Eight years after Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by religious fundamentalists in Pakistan’s Swat Valley for wanting to continue her education, she’s now getting brickbats thrown at her for seeming to have a Tory friend at Oxford University. It may seem like a far-fetched comparison but, for a seasoned activist like her, I’m sure it must feel that tribalism – real or virtual – is never far away.

In Swat, where the Taliban gained a temporary foothold in 2007 until a massive military operation by the Pakistan army drove them out in 2009, the “tribe”dictated that girls shouldn’t be educated. The terrified inhabitants of Swat had to be either with them or shut up. In 2020 social media land, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Malala’s seeming endorsement of her friend to be elected to the Oxford University Conservative Association indicated that she was dancing with the devil and could, by association, be the devil herself. 

If Malala thought that by coming to the land of freedom of speech she might encounter a wee bit of nuanced chat on Twitter, she might have been sorely disappointed. We have become such a strangely intransigent, polarised society that in a heartbeat an inspirational young woman, the darling of many young, would-be left-leaning activists around the world, became a “mouthpiece for imperialism”, a “sell-out” and a “disengenious careerist” as if getting a bullet through the brain was all part of her grand plan for life.

Despite the polarisation, Is it still possible to have friends and family from a range of political persuasions, like Malala appears to? Have the debates around Brexit, Scottish Independence, and racial injustice made us so fixed in our ideological viewpoints that we can’t even bear to think there may be an alternative?  

With family, you’re maybe stuck. How could I forget my dad marching out the house for several hours to walk off his disgust at my voting choice in 1987. He eventually forgave me, until the next election. But we’ve always been able to have a discourse about a wide range of topics, and recently he did admit that he had changed many of his views over the years because of conversations he had had with me and my siblings.

Sadly, it’s not going quite so well with my own offspring: my politics-studying son claims I said I’d leave the country if he went into politics, so divergent were our views. I said he’s being overly dramatic – I actually said I’d cut him out of my will – and we laughed. It does make me understand my dad’s frustration 30 years ago. It was about losing control of things which you feel should be in your control, and of course it’s completely wrong. As my son says of me: “For someone who claims to fight for diversity, diversity of thought has to be part of that.” Yes, yes of course he’s right. Where’s the number for the lawyer though?  

Friendship is trickier. For Malala, whose hero is Benazir Bhutto, who led the left wing People’s Party in Pakistan, and whose ambition is to herself lead Pakistan one day, she made friends with people from a variety of backgrounds, and political persuasions. As a new arrival she had a thirst for knowledge and as a high profile global speaker, she had the confidence and belief to tell her uni friends about the life experiences that shaped her, which might in turn influence them. For Malala, ideology isn’t her bag. She, like her dad, believes in strong family values, but also in equality and social justice. What she strives for crosses political divides and is gently nuanced, which is why Twitter can’t get a handle on her having a Tory pal. Like the Taliban, you’re either in the gang or out.   

For the rest of us though, keeping that interaction with a mix of friends it’s getting harder. We are seeing each other less and less face to face where the chances of a more complex conversations, the reading of facial expressions and non- verbal cues help with the spirit of openness.

With the lockdown and restrictions around pubs, cafes and other meeting places, the opportunities for stepping outside of the metaphorical tribe are becoming fewer and far between. Stuck indoors, we’re more at the mercy of social media where it’s too easy to surround oneself with the comfort of those who are like-minded, and rail against those who are too “woke” or too right wing.

Our more reasonable thoughts are less likely to get noticed and so, despite the First Minister’s continual call to Be Kind, when the infection rates are up and we’re staring ahead at a gloomy winter, it sometimes feels easier to close the shutters down for the season, when what we should be doing is being a bit more Malala.