Let me set a scene. I live in a Norfolk village along with 600 or so other people. It boasts the biggest village green in England. It’s a ‘green’ not a common, mind, and woe betides anyone who calls it the latter.
The green may be vast but the spread of political persuasion is narrow. It is said – not without justification – that, come election times, you could put a blue rosette on a lump of sugarbeet and it would easily win.
Until very recently only one of the pubs in the village was open and it was a hub of social activity. ‘Early doors’ on a Friday were particularly popular. It was a chance to catch up with villagers at the end (for most) of the working week. The landlord put on free food and the beer flowed along with all sorts of conversation.
Then it all changed. That happened on June 24th 2016. If that date sounds familiar it’s because it was the day after the Brexit referendum. Suddenly, the ‘conversations’ stopped being an exchange of views. You were either a Leaver or a ‘Remoaner.’ There was, apparently, no more to be said about the issue. And when suggestions of a second vote began to be mentioned, well, now we were talking ‘treason.’
The village has a much-used Facebook page which was designed to advertise local events and to swap useful information like ‘I’ve got a load of plants/eggs/apples/cardboard boxes going spare. Please help yourself.’
But something less pleasant started to happen. The village Facebook page started to be used as a vehicle of vitriol – not just on Brexit – but for anything vaguely political.
Parish councillors were a particular target. They were accused – openly – of being corrupt because someone had got planning permission to build a house, even though a Parish Council has no say in planning decisions. It can register an opinion but that’s about it.
I recall one Facebook post which complained that the Green wasn’t being cut often enough. The writer opined that it was because Parish councillors were putting the money set aside for mowing ‘into their back pockets to pay for their holidays.’
I pointed out to the village Facebook page administrators that the post was libellous. They countered that it wasn’t because no one had been named. Wrong. I’m not a lawyer but I have spent years teaching media law.
The defamation laws include ‘group libel.’ Roughly, if a group is small enough (and a parish council with just nine members certainly qualifies) then by NOT naming someone there is a risk of libelling EVERYONE.
Just as an aside here the test case for this involved the late News of the World, which ran a front-page splash headlined ‘Banbury CID Raped My Wife.’ Nobody was named. There were 11 members of Banbury CID at the time. They all sued.
Now, I’m not saying that Brexit caused all of this but it is a real possibility that the divisiveness of the vote may have inspired some to shy away from calm debate in favour of expressing a blunt opinion that no one was entitled to question.
The village is not exactly the most ethnically diverse in the country. There are hardly any people of colour, but surely that doesn’t excuse the Facebook post that angered me most.
“My pet rat’s life matters. But I don’t ask anyone to take a knee for it.”
Yep, that really appeared on the village Facebook page in between the posts about the WI meeting and the yoga classes.
Just stop for a moment and think what the message implies. It was written by someone who boasts that he never reads, watches or listens to the news. So how is his opinion formed then?
It reminds me of a sketch on the Mitchell and Webb show where they were asking viewers to get in touch with their opinions.
‘Even if you know nothing about the subject you must ‘reckon’ something. So why not give us the full majesty of your ‘reckon?’
As I’ve got older and perhaps a little wiser I have taken the view that to avoid confrontation it’s probably best to avoid situations where confrontation might happen.
I stopped using the pub and like a lot of people, I guess, had a cull of my Facebook feed. Of course, that meant I fell into the trap of putting myself into a silo of similar opinions. I’m not necessarily an ardent advocate of the idea that ‘there’s no arguing with stupid,’ but the thought may have crossed my mind.
Now, let’s spring forward to a couple of weeks ago when something rather unexpected occurred.
I was home alone with my aged Labrador for a few days. A new pub recently opened in the village and one Sunday lunchtime, slightly bored with my dog’s limited debating ability, I decided to pop out for a pint.
The dog and I stood at the bar and I exchanged a bit of chit-chat about this and that with the bar staff. Then Ron came in.
It’s not his real name, but that doesn’t matter. Ron, I’d guess, is a little older than me and certainly a lot more materially successful. His large house fronts the green. He has a range of expensive cars, all with a personalised number plate. He flies the flag of St George, not from a bedroom window, but from a proper flagpole at the end of his driveway.
We nodded to each other and after a few minutes he asked about my dog who had adopted the role of meeter and greeter for any new arrivals. She was keen to make sure they knew where the doggie treats jar was on the bar.
Slowly a conversation between Ron and I began to unfurl. We chatted about local things – we’d both been active on the parish council at times – and Ron was particularly fed-up with the lack of action on issues he thought to be important for the village.
We talked about the new houses being built on the outskirts of the village and the amount of ‘incomers.’ Of course, unless anyone had been bred and born in the village (that’s the correct Norfolk way of putting it, by the way) then we were all ‘incomers’ of a sort.
‘Did you know,’ said Ron, ‘ 40% of the people in this country can’t speak English?’
‘Err, I don’t think that’s quite right Ron.’
‘I promise you that’s right. I’ve got a good friend in Birmingham and she told me.’
‘Ah,’ I replied, ‘now, I suppose that in certain areas of Birmingham it could be the case that English is not the native tongue. But you can’t extrapolate that to the whole country, can you Ron?’
‘I suppose not,’ he said. ‘But you have to admit that we are full up as a country. We just can’t take anymore.’
I was distracted by my dog being given yet another biscuit by someone she had just met and greeted.
When I turned back Ron had bought me another pint and we carried on chatting.
We talked about the consequences/advantages of Brexit, the Downing Street parties, the parish council (again) and our experiences of working in different countries.
It was a very pleasant hour. We shook hands as Ron left. We had disagreed, but neither of us had derided the other’s views. No one has been cancelled.
As I left with the dog a line from a song came into my head.
“It’s so funny how we don’t talk anymore.”
Do you have experiences of village life? Do you enjoy a healthy debate? Share your thoughts in the comments below.