Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Stop all this ranting and posturing

We need to have open minds, to accept that it is OK to pay attention to the other side
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Good, I thought when I read about the new ban by British Airways on the transport of live animals which are used for research by scientists or exploited by companies for testing their products. Even though it means loss of revenue, this major carrier has dropped out of the business of moving primates, wild birds and other creatures used in experiments. Air Mauritius has made the same decision - in this case because there is a growing movement worldwide to stop the use of long-tailed Mauritian macaques, some of the sweetest primates on earth who feel pain and distress in ways which replicate human responses.

Good, I thought when I read about the new ban by British Airways on the transport of live animals which are used for research by scientists or exploited by companies for testing their products. Even though it means loss of revenue, this major carrier has dropped out of the business of moving primates, wild birds and other creatures used in experiments. Air Mauritius has made the same decision - in this case because there is a growing movement worldwide to stop the use of long-tailed Mauritian macaques, some of the sweetest primates on earth who feel pain and distress in ways which replicate human responses.

Good, I thought at first, good to see big business taking an ethical stand. But the reason for the decision turns out to be fear, not concern for the poor dumb beasts. Animal-rights extremists have started to threaten and target BA executives. On cue, a thunderous response from Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, who believes absolutely in the primacy of science and of human life and frequently sounds like a frenetic ideologue. He writes to BA an emotive letter: "How could you explain your decision to members of your own staff who suffer, or who have relatives who suffer from diseases and disorders for which research on animals offer the only hope of a cure?"

Is this any way to carry out a national debate on an issue of such importance for the planet, development and morality? Many conscientious citizens are troubled by the use of primates in experiments and tests. We are also aware that for far too long secrecy has prevailed in laboratories which has made them unaccountable and that there has been a careless and cruel use of animals and that some humans feel no responsibility to take care of those who cannot speak for themselves. The group of the uneasy includes carnivores and people who are not anti-vivisectionists or overly crazy about animal rights. I am not one of those who believes that the life of a rat matters more than a new vaccination to eradicate malaria, but no, I cannot give carte blanche to Mr Blakemore and his ilk. There has to be a better balance between human needs and the needs of the natural world. Science is neutral but what is done in the name of science can never be amoral. As we learn more, more of us want a nuanced debate. There is no room for that in the noisome battles between the fundamentalists, one side now using violence as a matter of course.

Do the tyrannical anti-vivisectionists believe in the end of all live experimentation? Have they the right to make that demand without consulting the citizenry which will have to suffer the consequences? Do the scientists really believe all cruelty to all animals is always justified? Have they the right to ask for this without our democratic consent? They will not talk to each other and come to some common ground. You are either with them or against them.

And so it is with other problems our society is trying to grapple with at present - teenage pregnancy, freedom of expression, abortion, divorce, antisocial behaviour. The shrill polemicists of polarity create a din and then skulk off waiting for the next punch up. Policies are rushed through to placate them. The policies don't work. The problems carry on or get worse. The polecats come out again. I am heartily sick of it all.

If Melanie Phillips (Queen polecat) denounces teenage mums, the left gathers like a pack to bring her down, as if that can be the only response. When ministers plan interventions to improve parenting skills, the right rushes out idiotic denunciations of the "nanny" state. If I say sex education alone is ineffective if we want to transform the sexualised culture which is corrupting our vulnerable young, I am condemned as a crypto-fundamentalist right winger.

All of these troubling predicaments listed above, can only be improved if the posturing stops, the left and right work together, for the greater good. I too disagree with Phillips most of the time, but at least she sees teenage pregnancies are something to rue not to celebrate, unlike some leftie hippies who have been suggesting that for a 12 or 14-year-old it is better to have a baby than to work in a dead end job. I am sure they will applaud this insight, all those frustrated teenage mums, from poor families, as most are, who are so often incapacitated as their raging teen hormones clash with the normal fatigue and desperation of baby rearing.

With freedom of expression too, it is nonsense to argue that Muslims, Sikhs and other mischievous Britons of colour are trying to bring down an edifice preciously preserved in this country since the Enlightenment. There has never been an absolute freedom to express thoughts and views in Britain, one of the most secretive of states in the occidental world. You still cannot sell Kitty Kelly's book on our royals in this country, for example, and who is brave enough to commission an article on why suicide bombing is becoming so prevalent? But for religious groups to get extra laws to protect them from feeling offence is a thoroughly bad idea because it will lead to intolerable cultural protectionism.

There is a place for taking uncompromising positions. In the marketplace of politics and the political media, it is great that we are not all asleep under the same soft duvet of mutual understanding. I think Charles Kennedy is right to position himself as a sensible, reasonable man between two warring leaders, but thank heavens we don't have to suffer three utterly reasonable leaders- the tedium would kill the Mother of parliaments. The world loved George Galloway's performance in front of the US senate because it was so untamed and opinionated. How I miss the brilliant personalities in parliament who could turn a phrase and screw an opponent - big beasts such as, Michael Heseltine and Denis Healey.

In a bustling democracy, there are beliefs and views which divide a nation and must do so. There can be no happy clappy compromises on the war in Iraq, socialism, Thatcher's economic liberalisation, the big subjects. But when we have repeated social policy failures, endemic and chronic national problems which degrade the nation and its aspirations, or when new challenges appear, we need to move into a different gear and engage in thoughtful, informed exchanges with open minds. This means accepting that we all have much to learn, that it is OK to pay attention to convincing evidence presented by those on the other side and that it is smart to change your mind. Will it happen? Not likely. It would be like getting John Humphreys to say nicely, "Now that debate made me think again, although it was a little too cosy for this programme. Thank you. Not so black and white, eh?"

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

Comments