James O’Brien is a liberal talk show host on LBC Radio, where he has acheived viral video notoriety for patiently questioning his callers until the fragility of their opinions is exposed. As he says in the introduction to his entertaining book How to be Right, “hardly anyone is asked to explain their opinions these days; not just to outline what they believe, but why.”
The book features chapters on various right wing talking points, such as Islam, political correctness or the nanny state. It highlights common arguments and what lies behind them, gleaned from years of “listening daily to people whose lives are very different from mine”. These talking points are explored through real conversations. The names have been changed to protect people’s identities, but otherwise they are transcribed from the radio archives and let people put their arguments across in the own words.
You’ll know the kinds of arguments that feature – Muslims are taking over and we’re not even allowed to say it. Or the government wants to micro-manage our lives, or white men are being blamed for everything these days. O’Brien is interested in how these opinions are formed, where they come from and why they get so embedded. These are questions worth probing, in a world in which politicians have re-discovered and doubled down on that old formula for manipulating the voting public. “Take an angry person, tell them you feel their pain, give them a target for their anger and help them to switch off their brain.”
It’s a running joke in the book that O’Brien is a smug liberal who doesn’t get it, and he knows how he comes across in some of the conversations. But if all the book was doing was laughing at tabloid readers, it wouldn’t be worth reading. There are three things I found particularly helpful. First is the art of asking good questions, ones that genuinely listen to the other person rather than trying to get straight to your point.
A second consideration that O’Brien models for us to treat the liars and the lied-to differently. Save your ire for the billionaire owners of the tabloids, not the readers. In a country divided over Brexit, where both sides jump to insulting the other very quickly, we should hold onto compassion and understand that opinions do not form in a vacuum.
Third, “despite the title of this book, it is refreshing, in an age of increasingly reductionist and binary debate, to recognise the importance of sometimes saying the three most undervalued words in the English language: I don’t know.”
The challenge for readers to take away is to probe their own opinions too. Where do our own opinions come from? What media voices shape them? Who pays those media voices? If we all asked ourselves more questions, we’d be a much healthier society.