Things do change, don’t they? In the past, vague and wibbly new ideas have been born, then grown legs and specific details for implementation, and are now solemnly solidified in reality. Ideas like stopping that slavery business, women getting the vote, ticking the box for gay marriage, and the miracle of dry shampoo (it’s a must-have for fringe-owners). Every single aspect of even the room I’m in can trace back its ancestry to a little lightbulb above someone’s head (statistically above an Ikea employee’s head). I’ve heard some really good ideas recently, like votes being meaningful, or paying people a minimum wage that covers the cost of living, or paying attention to climate change. Inspired! But how can these ideas get dragged from the sparkly metaphysical world to this gritty real one that I live in?
The balance of political opposition is a delicate flower. I reckon you have to relate your ideas to the status quo in order to coax people in the right direction. Whatever my deepest darkest political opinions might be, I’ll always keep it in second gear. If I pull too hard towards the unfamiliar, people start to open up their little sewing box of stereotype compartments and slot me in.
Nobody’s going to listen if you fit the stereotype of political dissenter, because you can be written off. There are a number of uniforms to avoid: The Anarchist (balaclava, hoody, believes in conspiracy theories, got arrested for kicking over a bin once and now tells everyone he ‘done time’); The Hippy (homemade scarf, organic flip flops, ethically sourced dreadlocks); The Racist (skinhead, shouting, topless, toothless). It’s worth being self-aware of what people’s prejudices will be so they can be side-stepped. So whatever I’m going to campaign for, it’s got to be so goddamn reasonable and relatable that it can’t be ignored.
Picasso had it spot on when he suggested that new ideas need to be wrapped in familiar clothing. He talks about why he paints everyday objects, so that he can communicate more complicated ideas using familiar objects. “As Hegel says, they can know only what they already know. So how do you go about teaching them something new? By mixing what they know with what they don’t know.” You have to speak their lingo, you dig?
Clever lefty Owen Jones talks about this in terms of the ‘Overton Window’, which is used to describe what is deemed to be politically possible at a certain time. For example, during Thatcher’s time in office, the top rate of tax was 60%, whereas now it’s 45%. Labour wrote in their now invalid manifesto that they’d raise it to 50%, so 60% now seems extreme in the circumstances. The Overton Window has shifted since the 1980s to make rich people paying more tax seem unreasonable. The first step to widespread change is to beckon the Overton Window closer.
There are many reasons I can’t charge in to Westminster all guns blazing and demand radical change, chiefly that guns don’t blaze; that’s fire you’re thinking of, poppet. Being too extreme is the antidote to cooperation. It’s common sense to help them to help you. If you’re trying to persuade a friend to wear the leopard print trilby hat you bought them for their birthday, you make it easier for them by hanging it on their coat peg or on their pillow or on their head until they remember to wear it. The idea for change has to be designed to fit the puzzle or else it runs the risk of being incompatible.
Socialist pipe-smoker Tony Benn had similar advice for the trade union leaders. He suggested that they abandon their traditional defensive attitudes and cooperated in order to achieve their goals, through “peaceful collective bargaining and removing the obstacles through legislation”. None of those words are sexy, but they are practical. Ed Miliband explained politics to Russell Brand as needing both the people campaigning and the politicians to implement those changes. It’s an intimate dance of power between the two, so it’s worth playing the game of protesting, petitioning and penning emails to get real change.
Hairy preacher man Russell Brand was suddenly a target for critics when he screeched in to a U-turn on his anti-voting bent and told everyone to vote Labour. When you think about it, it’s a good thing to be able to change your mind according to new information, otherwise we’d all be stubborn mules kicking the dust of whatever opinion we first had when we were 16. Brand is like a verbose hummingbird; he experiences time faster than us, so this change might look like inexplicable lightening from one perspective, but to him it’s just a sleepy rearrangement of thoughts. His point is valid though; the political spectrum is a mosaic of different political colours and it’s hard to know which one to pick. The opposition needs to be consistent and find something we all agree on to campaign on together, whether you’re right or left.
Every week there comes a point, normally on a Wednesday mid-afternoon, where I’ve thought all the lamenting helpless critical thoughts about the current state of affairs that I can think for one week. Thursdays and Fridays I only think about bananas and The Simpsons and how it’s mad that hair and nails are made out the same thing, because… how? Blows my mind. With my critical guard down I’m susceptible to such diseases as watching Britain’s Got Talent, without once commenting sarcastically about the farce of it all, how talent is forced into a monkey dance for fame, the sneering of the audience members at the auditions, the orchestrated authenticity of the ‘sad stories’ stapled to the contestants… and instead I just laugh a bit at Ant & Dec. Not a big laugh, just a fast outward breath. Hah.
Thinking everything is awful and needs fixing is depressing, even if everything really is awful and needs fixing and I’m not just depressed. “It’s not that bad” is always a nice serene pastel-shaded pink-clouded Grecian lagoon of a mental environment. I can’t let it soothe me into inaction though. Keeping positive is critically important if you’re going to devote time trying to change the way things are. Change will happen gradually and mistakes will be made along the way, but you just have to keep going. Brand says it best in his interview with Owen Jones:
It’s probably not all the ingredients to successful social change, but it’s a start. My sleeves are rolled, apron’s on, surface is generously floured; what change should we bake first? Stay tuned after the break: in my next blog I’ll get my hands proper dirty and start work on the engine of a real campaign that smarter and more proactive people than me have created. Up first though, it’s The Simpsons.
Owen Jones (2015). The Establishment and how they get away with it.
Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake (1964). My Life with Picasso.
David Powell (2001). Tony Benn: A Political Life.