“We talk about enemies more than we used to”

head shot of Alec Ross

“We are not enemies but friends. Though passions may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection”

Abraham Lincoln, during his first Inaugural Address, 1861.

In corporate jargon it’s known as managing upwards.

In season one of “The West Wing,” White House Deputy Chief of Staff and Chief Political Advisor Josh Lyman suspects the Bartlet administration has taken its eye off the ball. He asks for a word with the Commander-in-Chief.

“We talk about enemies more than we used to”, he tells the President.

The chief political advisor has identified the problem, namely that the President and his staff are constantly discussing their political opponents and adversaries, both within their own party and among the opposition. This is a reflection of the highly-charged political environment in which they operate, where every decision and move is closely scrutinised and can be used as a weapon by opponents. When Josh makes this comment, he is acknowledging that the President and his staff have become more focused on their enemies, rather than working to build alliances and find common ground. Lyman has identified that the administration is constantly at odds with political opponents and adversaries and that this is something that takes up too much their time and attention. In fact, it’s a terrible way they use their considerable energy and talents. Imagine how much better we’d be, is the inference, if we channelled our efforts in a positive direction?

This wee fictional exchange came to mind this morning after I received an email from a colleague who told me about a livestock farmer who recently employed a personal trainer. It turns out this was a great success – the farmer has lost over two stone. But she then discovered that the PT was a vegan. So she’s considering firing her. No, really.

I was troubled by this and it got me thinking.

Apart from being discriminatory – and probably illegal – it’s also bad for business. After all, farmers and growers – particularly those in the fruit and veg heartlands of Angus and Fife – produce the food that vegans eat. It’s probably on balance a good idea to keep a significant sector of your customer base onside.

I’m personally not a vegan, but then again neither am I a supporter of Rangers or Queen of the South. But if anybody wants to embrace veganism, or buy a season ticket for a football club of their choice, that’s entirely their business. What it isn’t is anything whatsoever to do with me. Fill your boots, people.

And more pertinently, everyone across society’s dietary spectrum, from vegans to venison lovers, support an £18bn Scottish industry that directly and indirectly employs 340,000 people and helps maintain Scotland’s reputation as a world leader in food and drink.

But the story speaks, I think, to a wider truth about the increasingly polarised world that we live in, one in which our views are subjected to the confirmation bias brought about by the echo chambers of social media. We’ve become tribal and angry. We talk about our enemies more than we used to.

I think too often we tend to focus on the very few zealots on the veganism side and irresponsibly portray them as representative of the whole, whereas there are many shades of grey. Maybe it happens the other way round as well. So we end up in a place where sacking someone for a perfectly acceptable personal lifestyle choice isn’t seen as nearly as appalling as it should be. A place where a Home Secretary – who was once yer actual Attorney General – talks without a scintilla of self-awareness about woke, lefty, tofu eating Guardian reading lawyers and it passes for political discourse. The bar is so low now. It would gar ye greet.

Personally, I think the more we tell people they are wrong then the more they are likely to double down. If people want to embrace veganism, that’s fine. Far better we concentrate on making our industry ethical and sustainable, and it’s important to acknowledge that we’ve still much to do when it comes to achieving those goals. Acknowledging imperfection is healthy. Talking helps, too.

We live in a world of distraction where we’re seemingly willingly gaslighted into being angry at the wrong targets, and vegans seem to have found themselves unwittingly drawn into the culture wars for the crime of enjoying lentils. There’s probably some Venn diagram for anti-vegan folk. I’ll bet you they voted Brexit, want to Stop The Boats, rant against the “woke liberal elite”, say “all lives matter” and reckon that “Boris got the big calls right”. If we were playing a game of Gammon Bingo, these guys win us a full house.

None of this does us any good, and what’s needed is a period of silence when we can reflect that we are not enemies but friends, and repair our bonds of affection. Then we can have an extended conversation over tofu washed down with copious amounts of a vegan beer to remind us that what unites us is always bigger than what does not.

Slainte, people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.

head and shoulders of Alec Ross

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1 reply »

  1. Absolutely spot on, Alec. We live in a world where everything is either black or white. The fact is bad people sometimes do good things and good people sometimes go wrong. Let’s embrace our differences and make a better world for ourselves and our children.

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