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How do ideas and attitudes change?

Attitudes to LGBT+ people have changed over the past few decades. Yuri Prasad looks at how struggle can change ideas in society
Issue 2806
Demonstration against Section 28

Demonstration against Section 28 in Newcastle, 1988. (Steve McTaggart)

It is an encouraging sign of change that when footballer Jake Daniels recently came out as gay, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. What a difference to the deep hostility that greeted fellow player Justin Fashanu when he came out in 1990. But football is well behind the wider changes in society.

According to a British Social Attitudes survey that year, 58 percent of people thought same-sex relationships were “always wrong”. By the time of the latest survey in 2016, 64 percent of people said same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all”.

Such a sharp turnaround in attitudes is difficult for the right to explain. They argue human morality is a static affair, fixed by human nature. It is also a challenge to conventional liberalism.

Here change happens through slow increments. Better education leads to more informed discussion, which in turn gradually gives way to new laws that regulate society. Change comes from our enlightened betters. Both approaches fail to explain how sometimes ordinary people’s ideas can change very quickly, and as the result of their own experiences.

For Marxists, struggle is the key to understanding this process. Most people hold a mix of ideas that help them make sense of the world. Some are the sludge of reaction, taught to them in education, reinforced by politicians and the mainstream media.

Karl Marx wrote about this in his book, The German Ideology. He noted, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

All too often, people accept these “common sense” ideas because they seem to explain what they see around them. But people also have other ideas that directly contradict those of the ruling class. These mostly come from their own experiences.

Struggle is crucial to the balance between these two sets of ideas. When people fight for change they often question their older assumptions about society. That is why you frequently hear new activists asking, why are the police against us, why does the media lie, and how do we change people’s minds?

It can also be a time when people ask more fundamental questions about society, including about the divisions of gender and sexuality, for example. Even those battles that appear to have lost can have a lasting effect beyond the participants. 

Examples of this come from the 1980s. The right had created a toxic environment for LGBT+ people, labelling the HIV/Aids epidemic a “gay plague”. They followed that with Section 28 legislation that banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. It provoked an increase in homophobia—but also resistance. 

In the most difficult circumstances LGBT+ people demonstrated, organised and confronted the politicians, the media and the clerics.  Protests against Section 28 led to the forming of groups such as Stonewall.

The labour movement also began to embrace LGBT+ liberation. The Great Miners’ Strike received support from LGBT+ groups. South Wales miners took the issue of equality into their NUM union, the TUC and the Labour Party—and won.

Peter Purton, in his book Champions of Equality, says that the Great Miners’ Strike was crucial. By the mid-1990s all significant trade unions in Britain had passed policy in favour of LGBT+ rights. It meant there were now bodies representing millions of working people that stood in opposition to oppression. This subsequently forced the state into a series of grudging reforms.

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