"You're right, I'm wrong"

… said no one ever on social media

I live in Lewes, East Sussex, the unofficial bonfire capital of the UK, nay the world.

This weekend, the population will increase fourfold as tens of thousands of people descend on the town to take part in a custom that has its roots dating back to the mid 1500’s when 17 protestants (the Lewes Martyrs) were burnt at the stake.

On Saturday night, six Lewes-based bonfire societies will parade through the streets, along with societies from outlying villages, carrying burning torches, before returning to their bonfire sites where they burn effigies and launch spectacular firework displays.

The event is steeped in tradition and ritual. It is anarchic, pagan and anti-establishment – anyone concerned with health & safety protocols would be well advised to stay away.

This year, the fireworks have been going off early though.

There has been a debate rumbling for a while amongst the townsfolk that has exploded into the mainstream media as part of “Zulugate”.

Put simply, each society has long been associated with particular ‘Pioneers’ and much of their imagery and costumes are aligned to that.

Pioneers include Vikings, Mongols, Ancient Greeks, Native Americans, Moors, Monks, Buccaneers and, yes, Zulus.

As part of their bonfire night ritual, some members of Borough Bonfire Society have traditionally worn Zulu costumes and blacked their faces.

Other societies similarly adopt certain characteristics of their own Pioneers, whether that be wearing native American headdresses or donning medieval soldier costumes.

This year a petition has been started accusing Borough’s ‘blacking up’ as being an example of racist behaviour and demanding that they desist.

The debate has raged on social media and local forums for several weeks now and has caught the attention of national media outlets.

I’ve been observing this debate with interest, seeing how polarised the alternative positions are and increasingly how toxic the debate has become.

What started out as two opposing views has rapidly descended into personal abuse, people being blocked from community forums and threats of physical violence being reported to the police.

But this level of disagreement is no one-off. Sadly, this is happening more and more nowadays and is another example of the dark side of social media,

Social media makes it easy to take an entrenched position on a topic, surround yourself with people who think the same and then refuse to even consider any alternative views.

Worse still, to denigrate any divergent opinions and resort to personal attacks against anyone holding those views, often sheltering behind the anonymity of one's keyboard.

It makes a stark contrast to how life (usually) works beyond a screen.

In the real world – whether in business or everyday life - if you have an opinion and you want to persuade an 'opponent' to come around to your way of thinking, how would you go about it?

I’d suggest you might start by listening.

Perhaps you would sit down with your ‘opponent’ and, respecting their right to hold an alternative viewpoint, try to understand their position and why they believe in it.

You might then look for areas of common ground and establish trust in those areas.

After that, maybe you would explore the main areas of disagreement, listen to their views and consider how you feel about them whilst suggesting alternative positions

Disagreements are rarely one-dimensional - they are usually far more nuanced, meaning such an approach has a greater chance of success than by adopting a strident, inflexible position.

In the end, you may still agree to disagree, but at least you should have acquired some empathy for an alternative view and hopefully a deeper level of self-awareness too.

And think for a moment, if someone was trying to convince you about an alternative viewpoint, what would make you more likely to shift your opinion?

Reasoned, respectful argument or being abused and told that you are wrong?

I think we know the answer to that, but meanwhile, back at Lewes Forum…


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