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What rhymes with Hunt?

I’ve been mulling over this post for a while now, specifically since I went to see Jon Ronson talking about his recent book, “So You’ve Been Publically Shamed”. If you haven’t read it, do: it’s a fascinating examination of the modern phenomenon of social media shaming, which also raises some interesting points about the disappearance of nuance and context in modern life.

Shaming didn’t begin with social media – I suspect there are a fair few ‘witches’ at the bottom of ponds who may argue that mediaeval Britain got there a while back – but its escalation over the past few years has been significant. The case of Justine Sacco is particularly interesting, as the tweet which caused her to become a global hate figure and lose her job was actually a self-mocking piece of satire, the meaning of which eluded her audience. Or at least eluded those who were invited to read it once they’d decided she was a privileged white racist.

Anyhow, I’ve been positive for some time that we need to return to civility in modern discourse: nowadays it’s too easy to shout down those with whom we disagree, especially when we’re not likely to bump into them in real life.

This is particularly hard to observe should you happen across some of the disgusting abuse handed out to the likes of Charlotte Church when she dares to air her opinion on something (she is a woman! Who’s not impoverished! How dare she comment on inequality?), but disagreeing loudly and rudely with bigots or misogynists is hardly likely to change their minds.

I may not be the first person to say this, but I’ve never seen anyone reconsider their opinions after being hectored or lectured: remaining calm, rational and using, heaven forbid, facts, is more likely to persuade those who remain open to persuasion. (Stewart Lee used to recount an occasion when he gently took issue with some of the assertions made by a racist cab driver only to be told, “You can prove anything with facts”, which is fortunately true.)

I have made a conscious effort to dial down my own indignation and instead to return to satire (which has always been my preferred method of response to ignorance) or polite persuasion. But this is hard to do, as another recent prompt for this article proved.

Standing in a ten-strong queue at Pret a Manger recently, I was a little put out to see one brazen individual walk through the queue and take their place directly opposite the next available server. He immediately got served: I’d just endured a particularly shit commute so I called him on it. The gist of his reply was, “No one queues in Pret”, which I was able to immediately disprove. He followed this with, “That’s the problem with this country: too many people are prepared to just stand in line.”

I can get a bit rattled, even when trying to keep my cool, but before completely losing it I realised I’d just encountered my own “You can prove anything with facts” moment. There really is no arguing with someone who feels sufficiently certain of themselves to shamelessly put their own interests ahead of everyone else’s. And if I’m self-aware enough to recognise that in Pret on a Tuesday morning, it should apply on Twitter too.

So from now on, no name-calling or insults; no bandwagon jumping or slander. I’d even like to retract my recent assertion that Donald Trump has a low IQ, because there remains a slim chance that he’s conducting a satirical experiment and might actually be the smartest person in the room.

And so on to the final prompt for this post, the hot-off-the-presses news that Jeremy Hunt is to impose his contract settlement on Junior Doctors.


The subsequent outpouring of abuse directed at the Health Minister simultaneously demeans his accusers and lets his bosses off the hook. He’s not doing this in a vacuum, or because he got out the wrong side of bed; he’s doing it because it’s part of a carefully calculated plan to privatise the NHS. If the Tories (or Labour, who were equally guilty of privatising things on the quiet) were honest about this, and let the nation decide how they wanted health provision to evolve, we could have a grown-up discussion. Instead, we are left with the undignified scene of a man whose surname rhymes with the worst swear word in the world* blatantly lying on national television. Lying. My assertion is that the way to ensure this tactic doesn’t work is to calmly and rationally present the facts (which admittedly might necessitate abducting the editors and columnists of a few national newspapers for a few days, but hey ho), before letting the public decide. Because resorting to abuse and personal insults immediately cedes the high ground and the high ground is the final remaining place where those in possession of evidence, facts and persuasion reside. (It’s the same reason why we should never torture prisoners or sell arms to Saudi Arabia.)

I firmly believe this is how a civilised nation should go about things, and if Britain is nothing else, it remains – I hope – a civilised nation. I’m going to try and stick to this credo; you’re welcome to call me out on it when I fail.

*Finally, if you don’t know what’s the worst swearword in the world, please, please spare five minutes to read this column – by Jon Ronson – which might just be my favourite newspaper column ever.


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