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The missing ingredient in today’s debates? Generosity

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In the early 1960s a white student who had seen Malcolm X speak at her college went to the Nation of Islam restaurant in New York to challenge him on his philosophy. “Don’t you believe there are any good white people,” he recalled her asking, in his autobiography. “I didn’t want to hurt her feelings,” he wrote. “I told her, ‘People’s deeds I believe in, Miss – not their words.’”

“What can I do?” she exclaimed. “Nothing,” Malcolm X said, and “she burst out crying, and ran out and up Lenox Avenue and caught a taxi”. He would later say of that encounter: “I regret that I told her she could do ‘nothing’. I wish now that I knew her name, or where I could telephone her …”

Generosity is a rare commodity in politics. That is not so surprising on the right: a politics rooted in individualism, self-reliance and private profit does not lend itself to altruism. States of penury and acts of charity are understood to emerge from entirely separate worlds. That is how George Osborne as chancellor could pauperise people with austerity and then, as editor of the London Evening Standard, run a campaign to feed the hungry without any sense of hypocrisy.

The left is different. It is difficult to imagine building a society that thrives on more sharing, redistribution and collective endeavour without a spirit of generosity – you cannot liberate humanity and dislike the people you are ostensibly doing it with and for at the same time.

At present it feels as if the well of generosity in left and liberal circles is running dry, creating an atmosphere of reflexive judgment and sweeping dismissal. On issues such as trans rights, a second referendum or Labour and antisemitism, for instance, debates have become so toxic that many find it difficult to meaningfully intervene.

A series of unequivocal binaries deny........

© The Guardian