplifting to be able to hold both sides of an opinion at the same time. And this works with other people too; you might love the person, but it doesn’t mean you like their views on any number of topics, fox-hunting say, or private education. It doesn’t mean you have to come across like Jeremy Corbyn on a neo-Marxist power trip every time you meet. What ever happened to tolerance?
There is of course a moral vacuum in political leadership, and this has robbed us of a compass. We’re individuals with free will, sure, and few of us would slavishly follow any party line. However, the dissembling, deception and downright lies we’ve witnessed in the last 18 months leave us adrift more than we might care to admit. Relying on our own opinion is probably the only thing we can trust.
When I was a child in the 1970s, my grandfather would tell me about the rivalries still festering in the village as a result of the 1926 General Strike. And even now, the divisive effects of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, which caused untold damage in Northern communities, blight progress. There’s still distrust between certain families.
I know at first-hand how divisive political differences can be and I say enough already. We’ve seen enough pandemic collateral damage; we should focus on coming to terms with our shared experiences instead of exploiting our differences.
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