In one of his final press conferences, President Barack Obama dropped a delicate reminder of how dramatically our society has changed. He said:
“I was watching a documentary that during the Bay of Pigs crisis JFK had about two weeks before anybody reported on it. Imagine that. I think it’s fair to say that if something like that happens under a current president, they’ve got to figure out in about an hour what their response is.”
This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it feels painfully distant from when you could picture an American President watching a documentary. Secondly, Obama was reflecting that everyone’s reactions are now measured in hours, not days or weeks.
The current American president is a case in point of how this hourly reaction loop leads us to vanishing levels of attention. Nobody remembers his last tweet or insult because we’re so focused on his current one. As everyone’s reactions are so instant it is normal for wild and emotional reactions that will soon be regretted are not just said but posted and commented and later quoted back. Our world now values the comment or ‘like’ or page hit. Not the argument, vision or agreement.
That’s not a nostalgic thing to write. It is not a 21st-century invention for debate to be aggressive, personal or narrow. What has changed however is the huge volume of information we have at our fingertips and how quickly and extensively we can give voice to our opinions. Through the internet, we have access to more information than ever before. But information in itself doesn’t seem to make us anymore enlightened. Take the question “How much money does the UK give to the EU every year?” There are a few answers to this which mean the debate is chaotic and partisan. If you voted to remain you would choose one answer and vice versa.
The other type of information we have more of is personal information. By writing a Facebook comment that DESTROYS my opponent’s point of view I can also lean heavily on a wealth of personal facts or data I could weaponise to undermine the other person. We tell Facebook where we live and were born. Where we work and went to school. All of our searches and clicks are measured, stored and become currency for Facebook which will then suggest videos we might be interested in because it knows what we like.
There is less and less friction between our online profiles and our real life personalities and minds. With all this information in the public sphere, I can give a decent prediction of how someone might think – so there’s no point in me listening.
Again, the idea of judging a book by its cover or replying that someone “would say that wouldn’t they” is not recent. Now the difference is through a combination of everyone having access to more and conflicting information and then interacting with it instantaneously we have created a society where we shout first and ask questions later. The democratisation effect of the internet where we all supposedly have an equal voice has not liberated us into a free-flowing idea-filled paradise but relegated us into a partisan, violent and dark dungeon of dogma.
So we probably need to relearn polite and decent ways to talk to each other. It still sounds out of touch and old-fashioned when we hear them do it but MPs in the House of Commons say “the honourable lady or gentleman from X constituency” for a reason. MPs use rules like this to prevent people saying “that guy over there” and then when their argument gets a little bit more heated “this idiot” or “that liar”. It isn’t to stop people from fierce debate or criticism but to make sure, as much as possible, the discussion focuses on the merits or shortcomings of ideas and policy – not the person or their circumstances.
Levels of debate in the House of Commons are often achingly low, especially when they do the whole shouty whey-boo thing which is embarrassing. But there is a floor of debate in the House of Commons below which it rarely sinks because they prevent name-calling or abuse. Very occasionally the House of Commons is a heartening example of people working together through debate to reform and influence government policy across party lines. A good example is this exchange by Jon Ashworth [Lab] and Nicola Blackwood [Con] during a committee in February which is compelling and speaks for itself:
Parliament at its best. Health min Nicola Blackwood reacts to Jon Ashworth's story about his father's alcoholism pic.twitter.com/c5sH5qZwdZ
— Alan White (@aljwhite) February 4, 2017
But this display is rare, too rare, to justify the public having a higher level of trust in Parliament as an institution.
I recently read the final volume of Winston Churchill’s autobiography which covers the period from D-Day in 1944 to his defeat in the 1945 General Election. Churchill, a Conservative Prime Minister, took Clement Attlee, the Leader of the Labour Party, to many of his most important meetings that covered strategic matters including the Potsdam Conference in 1945 which discussed how to secure peace after the war. The Prime Minister did this because he knew there would be an election soon and the decisions taken at Potsdam were too important for Britain not to have his opponent [who although was deputy prime minister during the war ceased to be by the Potsdam Conference] secure in the facts of the situation at this crucial time.
Churchill wrote to Attlee in invitation:
“My idea was that you should come as a friend and counsellor, and help us on all the subjects on which we have been so long agreed and have been known to be agreed by public declaration…merely to come as a mute observer would, I think, be derogatory to your position as leader of your party.”
[W.S.Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy Vol.6, p.479]
I can imagine the arch-Imperialist Churchill not strapped into his seat on the small plane that flew him to Potsdam chatting and plotting with his Socialist opponent and colleague about the best way to get a good deal for Britain over a cigar and glass of something.
Fast forward over seventy years and the Brexit negotiations have now started. It will be a tiring 21 months of negotiations if we take the temperature of our public discourse by measuring the number of people we have blocked on Facebook or Twitter or counting the offensive generalisations and dog whistle front pages. I can also imagine David Davis and Sir Keir Starmer having a similar mind mapping session and cappuccino on the 06:13 London-Brussels Eurostar before they arrive in a clear mind to negotiate for Britain. Unfortunately, this type of decency and cooperation will stay in my imagination. Needless to say, Churchill and Attlee would not have blocked each other on Twitter.