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17 June 2020updated 01 Jul 2021 12:14pm

Social media is not the place for a proper conversation – too many people have mince for brains

But why do I engage with idiots, or people who are worse than idiots?

By Nicholas Lezard

This is proving a difficult column to write because I think I’m going mad. Well, not so much mad, as disjointed. Nothing is cohering. Is it because I have, believe it or not, cut my drink intake by 50 per cent? Hunter S Thompson’s old mantra “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” used to be a comfort and an inspiration but now that things really have turned weird, I’m not so sure. Maybe I wasn’t that weird in the first place. Or maybe it’s because the milk has gone off and I’m feeling too tired to go to the shop and get some more. (No milk means no tea, and no tea means ruin and disaster.)

Certainly, other people have been acting oddly. Sometimes this is for very straightforward reasons. N–, who normally has as much energy as a pinball in play, is more or less bedridden as a result of Covid-19; she no longer has it, but the after-effects have proved debilitating in the extreme. 

K– called me up the other day; she has been locked down with her boyfriend and has discovered, having only really used him for sex, that he is not – how to put this politely? – a very good conversationalist. Neither was I when she rang: not only was I feeling more mentally depleted than usual, she didn’t let me get a word in. It was an unstoppable torrent of speech, which is no problem because I like her voice and she is very funny. Example: we both have a dislike of PR people who begin their emails with, “Hi. I hope you had a great weekend”; K– proposed that a much better opening line would be, “I hope nothing absolutely dreadful has happened to you this week.” (She also complained that she has not been able to go riding, “As my horse is on holiday.” This earned a stony, as opposed to overwhelmed, silence from me, and she conceded that as problems go, particularly in the current climate, this one was pretty first-world.) 

Anyway, after about 20 minutes of this she said, “Thank you – I feel as though my brain has had some exercise for the first time in months”, but I think hers was the brain that had been doing all the heavy lifting.

Maybe the problem is that lately, most of my conversations have been taking place on a certain social media platform. As a matter of policy, I stay out of debates on Palestine or whether JK Rowling is a terf or not, on the grounds that: a) I do not want to get caught in the crossfire, and b) I do not know enough to make any meaningful contribution.

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I have, though, been exercised about the fall of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, which was torn down by Black Lives Matter protesters. I can quite freely say that I was perfectly happy to see it bundled into the sea, a development that, as a friend of mine put it, turned a fairly straightforward toppling into performative art. 

I hadn’t really known much about Bristol’s slave-trading past, but when my daughter went to university there she boned up on it and educated me. When I saw the footage of the statue going into the harbour I could feel her satisfaction as keenly as if she’d been sitting in the same room as me.

But why do I engage with idiots, or people who are worse than idiots? There are people who are humming and hawing over this, and people who have suddenly discovered a deep craving to see Gone With the Wind (which, when I saw it many, many years ago, I decided was offensive hokum). 

The argument for me was settled once and for all when a black friend of mine suggested the following thought experiment: imagine being black, and having to walk past that statue every day. I mentioned this thought experiment online, and the responses fell into two categories: one being, “You cannot truly imagine what it is like to be black, because you’re not” and the other, “Imagine being Jewish and waking past a statue of Karl Marx every day.” Yes, someone really did say that, and this is the standard of debate these days. (Discreet enquiry with a mutual acquaintance revealed that

Mr Anti-Marx was actually a lawyer, and all I can say is that there seem to be an awful lot of lawyers out there with mince for brains, and that I am glad none of them are my brief – although if I ever am caught bang to rights for something, maybe a lawyer with a firm and committed refusal to consider or even recognise facts might be an asset.)

These arguments are no substitute for a proper conversation, but I feel my talent for that is atrophying. All I can lay claim to is a surprising degree of self-control: not to say “you stupid ****”, in capitals, shows I am maturing as a person. But I must say, to appropriate one of the gags from that amusing film Airplane!, I sure picked a hell of a time to cut my intake of drink by 50 per cent. 

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This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars