Absolutid-22: A New Pandemic
As the exaggerated panic of Covid-19 begins to slide gradually from the frontal lobe of short-term hysteria to the hippocampus of history, a new pandemic threatens us. One which has the capacity not just to inhibit our breathing and overall fitness, but to debase our very means of communicating with one another. I call it Absolutid-22.
Have you noticed how the pronouncements of our politicians - of all parties - must now include at least one use of the word "absolutely"? It reminds me of the game lawyers used to play with each other in the 1980s. One friend of mine was challenged to find a way of including the word 'cunnilingus' in a closing defence speech, managed it, and immediately won £1000.
Perhaps our MPs are playing a similar game. At least, we must hope they are. Because the alternative is chilling. Let me explain.
According to Hansard, the Parliament nerd's go-to guide for a factual, verbatim account of everything that has been said in the cradle of our democracy, the word "absolutely" has been used in the House of Commons no fewer than 659 times in the past two weeks. Let's look at some examples:
"We would be absolutely delighted to do that." OK. You're either delighted or slightly less pleased. You can't be absolutely delighted.
"The Hon Gentleman is absolutely right." Either the Hon Gentleman is right or he isn't.
"I absolutely respect my Hon Friend's right to make the speech that he is making." Either you respect his right to make it, or you don't.
"The response must be absolutely clear." Again, either it's clear or it isn't.
"The plight of Afghan refugees absolutely has not ended." What?!
"It is absolutely not my intention to mislead the Hon Lady." Hmmm. Maybe if you'd left out "absolutely', I'd have believed you.
All politicians of all parties have now started using "absolutely" as an alternative to... well, what? Is it the new 'erm', designed to buy a bit of time to think of a response? Is it a way of being slightly more emphatic? "I agree." "No, no, I absolutely agree."
Or is it just the lazy sort of groupthink that has its chilling origins in the 'doublethink' of George Orwell - a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgements as a result of group pressure?
Very few things in life are absolute. Particularly at the moment, as we deal with the crazed madman in the Kremlin who is capable of almost anything. At a time like this, language and oratory really do matter. A misplaced remark about nuclear weapons or bunker busters - especially when translated into another language - could be the touchpaper that ignites the firework of global conflict. In a climate where anything is possible, any claim to absolutism could be both final and fatal.
Like the rest of us, Parliamentarians have become lazy during lockdown. During the Zoom era the House of Commons has degenerated from being a lively place of debate to one where MPs could simply prop their pre-prepared speeches up in front of the computer monitor and read it into their webcams - giving their impression that they were being spontaneous, whilst being as prepped as a BBC News presenter reading into an autocue.
The problem with that is that a lengthy debate would simply become a long litany of MPs saying exactly the same things. The whole point of debate is that you're meant to respond, off the cuff, to what you've just heard. If someone's already made the point you wanted to make, there's no need for you to repeat it. The House of Commons exists to evoke a spirit of challenge, of argument, of debate and - ultimately - of compromise. That finding of the middle ground which is the sum total of all the ideas vocalised and, therefore, a better result because of the people who contributed to it.
Maybe you think I'm reading too much into this. But when a group of people from different parties start over-using the same word, collectively, what that says to me is that they've forgotten what they're there to do.
Much is made of the need for unity right now. The thinking is that - after the ridiculousness of the many Parliamentary hours devoted to birthday cakes and office parties - we're now at war. That is serious. And therefore we must show Putin how British we are by agreeing with each other.
Now is the time when the Commons should be fighting to the death with each other, so that we can fight our enemy through the collective thought and conclusions of our elected politicians. It is oft said - particularly by religious groups - that strength comes from unity, and the seeds of division are sown when we disagree. This is bollocks. Anyone who's worked in the Church of England knows these are fine words which have little basis in practical reality.
Humans are tribal. We agree by disagreeing. We work out the best thing to do by arguing about it first. We can only compromise if we have differing views to begin with. Verbal and ideological conflict can be healthy, indeed necessary.
But the mistake our politicians are making is to think that - just because we're at war - we must present a united front. They're wrong. Our nation should present a united front to Russia, yes. But that doesnt mean our politicians have to be united in the debates which lead to that united front. Far from it.
If ever there was a time for MPs to have a massive falling out over the best way forward in Ukraine, it's now. Their fallings out may just be the way we find the way to avoid the nuclear fallout that follows if politicians passively agree with each other for the sake of appearances.
The pandemic of Absolutid-22 poses as much of a threat to our democracy as it does to our chances of defeating Putin's evil dictatorship.
We have seen the same across the pond in the US. Trump was - of course - a divisive leader, but one who provoked debate, argument, anger - all those human things we need to express and to see. Now we have Biden. Everyone is very pleased with Biden. Because suddenly the White House is a place where everyone agrees with each other. In fact, the opposite is true. We see America weakened in the face of its oldest enemy, trust in the Presidency at an all time time low, and a more divided country.
If people aren’t disagreeing, then democracy has failed.
Conflict is a catalyst for change. Without conflict, we have passive agreement. And with passive agreement comes stagnation, tokenism, lack of progress and, ultimately, death.
For a democracy, that death can be slow and agonising. For those in the heat of battle, the idea that a plan may simply have been accepted, rather than properly thrashed out first, could be the real difference between life and death.
So let's banish "absolutely" from our Parliamentary rhetoric. Let's have MPs who are capable of expressing their own opinions again, rather than this herd of cattle who think it's clever to mimic each other's linguistic absurdities. Let's have a quality of debate once more. Let's have the arguments; the bust ups, that lead to good compromises and good solutions.
Let's rescue Parliament from disappearing up its own inward-looking arse by making it a democratic place again.
Let’s have a Home Office and a Home Secretary who, instead of “absolutely believing“ we should assist Ukrainian refugees, gets off its fat, useless arse and ”demonstrably helps” them instead.
And by doing so, let's challenge Putin's evil dictatorship through our ability to say "we have argued this one out, and - together, united - we believe you are the one in the wrong here."