Sometimes adolescents can display exceptional political awareness and teach us all valuable new ways of thinking. As Greta Thunberg and the other young climate activists have done. For others it is a time of considerably less awareness when some dubious attitudes can be expressed – especially on social media.
Those negative views can be incredibly painful for others to hear, particularly when they are pumped out across social media. They can also foster aggressive abuse that have consequences that must never be underestimated. After all, it is not so very long since the Conservative government of this country passed a law that left any teacher who happened to be gay terrified that they would be sacked. That law was only repealed in 2003.
Social media posts: can you change your views?
So, dangerous views must be called out and condemned for the disgusting nonsense they represent. But does that mean that the owner of those views has taken a permanent stance and can never learn and evolve and move beyond outrageous immature attitudes?
I ask this question because Ross Peltier, the Green Party candidate for the Batley and Spen by-election, has stood down as a candidate after social media posts revealed attitudes that he held in the past that are clearly homophobic and misogynistic.
That is no small mistake and not something that can be lightly explained away. But what is the best approach for those who support women’s rights, gay liberation and transgender causes to take when people change their views? Is it helpful to take the view that a leopard can’t change their spots and define someone as permanently outcaste? Or do we welcome the change of heart?
Surely there comes a point when it is important to respect the ability of those we once strongly disagreed with to evolve their thinking and transform their attitudes? Surely the whole point of political campaigning is not to convince those who have always agreed with us but to convince those who haven’t always agreed with us?
Effective campaigning changes attitudes
Effective campaigning finds ways of speaking to new sections of the community and changes attitudes. Ineffective campaigning speaks only to the converted.
That is one of the reasons I was so pleased that Ross Peltier had agreed to stand for the Green Party in Batley and Spen. He is a black professional rugby league player living in the heart of a working class community in the north of England. He is well known and well respected in Batley and in Keighley in the way that few others are.
If someone like him speaks out on gender issues and tells people that attitudes he once held are wrong and need challenging, he can influence a lot of people that others can’t. His past views can’t lightly be dismissed, but if he has genuinely moved beyond them and is now campaigning for something much more enlightened then that is incredibly helpful.
Put simply, there is an immense need to have people with a wide range of backgrounds speaking out for positive change and telling communities that trust them how important it is to rethink negative attitudes.
What does this mean for equality campaigners?
What is the best approach for those of us who care about issues of equality to take? Do we refuse to allow an individual to change and evolve and dismiss any evidence of a transformation of someone’s views as insincere? Or do we welcome and embrace changes of heart and use high-profile individuals to help others follow suit?
It helps no one for us to vent our anger about past attitudes if we are not prepared to pay respect to those people who dare to change and grow. Not everyone comes from communities where they encounter enlightened attitudes at an early age. Not everyone thinks the same thing at 16 as they do at 26 or at 76.
We live at a time when there are some very unpleasant forces gaining strength amongst working-class communities in towns and cities that have experienced decades of neglect. The best people to challenge those forces are those who are rooted in the heart of those communities. These people won’t always come from a simple past of having always held positive views.
We need to learn to respect and to value those individuals who change. Or we are going to find it really tough going to win the hearts and minds of enough people in those communities to achieve real lasting change for the better.