WE learned at the end of last week that West Yorkshire police had arrested 44 people as part of a probe into organised sexual abuse.
Not that you’ll have seen much about it on TV or in the weekend newspapers, which were instead obsessed first with the eco-protesters who had invaded the Lord Mayor’s banquet, and then with the fact that Boris Johnson’s girlfriend had reportedly shouted at him.
Some columnists worked themselves into a lather about how shocking it was for MP Mark Field to manhandle a female protester.
Others — and this was trickier since, in the Johnson case, the police confirmed that nothing untoward had happened — sounded off about domestic abuse in general, and how public-spirited the snooping neighbours had been.
Almost no one thought it worth talking about grooming.
It’s true, of course, that we don’t know the details of what happened in Kirklees.
The presumption of innocence must apply, as in any other case.
Still, given what we know about similar cases in Yorkshire, and given the gravity of the accusations, isn’t there a pretty strong public interest in the arrests?
The investigation, after all, concerns the systematic rape of under-age girls.
Why, then, the imbalance in column inches? The arrests were reported in local newspapers and on regional television, but made barely a dent in the national media.
Is it, as some will allege, a liberal conspiracy to cover up crimes committed by Muslims? Hardly.
Yes, there are journalists who are squeamish about cases of this kind, and hyper-sensitivity about imagined racism was an exacerbating factor in the Rotherham abominations.
But that doesn’t explain why there was so little coverage in conservative as well as leftist media.
The reason there was such a disproportionate focus on the Field and Johnson stories is that they could be dragged into the horrible culture war which defines our politics.
In both cases, people could (and did) take sides according to their existing affiliations. They began with their conclusions and fitted the facts to their prejudices.
Depending on their politics, they saw either an MP reacting instinctively to someone who had barged in and might be armed, or a nasty Tory bullying a woman.
Depending on their politics, they saw either some vaguely wrong behaviour from Johnson (no one could quite put their finger on what) or a snooping leftie neighbour fabricating a story.
The point is, in either version, there are villains. People can enjoy fulminating against (delete as appropriate) evil Tory MPs or awful leftist protesters and sneaks.
In the Kirklees case, by contrast, there is no alternative interpretation. No one, however uncomfortable they might feel about stories like this coming out, is seriously going to defend rapists and abusers.
Culture wars are primarily defined by what and whom we dislike. The tendency to misunderstand, caricature and define yourself against others is encoded deep in our DNA.
Studies show that misrepresentation of political opponents is more common among educated people, and especially among the politically active.
This might seem counter-intuitive — you’d think that those who followed politics would have a clearer sense of what the other party stood for.
But no, those of us who are politicos (and that includes you, reader) tend to define “our” tribe in ideological terms rather than through, say, sports teams.
We are then prompted by our Palaeolithic genes to dislike and disbelieve representatives from rival tribes.
It affects not just how we would like to see the world, but how we actually see it. Conservatives genuinely saw an MP public-spiritedly dealing with a potential terrorist, leftists genuinely saw a man bullying a woman. (Had it been, say, a female Brexit campaigner being manhandled after shouting at Chuka Umunna, the line-up would have been different.)
This tendency is not new. But it is getting worse, here as in most developed democracies. “Yeah, because of Brexit,” some readers will say, inadvertently revealing their own confirmation bias.
Actually — and you might think this a confirmation bias of mine — the polarisation came after the campaign, and has deepened with every passing day as the issue of Brexit has dominated the news.
Look at how many people who, before 2016, were not especially fussed one way or the other, are now prepared to go to any lengths to hurt the other side.
Witness, for example, the way the Guardian, which campaigned high-mindedly for years against tabloid intrusion, thought nothing of publishing remarks recorded from inside a private house.
What changed? In a word, the division became tribal. Brexit is no longer about trade, budgets or sovereignty.
It is now about whom we dislike, caricatured respectively as elderly bigots who fell for lying demagogues or as sneering snobs who despise their own country.
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Plenty of people have withdrawn friendships since the referendum — one of many reasons that stirring it all up again with a second poll would be catastrophic.
Settling the Brexit issue — ideally by leaving the EU and becoming its closest friend and partner — will not, in itself, end this ghastly partisanship.
The tribalism will transfer to something else unless we rediscover our sense of common purpose, our understanding that fellow citizens with whom we disagree are opponents rather than enemies.
- This article first appeared on conservativehome.com.