As a Jeremy Corbyn supporter, former public sector worker and all-round lefty, I have a confession to make. I am a little bit in love with Milo Yiannopoulos, highly-paid internet troll and alt right poster boy.
The love I feel for Milo is strictly platonic. And I will be the first to acknowledge, after listening to an unhealthy number of his Youtube diatribes, once you cut out the jokes (funny though they sometimes are), you are left disappointed. Take his views on Islam, set out in a debate at the University of Massachusetts: “There are two types of Muslims in the world. Nice, middle class, assimilated Muslims… and terrorists.” Or his views on feminism: “Feminism is a mean, vindictive, spiteful, nasty, man-hating philosophy.”
Out of context, it is difficult to see how anyone could enjoy listening to the person making these arguments, let alone be persuaded by them. But as Abi Wilkinson has pointed out, alt right arguments like the ones above are gaining ground online, and contributing to the radicalization of young white men. How is this happening?
A lot of the alt right’s appeal has to do with the delivery mechanism of their ideas: colourful entertainers who are a bit outrageous and disarmingly self-effacing. This is why, despite myself, I like listening to Yiannopoulos. He jokes, exaggerates, pushes the boundaries. It is all to provoke a reaction, get online attention, and rack up the view count. It works. One of his recent videos, “BBC tries to ambush Milo,” has over a million views. Like his right-wing bedfellows, he is genuinely entertaining to watch.
Contrast the polished media performers of the right with left. When I get my daily fix of social-liberal political news, there is a deadly serious style of debate that turns people off straight away. Whenever Nigel Farage or Yiannopoulos appear on a Sky News debate with a dour-looking lefty academic, they’ve already won.
Politics is, of course, serious business. But don’t think that the jokey media commentators on the right don’t realise how serious it is. They are simply better at hiding their agenda behind a mask of flippancy. Boris Johnson, another master of the art, wrote in this magazine a couple of years ago that “lefties…are much more likely to think that right-wingers are genuinely evil.” At times, we certainly give that impression. Now, I’m not saying there has never been a Tory activist who has, on a misty moonlit night in East Surrey, sacrificed a newborn to hasten the awakening of Azathoth. But if we stop assuming they all do that, the tone of our arguments will change accordingly, and Tory voters would feel less patronised.
A more self-effacing and less self-righteous approach can work wonders for public engagement, as Ed Balls seems to have discovered on the dance floor. Whether or not this means giving Sunday Politics interviews in spandex is the way forward for Labour, I’m not sure. But our current Foreign Secretary is a prime example of how not taking yourself too seriously can go down well with the public. He won the mayorality, and arguably the referendum, on the basis of his personality: people liked him, and enjoyed listening to him speak.
There are, of course, left-wing comedians like who do an excellent job of disseminating ideas through humour. Stewart Lee’s dismantling of Paul Nuttall in 2014 is still a joy to behold. However, there is an important difference between lefty entertainers like Stewart Lee, Frankie Boyle, Nish Kumar, and people like Yiannoupoulos. To borrow from Zoolander, the former are comedians-slash-commentators, and not the other way around. Their primary goal is entertainment, so they don’t appear frequently on the media front lines of our national political discourse.
In order to combat the rise of the alt right, and the apparent hegemony of the Tories in the polls , we need more commentators-slash-comedians pushing the left agenda in an engaging way on news, radio and in print. But we also need to learn from the things the alt right commentators don’t say. At the heart of their appeal is the fact that, behind the jokes, their arguments are bracingly simple.
This is a huge advantage when it comes to persuading people. Instead of debating policy in detail in the national media, we should take a leaf from their book and go on the offence, attacking individual opponents and saying why they are unfit to govern as people, not flag-carriers. When Tony Blair called John Major “weak, weak, weak”, that was more effective than a hundred policy explanations. Where they are needed, our policy arguments need to be short, sharp and self-explanatory, or they are no good at all.
Admittedly, it is far easier for the right to make simple arguments than the left. On the left we are naturally more inclined to nuanced positions and complex explanations, and tend to look down on simple generalisations (try explaining to yourself why political correctness is important, in one sentence, with no commas). This intellectualism can too easily be used against us in debates. It was, quite literally, impossible for Ed Miliband to say that Labour overspent in government, because it would have been intellectually dishonest and a gross oversimplification.
So make no mistake, delivering an argument in an entertaining way is only one side of the coin. The argument also has to be concise and intuitive enough to allow for an engaging presentation to be built around it. More likely than not, the argument needs to be highly simplified.
This is, unfortunately, the world we live in now. Johnson, Farage, Yiannopoulos and, of course, Donald Trump, are all pioneers of post-truth politics. If we’re going to win, we have to fight them on their terms. If you think the strategy of “we go high when they go low” worked out well for Hillary Clinton, then you’ve been inhaling the same thing her husband didn’t. It is no longer good enough, if it ever was, to have sensible, rational economic arguments, and naïvely hope the truth will emerge from our public debates. That is just not where we are at in 2016.
Nowadays, if you want people to listen, you have to mock, exaggerate, cajole, put on a show. In our post-truth world, when it comes to persuading people you’re right, presentation is 90 per cent of what matters. The truth alone is no longer going to cut it.