The Blog

Put Down Your Phones, Log Off Social Media and Just 'Talk' to People

People, for all the noise of social media, can still be persuaded by something beyond memes or threats or status updates: a good argument. It's time for us progressives to make that argument.

Hate. Vitriol. Snark. It's been pouring across our screens all week: from BNP propaganda to Labour civil war, insults, race hate, even violent threats. At one level it feels inevitable. After all, we're all beginning to realise that you can't seem to have the socialising without the snark - that social media also means antisocial media, the connected society also means the divided society. I wrote a week ago about the radioactive atmosphere that surrounded the Brexit fallout, and a week on it still feels like Chernobyl; friends are unfriending friends, You Are SOO Wrong, and anyone who doesn't agree with me is a Nazi. Obviously.

Facebook and Twitter bitchiness are nothing new of course. But I think there's something deeper in the sheer pain of the stuff my friends have been posting. I think we can detect in it the dying gasps of an idea: the idea of the progressive cause itself.

"As with the centre-left parties across Europe in the same predicament, Labour is a 20th-century party adrift in a new reality," wrote a Labour voting columnist this week. "Its social foundations - the unions, heavy industry, the nonconformist church, a deference to the big state that has long evaporated - are either in deep retreat or have vanished completely. Its name embodies an attachment to the supposed glories of work that no longer chimes with insecure employment and insurgent automation."

I'd like to disagree with this. But I fear it might be true. Progressives like me have to admit that our ideas - which I'll reduce to essentials here as a belief in equality between races and genders, a liberal emphasis on free choice, a general internationalism and commitment to leftist social welfare - are in retreat. Hard as this is to accept, we don't really reflect the mandate of the country any longer. Back in the 90s, back in the era of Clinton and Blair, perhaps. But all sorts of things seemed possible then. Now it's xenophobic rightwing anti-establishment figures who represent the vox populi on both sides of the Atlantic. Farrage, Trump. Walls, fences, deportations. I'm sorry to say it, but this is what people are voting for.

It's been hard to realise this because our ideas seem so universal - in polite society, in the media. Racism, misogyny, homophobia are no longer acceptable in mainstream discourse. The right as well as the left has come out in favour of gay marriage. Universities might preach entrepreneurialism but they also teach critical theory. The arts are largely liberal. So long have we witnessed the mainstream moving in a progressive direction, in short, that we've come to accept it as inevitable - like the upward surge of the tide (or property prices).

But guess what. It wasn't and isn't inevitable. The coming decade will see these ideas challenged by armies of forgotten people - the ones who didn't benefit from the Knowledge Economy, the ones who live in the towns the rest of us fled, the places with no jobs and boarded-up high streets. These are the people who swayed the Leave vote. Trump - who entered the race as a jokey protest vote - has attracted the support of millions.

This is painful for people like me. We progressives would like to see our values as universal somehow, like the central tenets of the Enlightenment; that all of human history is a sort of evolution towards our world-view. It isn't. Like the ideas of the Enlightenment, there's actually nothing universal about progressive ideas at all. Go to contemporary Russia and you'll see little support for them. The same goes for many parts of the world. Witness the rise of the far right across Europe. Things are more complicated, people are less utopian than we imagined. And so our political parties which were supposed to reflect these values - Greens, Lib Dems, Labour - find themselves increasingly unelectable.

We know all this.

We know that our left parties are in a bind; that they're faced with two equally grisly prospects - swing to the left, in which case they may render themselves unelectable, or bunker down and get tough on immigration, in which case why bother being on the left at all? People have been critical of the anti-Corbynites. Things have got bloody, tribal. Personally I see this as in some ways inevitable; as we come to the grim realisation of our weakening position, us progressives may well tear one another apart in the descent. Labour may well split in two - but then perhaps it needs to.

But here's the prescription. Things are not completely hopeless. We may not have the general mandate, but there are millions of us.

We need to do something first though. We need to exit the echo chamber.

Get off out of your seat. Put your phone away. Log off from Facebook. This weekend has seen a blancmange of Facebook rallies - a dozen in Manchester alone, often happening in the same public squares, sometimes happening at the same time. How can so many clashing voices really get heard? The signal is getting drowned in noise. It's not samizdat. It's spamizdat. It's not activism. It's hashtactivism. Protest, rally, demo: they fade into one another, all equally inconsequential, all equally ignored by the people they're aimed at. Political activities on the grass began to resemble a picnic on the grass. Texting one friend this weekend I asked if he'd gone to the protest. "I think so," he said.

"You think so?"

"It was a bit confusing," he said. "I'm not sure if I was there or not."

It doesn't take me to point out that any protest you're not even sure you've been to can't have been much of a protest. Facebook events are fun, cute, easy to create; but by making the act of organization so painless and costless all we've really created is a sea of events all chasing the same fifty, sixty sympathetic but increasingly weary attendees. The revolution will not be tweeted or Liked. There's more to social change than a status update.

Talk to people. It's as simple as that. In the run up to Brexit I met a lot of swingers who didn't really care that much either way, didn't know that much about the issues. It's too late to change that debate, but the ones that are coming - on welfare, immigration, voting choice and, yes, in the States the voter's verdict on a certain Donald Trump - are more important than ever. The die is not cast on these matters. You'll never convince a hardliner, but so many people are "political agnostics" - people who don't really have a strong opinion either way. People who don't relish having the choice once they get inside a ballot box. There were armies of people like this in the Brexit vote; they might have swayed the referendum.

People, for all the noise of social media, can still be persuaded by something beyond memes or threats or status updates: a good argument. It's time for us progressives to make that argument.