The heros of 2016 have been those on the Fleet Street obituary desks whose workload was intense all the way through from The Bad Beginning to The End. The reaper may have come many times during the year, but for myself the truly sorry moment of 2016 was not a moment at all. It was rather the slow and silent passing of something which we had taken for granted…
The UK’s Green Party consuls released their 2016 Christmas message by way of a grainy video. In it, Jonathan Bartley and Caroline Lucas gave us their joint summary of 2016. The former had this to say: “Some might say that we are citizens of nowhere, we feel that we are citizens of the world.” He said this with great profundity when it is actually quite a well-thumbed and strongly held view. He alludes with “Some might say” to Theresa May’s conference line that: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Here we have two polar opposite views, yet Jonathan Bartley doesn’t engage with Mrs May’s statement in a constructive way. I happen to think that on this point they are both wrong, if for different reasons. Cosmopolitanism is more of an obligation than it is a choice and yet the grim reality of a world where the UN begins to look more and more like the League of Nations makes nationhood indispensable. The unfortunate truth is that loudly proclaiming oneself to be a kosmou polites – a citizen of the world – does a lot less good in the world than the actions of the well-governed democratic nation-state.
The slow and silent feature of 2016 was this: we didn’t talk to each other with any clarity.
In the video Caroline Lucas said this about the legacy 2016: “And when they act like fascists, we will call them fascists.” I wish I could provide you with the context of this statement. Unfortunately, there is none save the briefest mention that Trump is “shit” (for anyone doubting me, check the video and see for yourself). Who are these fascists that we need to be calling fascists? It would be a mistake to diagnose Trump as a fascist, because he not a fascist, he is a populist. At most he is a very dangerous proto-fascist populist, but this does not make him a fascist. Does Lucas know what a fascist is? As Orwell has shown, the term is not to be used lightly even if it can be used simply. For someone who would rightly scorn the phrase, “Brexit means Brexit”, Lucas should first tend to the weeds in her own garden.
The slow and silent feature of 2016 was this: we didn’t talk to each other with any clarity. On the face of it, this is not a controversial claim – 2016 is widely lamented as the year of post-truth, one in which a Pakistani Minister thought Israel had threatened Pakistan with nuclear war after he was fooled by fake news. However, the problem of communicating in 2016 far exceeds one cyber-savvy teenager in a basement. Fake news is less a symptom than it is a distraction from a much deeper and wider problem that we are all mist-makers who obscure the truth far more than we would want to admit.
To explain the pervasiveness of this problem we must start at the ground level. From my own experience, I would argue that the problem is best seen in and around college campuses. As explained by Harry Frankfurt, the participants of a “bull session” try out thoughts and attitudes on one another in other to test the boundaries of ideas without it being assumed that they are committed to these ideas. I think this pussyfooting occurs in two forms and from two different types of young adult. The first: online folks well versed in politics and set in their opinions. While they are not incorrigible people, they recognise that there is a slim chance of them changing the worldviews of people they have already tried to persuade, and so, in the safety of a private group, they mostly direct ‘shit chat’ at their political peers. This ‘shit chat’ can be as uncommitted to ideas as to consist of ironic racism or homophobia. I have plenty of time for these in-jokes precisely because they would be absurdly inappropriate in any other forum. Humour, moreover, is worthwhile in itself. However, polls featuring the sexiness of Dianne Abbott are only risible for so long. Although I love ‘shit chat’ as much as the next person, ‘shit chat’ never clarifies the reasons as to why you think what you think (2016 was shit, because…) and if ‘shit chat’ cannot do this then it cannot help us ensure that 2017 is less shit. For this first group, it is occasionally worth reminding others of their original position lest they become trollish parodies of themselves.
The second type of pussyfooter has not one good excuse for not engaging in proper debate. These are the people who, to put it in the terms of a History graduate, hold strong opinions without ever having read the primary source material. They are the friend who would be shocked if you told him you voted for Brexit, but if you then tried to engage him in debate would start shouting “racist” at you. To his credit, he shouts this in a way which is intended to mock his own side (he knows you’re not an actual racist), but, to his shame, it nevertheless remains an attempt to avoid debate. In a face-to-face meeting, his loud attempts at deflection are to hide the fact that he voted on the basis of campaign platitudes.
This observation – that people have inadvertently stopped communicating seriously or thoughtfully – has so far only been argued from personal experience. It could be proven by using the low-hanging fruit on college campuses, but it’s too depressing to get into the many ways precise language is deliberately hijacked from legitimate causes. Suffice to say, apparently the difference between institutional racism and white privilege is a non-issue. I can even confirm the existence of some people who, if they were ever being beaten up by a gang of men in the Orient, would most likely say during their beating that “they know not what they do”… and as the attackers made away with their possessions they might conceivably shout something like “sorry for my Westernness” at their retreating backs.
Words making sense in relation to actual things is the definition of definitions. And 2016’s lack of care for definitions are part of the reason Donald Trump was elected. Trump didn’t need to be coherent while running because the liberals didn’t much care for definitions either. One example is the way in which Democrats treated the issue of political Islam. The Democratic figureheads of 2016, whether it be Obama, Hillary or Bernie, refused to recognise Islam as a political problem in the world. At most they will call the problem one of “radicalised Islamists”, as if Islamists weren’t radical by definition, as if there existed some sort of soft-centre Islamist. There are difficulties in distinguishing Islam from Islamism (although usually it can be done with ease), but to not even condemn Islamism as the aggressive fundamentalist force that it inherently is is to be a blatant apologist. Not defining the problem is to allow Trump to misdefine the problem. The result? Trump is given a monopoly on the ideas aimed at solving the problem. And the result of this? A 3am-Twitter-nightmare ignorant-immigration-policy-banning-Muslims. Tellingly, the Democratic refusal to discuss tabooed issues also extended to immigration.
Yet there was a difference between the liberal apple Hillary Clinton and populist orange Donald Trump. The difference is that although Clinton would not tackle or even name problems, at least she herself most likely knew that there was a problem. She knows that the truth exists even if she doesn’t care for it. This difference is the difference between being a liar and being a bullshitter – and it is incredibly important. The bullshitter not only doesn’t care what the truth is, he doesn’t even know the truth exists. Trump never cared about the content of what he said, even if it instantly contradicted his earlier statements or was self-evidently false. And yet everything he said expressed his values. For example, he told us nothing about the Mexican border problem apart from the fact that he cared about it. ‘Build a Wall’ was a statement liberals received with horror and the alt-right with glee. Why? Because, as Peter Theil noted, at the same time as liberals were taking Trump literally but not seriously, Trump supporters were taking Trump seriously but not literally. While liberals were dismissing Trump’s prospects and joking about how he planned to get Mexico to pay for the wall, working-class white America planned to get out and vote for him and didn’t care about the particulars of policy as long as they knew that their man actually cared about immigration. This is why I don’t think Trump will pay a political price if he ends up not following through on his many promises, whereas the very real price America will pay for electing a consensus-breaking politician is that they now have no idea what he will actually end up doing.
It follows, therefore, that the debasing of words is the original crime. Unfortunately, Trump’s rhetoric falls only on one side of a spectrum. On one side of this horseshoe-shaped spectrum is Trump’s low-level bullshit, and on the other side of the spectrum is high sophistry. The feminism of Judith Butler as spoken in her insular and impregnable language. The college campus and the redneck stadium are the same problem: speech failing to translate reality to an outside audience. There is no intention to engage in the arguments which actually matter with the people that actually matter.
What can I say about 2016? This is exactly the right question. Not only what shall I say, but in what way shall I say it?
When Caroline Lucas said “And when they act like fascists, we shall call them fascists”, she did not point any fingers or name any names. However, it might not be wholly coincidental that she delivered this line directly after Jonathan Bartley’s “Some might say. . . .” reference to Theresa May. Don’t be ridiculous! Of course she isn’t calling Theresa May a fascist! Unfortunately, to do so would not be out-of-step with a series that long predates 2016 (in 1939 Virginia Woolf compared fascistic UK Tories to fascistic German Nazis). But even if the ludicrous isn’t true, my guess is that Lucas would still mention homegrown UK fascism before she ever thought to mention fascists of real power and abuse abroad. The debasement of language is nothing new, but every day it is more ubiquitous. It goes far deeper than the emergence of fake news, the headlines which use euphemisms instead of nouns, and the ideology of objectivity across the media. It goes to the heart of the conversations we have with each other, conversations mimicked by our liberal leaders who in this alone actually do represent us.
What can I say about 2016? This is exactly the right question. Not only what shall I say, but in what way shall I say it? Talking about the death of language is often rightly perceived as snobbish. But I am not talking about swears, yolos or Oxford commas. I am simply making the vanilla observation that we have stopped saying what we truly mean. Rather than blaming a unit of time, let’s talk accurately about things which led to a series (a whole unlucky 13 books worth) of unfortunate events.