'We can disagree well': Jess Phillips on her relationship with Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Updated: Jan 6, 2020
Author and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips, has materialised into our awareness for her two successful books: Everywoman and Truth to Power, as well as her candid and no-bullshit approach, particularly regarding issues involving marginalised (i.e. non-white middle-class male) groups, within Westminster.
Recently Phillips has come under attention for her relationship with MP from her opposition, Jacob Rees-Mogg. When asked in an interview with Elizabeth Day she said: ‘I don’t like his politics, I don’t like anything that he stands for and I don’t like what he is doing to the country. But as a person he is perfectly polite and, in fact, thoughtful and kind. I know it’s shocking. […] we can disagree well’.
So whilst Phillips has been hailed for her lack of tolerance of sexism, racism, and overall bigotry (in fact, her latter book celebrates and learns from the different oppressed individuals who have spoken ‘truth to power’), Phillips is also much an advocate for conversation; between each other and binaries.
Phillips' statement makes an important distinction. In having conversations with those we might disagree with it is not that we need to abandon our own opinions. However, we need to recognise that there is a person behind the opinion. A person who, whilst you might not agree with politically, might love their partner, be a good parent, do kind things for people. Whilst it may feel easier to disregard someone entirely, human beings are more juxtaposed than that. Moreover, each side forcing their subjective opinion onto one another is not practical.
But Phillips’ statement also eludes to the general social assumption that ‘to disagree ergo is to be incompatible’. The negative connotations that follow disagreeing; the polarising binaries that we each feel we must sit on, otherwise chaos will ensue.
Yet, as Phillips proposes, disagreements do not have to be arguments. Understanding, however, takes effort, and a willingness for each of us to step outside of our subjective lenses. While we might disagree, we can at least have open dialogue, and we can do so well.
Often during debates, this is particularly apparent within our politicians, both sides become so preoccupied with asserting and defending their own opinions that they leave little room to listen.
Furthermore, Phillips’ perception also touches on a deeper universal human insecurity around chaos and elusiveness. But why are we so often resistant to disagreements and difference?
I would argue it perhaps comes back to stories. The stories we live by: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell our children, and the stories we inflict on other people.
This is something which novelist, academic, and activist Elif Shafak has widely spoken about. She refers to the ‘circles’ which we all live around; caved in by our own opinions and those like-minded to us. She says: ‘Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We are born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink, our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither. If we stay too long inside our cultural cocoons, our friends, neighbours, colleges, families, if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, if means we are surrendered with our mirror image.’
Therefore, when the stranger enters our sphere, they bring with them strangeness and newness; poking holes of doubt into our stories and opinions. This closeness to strangers can mould our own self-prescribed identities in ways we feel we cannot control. The closer they get, the more we are forced to confront this unpredictability, and the potential alternatives to our stories. There is a self-surveillance that strangers and difference bring, which is often the incentive behind suppression and intolerance. It can be, therefore, rather an issue with what the stranger represents; more an inner uncertainty with the self that creates this resistance to one-another, rather than there being an issue with the content they contain itself.
Thus order, categorisation, and boundaries of truth, thoughts, opinions, and possibilities have become our coping mechanism to deal with transience and uncertainty. Yet, such coping mechanisms are an illusion. Such boundaries limit our possibilities; we are being denied the right to be complex and juxtaposed, restricting ourselves from becoming our authentic whole selves.
It is not that we need to learn to be authentic, this is a potential we all already hold within. But we need to unlearn boundaries of coping mechanisms we have placed on ourselves; to unlearn our in-authenticity.
We need to learn transparency with one another. This is something which Phillips has previously admired in Rees-Mogg. She told Stylist magazine that: "[Rees-Mogg] is who he is,” she said. “People might not like that, but… I find that much more appealing than spending a week with someone who’s a fake.” Transparency is the beginning to acceptance and understanding of each other; and this has the potential to lead to learning and progressing, together. Without conversation, how can we ever understand those whose opinions seem unfathomable?
We need to rethink the way we conceptualise difference and uncertainty. Instead of being fearful of difference, we need to start seeing the other side as enriching and inspiring, an opportunity for an expansion of experience. This is not to eliminate faith from our specific cultural traditions and opinions. But without doubt, faith becomes a ‘dogma’, as Shafak warns. And it is doubt which allows us to learn and grow.
What Phillips I think does so well is not condone the oppressive attitudes of her colleagues such as Rees-Mogg. She maintains her opinions, but does so in a way that still invites conversation between the two sides. Rather than fuel dichotomy that a lack of conversation encourages.
Perhaps, therefore, if we all became more comfortable with the idea of uncertainty, transience, and unpredictability, we can get to a place where we can all disagree well. And maybe even learn a thing or two from each other.