Reading the Room

Freud once said that an angry child would destroy the world if it could.

How very apt for the prevailing climate. How many times have you seen somebody slapped down with the riposte that they have ‘not read the room?’ It’s favoured wordspew of the sage social commentator and wannabe urban Guevara.

The problem with the ‘room’ is that it tends to be a very small space within the heads of those who cannot see beyond its four walls. Precisely the world occupied by a child. The ‘room’ is their framework and their terms of reference, all rolled up into a neat ball of right. And inevitably, ‘reading the room’ has become a form of shorthand for ‘understand how we feel and comply’. It’s another convenient signpost for the road to social control via withering critique.

If you have an alternative perspective, prepare to be socially flunked for not being able to mind-read the expectations of others, or for not willing to rollover and acquiesce in anticipation of them. Take the new statue on the Colston plinth and the furore over its removal.

But first, let’s rewind to the original incumbent of the elevated space and the failure of 452,400 people to read the room occupied by the 11,000 signatories of the removal petition. And the same people are now outrageously decrying the removal of the new protest statue. Yes, this is the new normal and the logic that is gleefully lapped up by the occupants little rooms all round the country. The logic that may well be based on fairness and what should happen, but it has rarely been consistently operationalised into democratic process.

It reflects a staggering childlike naivety that expresses itself in frustrated outbursts that fail to grasp political reality. Change must grow from real argument, not the magical thinking of idealism.

And that brings us swiftly back to the latest effigy on display, which when all is said and done was artistically somewhat impressive. In the end though, it was job done. Not just for the Council, but for the person(s) behind the towering, fisting erection.

It was a tactical masterstroke – precisely because the Council was always going to have to take it down. That would then offer up the meaty contrast that the activists required: a society that would happily maintain an accolade to a slave trader for 140 years yet would readily chuck taxpayer wonga at yanking away a tribute to equality after just 24 hours.

Now that was an inspired way to create some more momentum, but gestures are never going to cut it in a world crying out for a paradigm shift. All these interventions blow away in the absence of strategic follow-up, and the glaring vacuum that few placard jockeys acknowledge is that nobody is co-ordinating any longer-term planning. Well that and the fact that a sizeable chunk of support for the cause is nothing but bombastic virtue-showboating.

Within 24 hours in Bristol, the institutional machine had kicked in to make the case that putting up the new statue without permission was in very much the same bracket as tearing the old one down. The rule of law and democracy was shunted out front and centre, and associations with lawbreaking were once again whistled up that set the critical mass of ambivalent folk in opposition to perceived mob rule.

Everything dovetailed into another lost opportunity for change, which has become the hallmark of the mainstream county ramble for equality that remains ever-distracted by a further underlying flaw: dedicated activists change very little because they do not believe they should have to explain or justify their fight.

Their narrow world view puts them at the pinnacle of righteousness, but even winning arguments have to be set out. For what other reason would ordinary, decent people deprioritise equality for so long? They perceive increased crowds and the social media pandering of fake activists and assume that their cause is gaining momentum. They take it as read that noise equals engagement. But very little is actually happening. Millions are paying lip-service for the benefit of their own profiles and a whole load more are not even listening.

Activists have forgotten that their main goal must be to activate others. And that is why they need to read the room. Their own room – and they can read it properly only by referencing beyond the immediate four walls.

Because while they are getting introspectively angrier, precious little is changing.

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