You can’t say anything these days!”, my mother says, with a knowing look, at the end of an anecdote. I smile and nod along politely while, inside, my brain chokes in a fog of cognitive dissonance. I come up with nothing of substance with which to reply to her and she continues unabated, “It’s sad when you think back to Monty Python, you know? And do you remember Matt Lucas, have you used to do that sketch show? Now I can’t. He won’t even go on TV.”
As I nod along, I wonder how deep this particular culture war untruth goes and how on earth one might go about changing her mind. I have plenty of combative things to say about the “you can’t say anything these days” narrative, but what do I say to her? She is kind, so, so, kind. She’s intelligent, likeable, reliable, selfless, and well, I love her. Ella she’s my mum.
Do I nod my head and let it slide like always, or do I risk our relationship by trying to talk her around? Maybe all she needs to convince her is a sobering compilation of Frankie Boyle jokes about rape, paedophilia, and real-life missing children. Try saying those things on TV in the Seventies; the decade when people actually banned Monty Python.
I reflect upon our generational divides, of which there are many, and consider it too much a risk to talk about. To try to show someone their entire perspective is fundamentally built on nonsense reveals, at once, too much about them, you, and your relationship. This narrative, and many more like it, are safely embedded, like parasites, deep within her.
The evidence of their existence bubbles to the surface all too often and I have to see it and hear it and do nothing. It makes having a relaxed, functional relationship with her difficult as I am forced to cover up my disappointment and unease. She will be gone one day, and I am forced to lie to her. This isn’t even our culture war, who has done this to her, to us? She has no idea I feel this way about her opinions of her. Does that make me a good son?
My parents’ generation, I think, obsess over being right. Whenever I’m proven wrong the person who does it usually, begrudgingly, wins my respect. Of course, I don’t particularly enjoy losing arguments, but having them with the right people is fun. When I lose, I welcome the experience as a chance to improve, grow, and learn.
However, I don’t think many in my parents’ generation welcome being proven wrong – whether about climate change, gay rights, or where they left the car keys. There’s too much pride at stake; too much insecurity. It’s a paradox, the more wrong people are about something, the less likely they are to see it. The more evidence against them, the deeper they will bury their heads in the sand.
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I think insecurity must be close to the heart of this. How else do you divide people with so much in common? The people of Britain didn’t divide themselves. Someone divided me and my mum – the different narratives through which we view the world were shaped partly by us, but also by the media, and – that word again – insecurity. With enough insecurity maybe one stops thinking rationally and emotion creeps in.
Perhaps it would be useless to counterargue or talk about disarming the culture war with facts. Facts have become optional these days, like different flavors of ice cream. They’re mere choices to peruse, pick and choose, not a painfully difficult and hard-won framework upon which we can agree to share our collective narratives, differences, experiences, and problems. Will our civilization survive without such a framework?
Soon after the conversation with my mum, I thought about what people do say these days. I hear the voice of an American president in my head talking about grabbing women by the pussy. I remember a British prime minister describing women as letterboxes. These men weren’t just able to say those things, they were celebrated because they said them. They divide us and we praise them. Do not wonder they keep doing it.
I think of all the sexist, misogynistic, racist, disgusting things people must say to Diane Abbott every day, and about the things trans people must have to hear as a result of best-selling authors. How much money do people earn from division? I inevitably feel my own emotion beginning to creep in, and perhaps I become a little more divided myself.
I’ll continue to keep my mouth shut, for now. You can’t say anything these days, not even to your own mum.