Has the standard of political rhetoric been lower at any time in living memory than it is today? All over the world, the bar is being lowered by increasingly chauvinistic language. The mouth of Donald Trump and its obnoxious harassment of ‘low energy’ Jeb Bush, ‘lying’ Ted Cruz and ‘crooked’ Hillary Clinton might spring to mind. The scapegoats are easy, foreigners are killers, rapists and terrorists. The solutions are easier, build a wall, ban Muslims from entering the country and bring back torture. Indeed, threatening to imprison your political opponent to her face on live television was an unprecedented departure from the established tone of modern American democracy. And yet, across the world, politicians are turning up the hyperbolic volume. In Europe, the EU has been described as if it was a tyrannical empire, “swamped” by immigrants. Meanwhile, the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has compared his own violent ambition to purge his country of drug dealers to the genocidal tendencies of Adolf Hitler. Many of us are repelled by such comments, but they also break through the repetitive news cycles and become endearing to those who feel a distance between themselves and the powerful. But why does it pay off to be rude, arrogant and chauvinistic on the modern political landscape?
I want to share an anecdote from Catalonia which might help to explain. A few months ago I was talking to an old friend I made in primary school. Today he works on La Rambla, a street popular with tourists in Barcelona. Every night he stands on La Rambla handing out vouchers for a free shot of hard alcohol with every drink purchased in an Irish pub just off the thoroughfare. For his trouble, he receives the Spanish minimum wage of €5.05 per hour with a bonus for each customer he brings into the bar. It sounds like a rough life, and yet he lives in his own three-bedroom apartment. As I write this, he’s enjoying a holiday in Manhattan. How on earth does he do it? “What I do”, he told me, “is I wait for a bunch of British tourists. I approach the group and harass them.” When he gets close to the Brits, he always says “hello Fuckface”.
But why on earth would you insult them? “If you run up to them and shout ‘hello fuckface’, then it becomes impossible for them to ignore you. They find themselves baffled; they want to know why they’re being insulted for no reason. They have to engage.”
The ‘hello fuckface’ method has been honed and refined by three years of trying to gain the attention of tipsy tourists. La Rambla is the home of numerous nuisances. Even sober pedestrians entering at the southern end of the street on any given evening, are likely to be offered cans of supermarket lager by African migrants, cannabis by Catalonian drug dealers and oral sex by disturbingly youthful prostitutes. The best way to get your wallet and your dignity from one end of this obtuse obstacle course to the other is to advance quickly and avoid eye contact if possible. If you attempted to engage honestly and politely with everyone, you wouldn’t get very far. But one thing proven to break through this white noise is hearing the words “hello Fuckface” at point blank range in a familiar accent. However hostile or bewildered the reaction is, it almost always starts a conversation and starting a conversation is half the battle. Often, the whole group will stop to investigate the faux-aggression, 30 seconds later they will all be holding a voucher for a free drink.
The political class described as ‘the establishment’ by the new generation of populists are defined by their habit of speaking in an overtly politically correct language in perfectly constructed paragraphs. They are now routinely characterised by their inability to sound natural and conversational. To millions of dissatisfied voters, their desire not to offend is the most offensive thing about them. The voices of this political class have, for many, merged into one long and tedious groan. Imagine that the price of living has increased for your whole life and you haven’t had a pay rise in the last decade. Every year the same standard of living gets more expensive while your economic expectations fade into the distance regardless of who you vote for. Eventually, every decibel of conventional political rhetoric starts to sound like an orchestra playing the same song over and over. Everybody wants your attention, but nobody stands out. In this frustrating environment, every politician is an annoyance until the moment you hear a reflection of your own anger breaking free to callously castigate the castrated cage of caution.
By breaking the code of politically correct platitudes, any demagogue can instantly attract an excitable press. The rise of social media and the ideologically disparate journalism it fosters will provide ample protection from the kind of high-minded editor who might have once opted not to reward such lewd behavior with free publicity. In the new world of clickbait, hot air always rises.
And yet, tactics that appear to work well on La Rambla are unlikely to do so for very long in the wider world. Vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity may be a good way of gaining the attention and the votes of the general public in any given moment, but it will never be able to solve the world’s problems in a meaningful way. As annoying as it is, the tediously politically correct language of the so-called establishment was invented for a reason. If you’re Asian, black or female, you’ve probably benefited from efforts to create a seemingly sensitive society. Whether or not that society is genuinely sensitive or inclusive is a different question. In England, it is becoming a taboo not to blame migrants for our social and economic dysfunctions. To deny that immigration is a problem in itself, even when citing academic evidence, has become “elitist”. But even if we put aside every social and criminal consequence associated with xenophobia, it remains true that if you scapegoat a group of people for problems they did not cause, then you’re probably never going to solve those problems. Unfortunately, history seems to suggest that almost every generation of almost every culture, simply has to learn this the hard way.
In the meantime, there is a serious question that liberal minded people on both sides of the Atlantic, who believe in the freedom of markets, of people and ideas, must ponder; if an ideal isn’t systemically flawed but can be widely perceived to be systemically flawed, does that in itself make it systemically flawed?
Think about it Fuckface.