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Opinion

Our leaders have failed us, but bitter and divisive public discourse isn’t helping

We need an intervention to save us from ourselves and our endless outrage – might participatory democracy be the answer?

Occasionally I forget who I am and what I was put on this Earth to do. One night last week, in a small studio, I joined four journalists whose job it is to comment on the big problems around Parliament, government and the bitterness thrown up by the government’s perils. I did my level best but I was not cut out to comment on who’s screwing who in the political arena, on who is being truthful, dishonest, or insincere. 

Such commentators have been with us since the days of Grub Street in the early 18th century, when governments went after critics to stop knowledge of their follies leaking into society. But now we have a welter of ‘folly followers’ and the air is thick with their bandwidth of anger and disdain.  

And this government, under the irregular leadership supplied by Boris Johnson, has not been short of follies to block up. The groundswell of anger over the parties and the concept of ‘one rule for you and one rule for us’ has now become a major cause of political and social friction. Alas, you have to be of a particular mindset to follow this trail of lies, counter lies, innuendo and abuse, and to actually make a living out of it. And I was never cut out to do so. 

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I always subscribed to the idea that if you appoint yourself as a defender of the poor then you need to sup with all devils, arriving with a long spoon. That government itself is sometimes the enemy, at other times a benefactor, of what needs to be done. And the recent creation of a £360 million fund for homeless prevention – our Big Issue for almost two years – proves that government is indeed a mixed bag. 

Now, of course, we have something in the political world that we have never had before – the ‘people’s storm’: the internet, the tweet, the instant piling up of millions upon millions of opinions that in all the history of the world have never been seen or distributed so liberally. Anger and disdain has reached such a tidal height that it can wash away reputations and destroy the foundations of what formerly looked so solid and constant.  

The first time I heard about tweets I was sitting with a bright American commentator who in late 2006 was telling me that Barack Obama was going to win the US election. Why? Because he had millions of followers who were talking to each other and the rest of the world in a short-form language made up of less than a couple of hundred characters. This groundswell of support would wash him forward to Capitol Hill and in it express the vibrancy of youth and the ambition for change, with a clarity never expressed by any prior form of communication. 

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Of course the problem with inventing anything simple and usable is that others will also find a use for it. No weapon in the arsenal of democracy is going to remain unused by opponents of democracy. Hence Trump’s almost militant use of the tweet reached Himalayan proportions, freed of control or truth or fact; because any Tom, Dick or Mary can release their pronouncements onto the world from the back seat of their car, or while doing their early morning ablutions. 

Every last one of us can become a micro TV and radio station, throwing out into the ether our well- or ill-informed opinions about anything from the size of someone’s rear to the efficacy of government actions. Judgement by social media has eaten into the very fabric of our education system, our political system and even into our mental health and wellbeing. There are a lot of people out there who are hurt or are hurting, and there is no slowing of the onslaught. Our children have become the most doctrinal followers of the importance of the social media space and are suffering dislocations with the ‘real world’ because of it. 

“Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad” might be a legitimate observation about social media.  

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To which you must add all the other programmes and talkers who get to air their disdain and opinions; and it was one of those opinion-loaded forums that I allowed myself to attend last week. I am now cured and I will keep as far away as possible from what I see as a kind of compulsive value judging; incessant, repeated and bitter. 

But there are other things coming down the road – literally. A discussion last week in Parliament heralded the troubled arrival of e-scooters. Supposedly only allowed on private land, they are now ridden on pavements and roads and occasionally cause injury and even – at times – death. Hundreds of thousands have been sold and the new edition of the Highway Code provides no legal guidance as to how or where they can be ridden. The government plans on getting around to it at some stage: so far, it’s like the Wild West on our streets and pavements. 

And what next? I can see helicopters – or passenger-carrying drones – joining with the e-scooters, combining with the brouhaha around social media, to form a perfect storm of threats to wellbeing. 

Given the way our elected leaders have been behaving recently, it could well be that participatory democracy – going beyond the current representational democracy and giving people a more direct say in the issues of the day – might be our only way out.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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