I wake up every day to the sound of an argument. This time it’s James Naughtie pressing a shadow minister to declare his position on the prospect of a Corbyn win in the Labour Party leadership contest. The Today programme’s combative exchanges are all too familiar. The politician says no more than his notes allow; the interviewer attempts to expose his subject’s hypocrisy or ignorance. If the politician is guilty of selective hearing, driven by the soundbite and haunted by the Whip, then political interviewers don't fare much better: irascible, heavy-handed, hectoring. It’s a game where each player depends on the other for his own performance. But for all its frustrations there’s no denying that such rhetorical sparring draws a crowd.
Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winner and zoologist, once told a story about taking his French bulldog, Bully, for his daily walk. They would pass by the long and narrow garden of a neighbouring house, where a white Spitz lived. As ‘mortal enemies’, Bully and the Spitz were compelled to engage in territorial combat along the full length of the boundary fence. Lorenz tells how Bully would gather his energy before turning to meet the Spitz, then the two dogs would tear down the edge of garden, barking ferociously all the way, before performing a swift 180 degree turn at the end to continue their aggressions back up the boundary line – all the time separated by the fence. One day, however, a considerable portion of the fence had been removed.
The dogs find themselves snarling, unexpectedly, face-to-face, and, realising their changed circumstance, stop barking. Will the mortal enemies cease hostilities only to draw breath before launching into a full-fanged attack, or might the removal of the fence allow them to approach each other as strangers, sniffing curiously? As much as they are creatures of habit, the dogs are creatures of habitat: the fence has always structured the rules of play. Suddenly Bully and the Spitz are standing in silence, facing the prospect of changing the game. But their uncertainty doesn’t last long: in simultaneous movement they turn from their state of arrest and sprint back to the fenced portion of the territorial divide, barking at each other as if nothing had happened.
Lorenz was an animal scientist and his dogs were just dogs. But shouldn’t we expect more from our press and politicians?