I have a shameful secret. I’ve been watching these…videos online. Amazing what you can get in a couple of clicks these days. Being what the Corbynistas deride as a Centrist Dad, I have taken to seeking out short films of taboo figures like Tony Blair and Barack Obama, talking about current affairs and being pained, maturely analytical, and thrillingly reasonable. If Brexit is your problem, Mr Blair asks, if parliament can’t decide between two or more different flavors of Brexit and lots of people think the flavors on offer are worse than no Brexit at all, doesn’t it make sense to ask the question directly in a referendum rather than muddling it with a raft of other issues in a general election? Ooh. That’s the good stuff right there. Usually, of course, just when I’m really getting excited, I hear my wife or kids coming up the stairs and I have to alt-tab guiltily to another window so it looks like I’ve been watching donkey porn.
It’s the political equivalent of listening nostalgically in the car to those compilations of 1980s power ballads on radio stations your teenager wouldn’t be seen dead tuning into. But don’t you thirst, just a little, for those days? For grown-ups thinking difficult problems might have solutions you could work out by thinking and talking rather than shouting? That acknowledge muddle and compromise and complexity? That don’t just shout ‘get Brexit done’ or ‘smash capitalism’ or ‘abolish transport’, and denounce their opponents as fascists or war criminals or apologists for terrorism, but try to set out a sensible path from here (wherever here is) to there (wherever there is)?
Recently I got to the end of one such video in which President Obama very calmly suggested that rage-filled social media howl-rounds might not be the optimal way of advancing progressive causes. That there might be something a bit…lazy and self-satisfied about an activism that consists of canceling people for misusing a pronoun or saying ‘colored’ rather than ‘of color’ or what have you. He said: ‘There is this sense sometimes of, “The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough. Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. ’Cause, man, you see how woke I was? I called you out.” That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.’
He added: ‘This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically “woke” and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.’ Yes, yes, and thrice again yes. Here, I thought, is the voice of reason and good sense. Who could disagree? Changing the world asks us to work with what we have — to find a space in which agreement can be reached, and a common language and decorum in the conversation. Couldn’t we all just get along?
Then I stumbled (via social media, naturally) on a riposte. The Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy was asked about President Obama’s remarks on a televised panel discussion. ‘I completely and utterly disagree with Barack Obama,’ she said. ‘I go online exactly to tell people to fuck off when they attack me. This idea of respectability, this idea of civility, this idea of unity…all of these words — decorum — who invented these words? Those words were invented by white men for the benefit of other white men, in systems and institutions that were always designed to be for white men.’
Hold on a minute. The world is full of things invented by white men for the benefit, mostly, of white men — the printing press, representative democracy, the bicycle and so on — and rejecting them out of hand for that reason alone seems a bit over the top. Babies and bathwater. Waste not, want not.
But there is — bear with me — something in what she says. Decorum can be a tool of power, or a way of maintaining the status quo. The best way to rig a debate is to frame it in such a way as to exclude or disadvantage certain conclusions or participants. ‘How should we reform X?’ is not much use to people who want to argue we should abolish it. If the parameters of ‘civilized’ discussion are framed in such a way as to exclude, say, combustible Egyptian feminists who want to tell us to ‘fuck off’, then for better or for worse that is a restriction of the conversation. Complaints about ‘tone-policing’ — dismissing what someone says because of the indecorous way they say it —touch this same note. Come to that, anyone who has ever found themselves in a dispute with Lambeth Council will know that there are certain systems that aren’t designed to be navigated.
Ms Eltahawy argues for the political importance of profanity and the value of rejecting a system wholesale. She offers the example of the Ugandan feminist Dr Stella Nyanzi, placed on trial for insulting the president. Since she’s ‘known for her profanity’, she appeared by video link for her sentencing hearing. In the video, said Ms Eltahawy, ‘She took off her top, she jiggled her breasts, and she said: “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”’ This is possibly what Aristotle would have recognized as a dispute over ‘translative stasis’ (a refusal to accept the framing authority of the court) though there are other respects in which Aristotle might have been taken aback.
The question is: where does it get you? You can’t argue with a jiggling bosom and a string of four-letter words. You can and should argue about the correct parameters of a common language, but you need some sort of parameters — some sort of common language — to argue it in the first place. Then again, I’m a Centrist Dad. I would say that.