Armando Iannucci: Inappropriate deviants in the city of one

The very concept of argument has become weaponised, says Armando Iannucci. And living in a 'city of one' is becoming the norm...

In among my notebooks I jot down weird ideas that I may turn into projects (but frequently don’t). One idea reads: ‘A young woman looks in the mirror and sees she has the reflection of Ronnie Corbett.’

I’d worked this idea out to story length. At first, for our heroine, having Ronnie Corbett’s reflection is quite exciting, but soon leads to teasing, embarrassment and quiet despair. She will never see her true self again. In anger and confusion, she turns to crime. She carries out a series of highly prepared shop robberies where she knows the cameras are pointing at glass panels throwing up reflections. She gets away with it, but, on the basis of irrefutable CCTV coverage, Ronnie Corbett is arrested and eventually imprisoned. He leads a life of quiet resolution behind bars with some of the country’s most notorious drug gang-lords.

Ronnie was going to do it, but alas is no longer with us, and I can’t imagine anyone else quite giving the story what I knew he could. So the idea has simply faded away.

Woman sees reflection of Ronnie Corbett

There’s another idea that just won’t leave me, though. A visual image. It’s a city with a population of one. I can’t let this idea go. At first, it slowly developed into a story about how modern communication deprives us of human contact.

A stranger comes across a huge, modern metropolis, but there’s no people about. Also, very little colour. All is grey and creamy-white. Dull. Eventually he tracks down its only inhabitant: a 13-year-old gaming enthusiast, living more or less 24 hours a day with his screen. Since the world online feels more exciting and real than anywhere off-screen – the off-screen world has faded into a kind of pure grey functionality. Colour and people can always be added to the streets and buildings via a VR headset.

The idea lay there awhile, could have been a possible Dr Who episode, and seems now a bit obvious, so got put back in a drawer.

There’s an idea that just won’t leave me. A visual image. It’s a city with a population of one

I can’t get that image out of my head, though, so out it comes again. The story’s different now. People all over the world still live in cities of one. The reason this time? It’s the only way they can all co-exist separated from the possibility of engaging with anyone who shares views and values different from their own.

Over the years, the drive to insist that no one says anything that challenges their own views, offends their beliefs, or questions any of their opinions has become enshrined in law. Unfortunately, the best way to effect this is to live in a city on one’s own.

The image had been forming for a while. As Trump deems anything he dislikes ‘fake news’, as Andrea Leadsom berates a BBC story about Brexit difficulties as unpatriotic, as any joke on Twitter about Labour’s John McDonnell gets you instant bile in return, the mental walls start going up.

When Nigel Farage bleats, “You can’t say anything these days, it’s political correctness gone mad” but then shouts at members of the public for disagreeing with him, the walls rise further. As TV correspondents are abused at campaign events for asking difficult questions, the foundations get thicker.

And as we block and unfriend anyone who’s lippy, when we filter our news sources only to those subjects that interest us and only from those outlets whose viewpoint we share, when we unplatform someone for holding views we might deem offensive, but offensive only in that they widely diverge from our own, we’re basically putting in our last remaining security gates for the City of One.

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

Because in all these instances, from Left, Right and everything in between, we’re basically saying, “Since you disagree with me, you have no right to take up my space.” We isolate ourselves from discussion and take ourselves to somewhere far more troubling.

The image of the City of One popped up again in all its glory when I read a story reported in the Sunday Times some weeks back about a clash over gender identity. Now, I realise here I’m about to step onto an issues quagmire booby-trapped with landmines and nail-bombs, but bear with me.

The story was about a clash between radical feminists and an even more radical transgender campaign group called Action for Trans Health (ATH). A transgender activist had punched a member of a feminist group campaigning on gender identity, over differences of opinion on whether those who self-identify as a woman should be allowed to use women-only spaces, like changing rooms, even if they haven’t had transition surgery.

We isolate ourselves from discussion and take ourselves to somewhere far more troubling

One of them thought they should, and the other thought they shouldn’t. The reaction of the former to the opinion of the latter – who she labelled a trans-exclusive radical feminist, or Terf – was to repeatedly punch her, while an off-shoot branch of ATH put out a statement saying, “Punching Terfs is the same as punching Nazis. Violence against Terfs is always self-defence.”

Being a white male man who feels awkward in any changing room at the best of times, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the underlying gender issues being discussed here. But having a mouth and a mind, I do feel qualified to suggest the best way to debate differences is by argument rather than wrestling. What worried me here though was that it was the very concept of argument that had become weaponised.

A counter-argument was reclassified as the use of force rather than of words, no less real and weighty than the punch made in its reply. That seems to me a dangerous line of thought, since it grants anyone the right to use violence against anyone else who appears to be disagreeing with them. It’s like clobbering someone for speaking at you in a funny way.

By their logic, since I now disagree with their use of force, I’m perfectly at liberty to take them up on the matter by smashing them in the teeth. And they are equally right to come and punch my nose off, they would argue.

And if, as you read this, you feel you disagree with me, then you can hit me too, and I you. In fact, what gave you the right to read this in the first place? The only person who can fully understand this piece, because they share the set of beliefs and values I hold dear, is me. And you’re not me, so I find your desire to read and judge me quite threatening.

If, as you read this, you feel you disagree with me, then you can hit me too, and I you

Not only that, but the very fact you carry on choosing to be You and not Me makes you Armando-Iannucci-exclusive, which I find offensive. By reading this sentence here even though you didn’t write it, you’re guilty of deliberate Iannucci-ist behaviour, you sectarian bastard!

What d’you think of that, eh? Me calling you that, you effing contrarian? Eh? C’mon, let’s have you, you inappropriate deviant! Scared are you? Scared of me and my words, are you? Scared? Well, eff-off then, Otherbody! And just leave me alone while I lock the gate of this big city where I can live out the rest of my days, safe from those who don’t like my idea about Ronnie Corbett. Which is the only idea worth talking about, because it’s mine.

Armando Iannucci’s new film The Death Of Stalin is in cinemas from October 20. His book Hear Me Out (Little, Brown) is published now | @Aiannucci