After that election, I’m emotionally exhausted. If Labour had a bedroom, you’d find mascara tear smudges on not just the pillow, but the carpet as well. On 8th May there was an unspoken tension, a quiet sense from behind certain closed doors that there was a stewing sweaty factory worker with some pool cue chalk powdering the ends of his pitchfork, whilst his wife sharpens her nails on the end of her ready-prepared V sign, primed to angrily protest. Friends told me that this election result would drive them to become more politically active, to email their MPs and actually go to one of those protests that are never covered on the news. Charlotte Church wrote a blog about becoming more active and making sure that the 63% of those who didn’t vote for Conservatives are heard, and it ricocheted off into millions of retweets across the Twitmosphere. I’ve read a fistful of articles about the concern that this sweep of articulated activism won’t materialise into rock solid action. I hope to poke this article into that fist once it’s written.
That Charlotte Church blog was a raw call to arms, written out of honest and dignified indignance. On the placard she carried on 8th May on a protest in Cardiff, it reads “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”, and that made my eyes swivel and fingers click in stunted recollection… what was that line from? I swear I’ve heard it before. Determined not to use the Google brain, I waited until my tired unexercised neurones waddled along their pathways to reconstruct the memory. Gotcha – it’s from Network! I knew my neurones still had it.
If you haven’t seen it, Network is a 1976 film about an irked news anchor who’s sacked after 25 years at a network with low ratings, and he announces on air that he’s going to commit suicide. When this gets mega high ratings, the network decide to keep broadcasting his angry depressive rants about the failings of democracy, the lack of nutrition in food, the rise in violent crime, blah blah etc whatever. In one of these rants, he urges people to get up off their seats, open their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”. Cut to a suburban living room and a daughter curiously opens the window to find at first a few, then a dozen, then an entire town-full of people shouting the same thing. When the first few people started shouting in that scene, it didn’t seem like many people were going to join in, so I felt embarrassed that I had hoped this would be the start of the revolution, like how Russell Brand must feel. As more people joined in, I felt bold and invigorated, excited that in the UK in 2015 we could also get more people engaged and empowered. Then everyone started wailing at once, incoherently gabbling like chickens in a battery farm, all overweight and pale and sick with too many antibiotics. My hope bellyflopped into a realisation that if we’re all shouting, then no one can hear what we’re saying.
Being passionate about politics is a brilliant thing, and the obvious antidote to apathy. But we can’t just pendulum between angry and numb; there has to be a middle ground where we can have rational discussions. Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science and my intellectual idol de jour, says anger has a purpose. You need to feel angry towards cruel people, so they know it’s not ok to be cruel. I’ve always told people to give me a slap if I step out of line, and luckily they’ve interpreted that in the metaphorical way it was intended. We’ve got to grab on to the love handles of confrontation without hesitating. But I don’t trust my emotions to be the only motivation, not least because my emotions make me email my exes when I’m drunk.
The use of emotions and politics goes way back. There’s a documentary series called Century of the Self by Adam Curtis which twists the spotlight to the birth of marketing. Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays took Freudian ideas that we’re all governed by deep-seated animal desires and smothered them all over marketing. Cars used to be advertised for their rational, practical uses, but Bernays’ influence led to cars being advertised as sexy and powerful, fulfilling an emotional need. Marketing treats the masses as idiots, driven by wild emotions. So too does politics that appeals to your emotions. David Cameron last year spoke about the Scottish Referendum like he was a rogue husband in EastEnders: “I would be heartbroken if this family was torn apart”. The politics of fear is potent.
There are two sides to human nature though: the impulsive, greedy, lustful side that buys McDonalds double cheeseburgers, and the rational, sober, responsible side that brings their own banana on a day out. How we behave depends on the environment we live in. Good luck living in Soho and resisting copious G&Ts, unthinkingly swearing around children, and indulging in the odd spiteful elbowing of a stranger on the tube (I couldn’t help myself). Now I live in suburbia I hardly ever get to elbow anyone. Bunch of squares.
If I’m only ever motivated by emotions to make me politically active, then what if my anger mellows by next week? We have to be driven by a rational and steely resolve that doesn’t dissolve after a distracting relaxing bubble bath. The fuel for productivity is never just emotions, otherwise we wouldn’t show up to work half the time. Political activism needs to use the tools and rules of the office to operate: organisation, note-taking, meetings and conference calls, and a coffee machine if we can budget for that. We should all show up to protests in suits to show them we mean business, buster.
I want to get behind a political movement that is well-articulated and reasonable, not flecked by the spit of someone swearing. I’m bored of political posts on social media calling David Cameron a prick. It’s not useful, let alone inventive. The more reasonable we come across on protests, then the less the media can write us off, if they ever decide to cover protests in the news. I know it means we’ll all have to put our balaclavas and sledgehammers on eBay, but smashing up an EE shop isn’t going to bring change; it’s just going to make them build a bigger, shinier, bubblier EE shop in its place with a more aggressive hue of teal.
Here are my sources for further reading if you’ve got time to kill:
Charlotte Church. More of a prosecco girl, myself, 2015. charlottesayshmmm https://charlottesayshmmm.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/more-of-a-prosecco-girl-myself/
Results of the 2015 General Election, 2015. BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2015/results
Paul Dolan, 2015. Happiness by Design: Finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life.
Century of the Self, 2002. Adam Curtis.
The Network, 1975. Paddy Chayefsky.