This hasn’t been an easy time for me, to be frank. A lot of it has been fruitful from the point of view of family: My sons are increasingly taking an interest in exactly the same things that I liked when I was their age: The Thunderbirds, Airfix, games, history, stick guns, cricket and Action Man and I have a full time job keeping them educated and entertained….as well as fulfilling my role as the house Atlas; bearing all minor responsibilities on my shoulders from changing lightbulbs, finding lost shoes and keeping everyone fed and alive.
That’s the good side, the bad side is that I find the strain of social media almost too much to handle on a daily basis. Running a website designed to entertain means I rely on social media to promote it. However, social media is becoming less social and more hysterical as time passes.
I don’t know if my Facebook and Twitter feeds are representative, but most….definitely more than half…is taken up with political views and bashing religion. And it’s never expressed calmly and rationally; it’s always dialled up to maximum. I’ll give you an example. Tonight, on Twitter, there’s this guy who has tweeted that the election of Theresa May as Conservative Party leader will be the greatest betrayal in British history. That’s his exact words. Theresa May…greatest betrayal in British history. He’s damning her for something she might do (and probably will in his mind) but, crucially, hasn’t done yet. And he considers his tone and opinion normal because he says he’s passionate about politics. I called him out on his statement (and tone). I told him not to indulge in hyperbole and that this doesn’t rank with such real betrayals as the Atlee government giving away top secret British jet engine secrets to the Soviet Union in the late 1940s or the activities of the Cambridge Circus of double agents…Kim Philby being a particularly nasty piece of work in treason. He disagrees and berated me for being “robotic”, because I didn’t display passion like he did. There are only two ways of talking politics, to him: Being passionate (ie, acting like a poncey diva and hypercharging debates) or being robotic (ie, being more nuanced and analytical).
I’d chalk this up to being the ravings of a lone internet nutter, but he’s not the only one. Daily I see the same kind of hyperbole, doom-mongering, polarisation of arguments, demonization of opponents, misinformation and diva behaviour from people who have cultivated sizeable social media followings and who get retweeted by other online divas. It’s rare to see anything that is measured, analysed, fair or properly thought out….and heaven help us if it’s been well researched! I suppose the 140 character limit is partially responsible for people going for the jugular but that doesn’t properly explain this wave of over emotional reaction to complex events and ideologies.
Even in print journalism this tendency to go overboard and polarise complex issues is prevalent. In this week’s edition of The Spectator Matthew Parris says “Why I’m ashamed of my country” in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Disappointed I could understand, as well as shocked, let down, deflated, concerned, worried, fearful, defeated or even…at a stretch…annoyed by the result but “ashamed”? There was a debate, there was a vote, one side lost, another won. Why would Mr Parris assume there was going to be a universal consensus on a complex issue? What if the vote was 49-51 for Remain, or even the reverse result of what actually happened: 48-52 Remain? That still leaves 15-16 million people voting to Leave…is he ashamed of them even if his side had won? At what point does being ashamed kick in for him? It’s all hyperbole; putting the onus on “the other” for your ills without ever pausing to take a measured analysis of where you went wrong, not why they’re all wrong and poor little you is right and feeling ashamed.
But it gets worse; Giles Coren writing in The Times, went on a rant that he’s so angry with the over 60s who voted Leave that he wants their voting rights taken away from them in future. He’s writing that in The freaking Times for goodness sake! Elsewhere I know someone, a well educated person from the leafy shires of Surrey and who hobnobs around London, Los Angeles and Canada who thinks some kind of weighting of the voting system where only the educated elites get a full vote might be preferable. Here we have people in Western society who think the solution to losing a vote is to disenfranchise half the country rather than take a more sane view that somehow they need to improve on their ability to talk and listen to people who aren’t exactly like them in thought.
This is what I call “The Pussification of Britain”. We are, traditionally, a nation and a people who have a reputation of calmness in the face of adversity. The British have this uncanny ability to be at their best when things are at their worst (paraphrasing the Starman there). The Earl of Uxbridge faced being made an amputee at the battle of Waterloo with the comment “My God, Sir, I think I’ve lost my leg” he didn’t think it, he knew it but he underplayed it because dropping to the ground yelling “AAARRRGGHHHH MEDIC! I’M DOWN, THERE’S A MAN DOWN! MEDIC! TELL MA I DIED WELL!” is considered Hollywoodish and OTT. Captain Scott knew he fucked up in the Antarctic but he faced the end with the words “we knew the risks…there is no cause for complaint”. No. Cause. For. Complaint. I’d say he could have found them quite easily but why be churlish when you’re being frozen to death? I’d throw in at this point the Blitz spirit, Rorke’s Drift, the siege of Mafeking, the enforced candlelit dinners during the power cuts of the 70s and the reaction to major acts of terrorism the British display as pointers to how we endure (dare I say stiff upper lip) when things don’t turn out peachy but now? If Zulu was being remade now, it would consist of the two officers blaming each other for about 2 hours as they all get massacred and increasingly getting hysterical as they did so.
So how did we turn from being the stoics, the Thin Red Line and the indomitable British to the bunch of whiny, hysterical loudmouths throwing tantrums and hurling abuse when things don’t go our way? If I can identify a moment in British history when the shift started, it was 1997 and the death of Princess Diana. Grief, shock and sadness I can understand but it turned into so much more. The tributes gushed, people spent inordinate amounts of time creating floral and artistic tributes in their millions but then it turned from grief into anger: The rest of the Royal family were blamed for not responding “appropriately”: By visibly shedding tears, or bearing their souls in public and even breaking protocol by lowering a Union flag at half mast. To me the whole spectacle tipped over into the mawkish and hysterical somewhere along the line and that mawkishness was enhanced by Mr Mawkish himself; Tony Blair, a Prime Minister who indulged in emotion driven politics. And it’s grown since then; political views are expressed in the media on emotional and not rational grounds. Something bad happens and journalists ask people how they feel. I became aware of this during the Russian invasion of Chechnya and the reporting of that. The news was full of stories about displaced people, destroyed homes, weeping old ladies, discarded children’s toys in the rubble but there was nothing about why this war was happening, who were the Chechens and why they were fighting the Russians or even who was winning? And when, some time later, there was an Israeli incursion into Gaza it was the same kind of reporting: More old ladies crying, more discarded toys and more displaced people.
Now the Brexit referendum has seen so many people just losing their shit online and in our mainstream media. The Remain side have definitely had more of the wailing and gnashing of teeth on this one (after all, they failed to win) but the excuse that “I feel passionately about this issue” doesn’t mean you should check your rationality in at the door and come over as a caterwauling spoiled brat lashing out at those who didn’t agree with you. The traditional British value…of which I make no apologies in valuing here…of dealing with an adverse result and getting on with things with as little fuss as is possible is sadly missing. There are still ways of making your points and sticking up for what you believe in without going nuclear. And it’s important to keep your cool on social media as well. Your list of friends will all have different views (at least I hope they do otherwise you live in a confirmation bias bubble) and your ravings and abuse of The Other who didn’t vote as you did will divide people, break up friendships and put a strain on civil relationships…I know because this is happening in my own life as we speak. Also, employers now look at your social media stream and will determine if you’re a snowflake and a liability not because of your views, but because of your attitude towards others.
And there will come a day when the nation faces another crisis and instead of drawing strength from our shared cultural value of determination and resolve in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds we will tear into each other, yelling “bigot” and “moron” as we go down.