It felt like a punch in the guts. A smack to the head. The announcement on the radio, in such crisp and well-manicured tones, that we had left the EU - something we'd been part of since before my birth - that we had, for all intents and purposes, left Europe. I was waking bleary-eyed into a new country. I wanted to go back to bed.
Sadly, the cosmopolitan, outward looking country I'd imagined I lived in now lay in the past. I was realizing - quickly, horribly quickly - that I lived somewhere else entirely. A place where the views of people like me and my peers, views broadly based around a progressive consensus of tolerance and openness, simply weren't reflected by the majority any more. I'd gone to bed in Europe. I'd woken up in England, and it was a much smaller and greyer country than I'd imagined.
So yeah. It was bad. But what was even worse were the comments that followed.
"You ******* stupid *****," screamed one Facebook associate.
"**** you Britain," screamed another. "I can't believe how many ******* racist stupid people there are here."
The floodgates were open. Post after post of bile, rancour, Twitter tantrums.
Now, being someone who's spent time researching hate speech, I'm very keen to get all this in proportion. There is a myth fuelled by the right that trolling is largely the preserve of supposedly privileged social justice warriors policing free speech on the web. Frankly, that's total bollocks - the worst hate speech online by some leagues comes from neo-Nazis, the manosphere and the "alt-right" as well as the kind of people who put posters of Trump (or Farage) on their walls.
But that doesn't mean progressives are clean-handed - not by a long way. Most of the people in my social media circles are left, Remain voting, and some of them have to accept responsibility for the screeching. Caitlin Moran recently described social media as "a baby screaming and throwing tantrums", and if anything could describe the language on Friday morning, tantrum seems the most apt. It was shrill. It was defensive and toxic. I felt sickened and vaguely disgusted by the rancour on display by some - the shrill contempt for anybody who'd dared to vote against their own wishes. Some seemed genuinely incensed that the people had actually had the temerity to express their opinion by voting. (What was the point of democracy if it didn't give you the answer you wanted?)
Even worse was the conclusion that because things had gone another way the entire exercise must be bankrupt. Several of my peers - intelligent, reasonable people in other circumstances - professed themselves "tired" of democracy if it produced results like these. What in God's name does "tired" of democracy mean? That we should give free elections a miss next time? Might Mussolini not have simply professed himself "tired" of democracy and simply called in the private militias?
I live and socialize among progressive people like myself who dream about a better world, who see a path to the future in unions, grassroots revolts. "When will we finally have our working class movement?" lurks the perennial question. Well, sorry to say it, but the answer is right here. This was it. By demographic terms, the Leave vote was a working class movement. And yet because it didn't deliver the results my progressive friends actually wanted, the reaction was to pour scorn on it. Or demand another referendum. I can't be the only person who feels there's something deeply problematic about that.
Social media personalizes collective fury. It makes the lashings out of the mob feel like individual blows. This was a debate that already felt incredibly personal - a mark of one's deepest loyalties, commitments to progressive causes or as a protest against distant elites. So I have every sympathy for those who felt distraught. We all did.
But let's be clear about this. There's a word for brandishing seventeen million people as bigots. It's called bigotry.
I don't agree with the 52% who voted to Leave. I think it was small-headed, selfish and stupid, and I think there were definitely strains of xenophobia if not blatant racism mixed up in it. But what right have I to slag all of these people off simply because they don't agree with me? I've always worked in knowledge economy jobs, jobs that tend to benefit from overseas population influxes; for me the free movement of peoples seems like an inherently good thing. That doesn't give me the right to censor those who disagree with me.
Nobody knows what's coming next. There are rumbles from Czexiters, Swexiters and Frexiters. On the ground in the "UK" (savour the word - it might not last long) as the economy judders and the Leave bunch U-turn on just about every promise they made, many of the Leavers are "Bregretting" their vote. Shockwaves are deep and profound; both political parties are in a state of civil war. The Referendum has become the Neverendum. I'm deeply angry with the millions who put us here, and I wonder if I really belong in this country now. But they still had the right to express their choice. That is, after all, what democracy is about.
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