Tuesday, October 19, 2021
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Beware the Rabbit Hole

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I WROTE recently here about campaigning in Sheffield against vaccine passports and lockdown, the better to understand where we’re at after all these months.  

I suggested BAME hesitancy, gender differentials and Remainer rage as palpable themes on the street, in face-to-face encounters with hundreds of ordinary people on successive Saturdays. 

Actively engaging the public on the street is not an activity with which many are familiar or comfortable. It jars with an essentially consumerist model of parliamentary representation by a political class. To challenge complete strangers where they stand on the issue of the day is to challenge a paradigm with a well-established and largely legitimate tradition, in the UK at least. 

But challenge we must, for there is no one to come to our aid but ourselves and scant time to wait for a new pro-freedom party to make political inroads. We’ve no choice but to go direct to the public in a way that is unmediated by the media or regulated by the regulators. 

To do this, we must keep it simple. We’re defending a quality not a quantity; an idea not a fact. There is no ‘evidence base’ or formula or scientific proof for the thing we defend. We don’t need experts because there is no ‘ex’, nothing outside the realm in question.  

What we defend is self-evident and needs no data to back it up. Indeed, we’re not really defending at all, but simply willing the thing that is lacking, the freedom that withers and dies in the absence of agency. 

Freedom is us, our very being, the ground on which we stand, an end in itself that cannot be gifted by another. Jurisprudence aside, the real deal is in the doing and being, and not the consuming or pleading. The justness of our cause is in the lack that the expertariat would impose, a lack – let us never forget – driven and justified by fear and force. 

Theirs is an essentially negative proposition, an epistemic nihilism of unprecedented proportions. They are so far ‘stepped’ in blood that should they wade no further, returning would be worse. If on no other grounds than this – their scorched earth policy – should we understand the gravity of the situation we’re in.  

And for the same reason is it necessary to cleave to a simple, clear message about the justness of elementary freedoms – of travel, speech, association, bodily autonomy, parental authority – rather than pivoting to each and every assault as it comes down the policy pipe. 

Keeping it simple, though, takes a little practice. Actively engaging people on the street requires, in the first instance, a hook. Of late I’ve enquired, in as clear and inviting a tone as I can muster, whether the jabbing of children without parental consent is a good idea – What do you think? – and if a response is forthcoming, as it often is, an exchange is possible.  

At which point the key thing is to listen and not lecture, about the many and varied ways in which the crisis is taking its toll on the nation.  

Whatever your opinions about the why, who, and what of it all, there is no substitute for real, face-to-face discussion with complete strangers, and repeating the exercise dozens of times over.  

And one of the most enlightening and thrilling aspects of this experience is the confounding of your own prejudices, as the most unexpected people stop and turn and express their relief that they are not alone and that someone else ‘gets it’ and is willing to stand up and say so. 

Reaching out through the veil of fear and connecting with the real on the other side – the real that is everyone else – is the essence of democratic engagement, developing and deploying a grammar of citizenship by building a network of people who you know and trust in real time and not online.  

Every Saturday, on the street, I connect with people looking to make sense of the dizzying, asymmetric uncertainties that are splintering civil society and undermining family life. Each and every conversation is an invitation to a local community that is organic and ongoing. 

Exactly what this community amounts to remains an open-ended question. A Stand in the Park conversation is one option. But the aim is – I suggest – to make the pavement our platform, by maintaining an ongoing presence in a given locale that actively challenges the fear and divisiveness, rather than forming groups that separate themselves off from the public.  

There is nowhere to run; nowhere to hide. Only the agency of the commons can save us. The public sphere is not just our platform; it is our rightful home. 

Rebuilding civil society will ultimately require a populist turn. Before then, a degree of confusion is inevitable. But we are, I suggest, pilgrims, not tourists, forging a future rather than spectating an event. To ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’, as Samuel Beckett put it, is no great tragedy when tyranny comes to town.  

The Rabbit Hole is dark and deep and no doubt fascinating, but it runs directly away from the demotic quiddity of the public square, where – unlike the digital world – anything is not possible; where theory cannot get too far ahead of practice, where the desert of the real evanesces and becomes a rainy bus-stop and a noisy hobo but is nonetheless – for the time being, at least – an open and unmediated zone wherein freedom of association and expression still have meaning and traction. 

So, beware the Rabbit Hole. It leads away from the place we need to be, engaging ordinary people on the street, countering the injunction to ‘act as if you’ve got it’ – the fear, that is. Let us turn the tables and model how to ‘act as if you’ve got it’ – the freedom, that is. 

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Stephen Bowler
Stephen Bowler is a builder based in Sheffield.

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