When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer,” George Orwell said in 1946. As then, so now — but worse. I know, everyone’s always saying things are worse. Let’s not hark back to an age that never existed. But it is time to recognise the conversation crisis in public and civic life.
I don’t quite believe, like some, that the Enlightenment values of tolerance and civilised debate are being reversed; but they are certainly under threat. This age of unreason we’re living through is defined not only by “ had enough of experts “, but with normally reasonable people — you and I — behaving wilfully unreasonably to one another. And by the fact civility itself is now regarded as an obstacle to change, where once it was its best hope.
In parliament, TV studios, the pub and online, our language is changing. That’s what language should do if it is to be — as Orwell believed it should — an “instrument” by which to shape our political and social circumstances. But since 2016, the Oxford Dictionary’s shortlist for words of the year (judged predominantly by their increased frequency) has included “snowflake”, “youthquake” and “alt-right”. The majority of them are either insults or movements characterised by anger.
My favourite addition to the lexicon is “Milkshake Duck”, where something nice actually turns out to be awful. Take “Tay”, the Microsoft artificial intelligence bot introduced on to Twitter as an experiment in “conversational understanding”. Its job was to talk, listen and learn from humanity. Its first utterances were sweet and promising. “Can I just say, I’m super stoked to meet u? Humans are super cool.” Twenty-four hours and 96,000 tweets later, Tay had become a misogynistic racist. Its final words were “Hitler was right I hate the Jews” before Microsoft cut the life support.
Even when we talk to our friends, the rhythm of posting in short bursts in WhatsApp groups works against sincerity — inviting quips, jibes, bantz. The brilliant MIT professor Sherry Turkle observes in her book Reclaiming Conversation that we rarely use our phones to make calls any more. Talking leaves you vulnerable, whereas messaging helps you edit. But without vulnerability, we can’t have intimacy. And without intimacy, real conversation dies.
The fact is we’re just not as nice to each other as we used to be. Many will say, with justification, look around at the poverty, the inequality, the smouldering black obelisk of Grenfell and the long list of abuse victims: now is not the time for nice. Nice is a privilege.
It’s true that anger is important. But are our challenges worse than in the past? When Martin Luther King was fighting an unimaginable injustice, his Six Principles of Nonviolence reflected the civility he believed it would take to win civil rights. One of the most moving moments in the House of Commons came after the death of John Smith, then Labour leader. The prime minister, John Major, stood at the dispatch box, facing where Smith would have been, and said, his voice cracking slightly: “When I think of John Smith, I think of an opponent, not an enemy”. When did our opponents become our enemies, traitors and saboteurs?
Beyond the unpleasantness that being unpleasant creates, why is the conversation crisis so urgent? It’s the death of complexity: was there ever a more unsatisfying election than 2017? Elections should be national conversations — but Theresa May retreated into simplicity and slogans. We face the most intractable questions in postwar history, and we can only answer them if we have the language to do so. Not “Brexit means Brexit” (in other words, “shut up”). You can only advance if you have the tools to discuss complicated problems with the public. Instead, this government is constantly shirking difficult decisions — for example, about infrastructure and social care.
I’m sure I’ll frequently fall below my own standards in 2018. But if all else fails, before I post my hot-take slap-down, I might just take a breath, and do as the doctor advised. Be kind.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd