Oliver Dowden, the Conservative party chair, recently delivered an interesting speech to the Heritage Foundation thinktank in Washington. The Independent reported it with the headline “Tory chair gave ‘anti-woke’ speech at think-tank funded by tobacco and oil companies”. HuffPost gave its reporting the headline “Tory party chair Oliver Dowden likens ‘woke ideology’ to Maoism in bizarre speech”.
Some commentators tried to cast his speech as part of the so-called “culture wars”; they seemed to only care about his use of the word “woke”, ignoring lines in his speech such as “we allow ourselves to be obsessed by what divides us rather than what unites us”.
What I saw in his address was a defence of free speech, the promotion of small government and support for our long-held values. Defending great British figures like Winston Churchill should never be controversial. Dowden highlighted the point that is often lost on those commentators and Twitter warriors who spend much of their time talking down Britain: a lot of the world longs to be like us. They long to have our values and our way of life.
While some of the language in his speech is harsher than I would use, this is in line with a radically moderate society: a society where we are radical in our care for one another and how we listen, but moderate in what we say and do.
The societal debate around equality has become too polarising. We shouldn’t be picking sides; we should be showing compassion. It isn’t radically moderate to ruin someone’s life because they said something ignorant. It isn’t radically moderate to shut down debate and discussion. It isn’t radically moderate to disregard the experiences of individuals due to the characteristics they were born with.
But it also isn’t radically moderate to boo individuals taking the knee – or taking other actions – to protest the abuse they have suffered. We all need to shout less and listen more. We must realise that giving no quarter is not the same as embracing ideas we disagree with. It is radically moderate to show care, to be kind and to be respectful. It is radically moderate to recognise that ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ and other communities still face social barriers.
I represent a very diverse constituency. I’ve listened to my constituents, especially my British Caribbean constituents, who cannot escape that their heritage was blighted by slavery. I am currently in a fortunate position, but I came from a white working-class background. There are many minority-ethnic people who will not be able to place themselves in the same position that I grew up in, in the same way I cannot experience how their heritage affects them today. Just because we haven’t all been in the same position doesn’t mean we cannot listen to one another, hear, acknowledge, understand and act.
The stories many of us tell are our everyday experiences. These stories are what we constantly feel. To show one another care and concern, and to try to change society so that certain hurtful experiences become less common isn’t giving in to ideas we disagree with: it is being human.
This article is a call for us all to choose, in a radically moderate way, to be respectful of opposing opinions, to show compassion when we do not feel we should, and to listen sympathetically to those we disagree with. Only then will division end and we can come together to tackle the problems all sides face in a spirit of genuine tolerance and equality.