Thursday, January 05, 2017

GUEST POST How can a Liberal talk to a hate addict?

The Wrath of Achilles, by François-Léon Benouville (1821–1859)
Katie Barron offers some insights from the Iliad.

Three thousand years ago, after a long sulk, the Greek warrior Achilles admitted rather sheepishly to his mother that ‘Anger is sweeter than honey, and expands in men’s hearts like smoke.’

Achilles’ word ‘cholos’ meant specifically the sort of anger that comes from revulsion, from black bile, leaving a nasty taste in the mouth.

Bizarrely, we savour that nasty taste. Whether we are ancient Greek warriors in camp or ladies of a certain age reading the newspaper in the kitchen, our brains are predisposed towards hate addiction.

Two reasons. One, we like the adrenalin kick. The other is that, the more we think a particular thought, the stronger that neural pathway will be in the brain. The stronger a neural pathway, the more we use it. We’ve all been there.

Hate addiction is one strand in the twin copulating hells of Brexit and Trump. It has been a strand that crosses class and gender boundaries and, rather than abating with triumph, is expanding, as Achilles says, like smoke.

This is not to sweep under the carpet the pain of rapid cultural change; high unemployment concentrated in certain areas; the dishearteningly wide range of jobs that only offer a minimum wage in this country; the brute fact of economics that hugely increasing the supply of labour depresses pay. But it has been impossible to discuss these issues rationally because of hate addiction.

I was a Lib Dem canvasser in 2010 in white and fortunate St Albans in Hertfordshire. I remember crossing the beautiful Verulamium Park on a sunny spring day, tiny blonde children peddling their vehicles in all directions, to arrive in the Verulamium estate – a wide sprawl of wide houses set on wide lawns, built in the 1960s for young families living the dream of what Britain is supposed to be: red brick, with Waitrose in the middle.

I rang the bell of the first house on the first street. The door was answered by a tall woman with white hair standing off her head in all directions. Seeing my rosette, she declared, ‘Britain is ruined! It’s all – ‘  She waved her arms in despair – ‘Black!’

I had been warned by more experienced colleagues not to waste my time attempting to reason with people on the doorstep. Mark her down as Conservative and move on.

And it’s true there was something rigid and tired about the anti-immigrant and anti-benefits speeches I heard at the front door, like a second-rate, derivative epic poem: long, impersonal, full of archetypal characters and formulaic phrases (‘There are too many of them… The country’s going to the dogs.’) and jumbled up fragments of history (‘They’re eating the swans!’).

But the number of people in the throes of bitter-sweet delusion is now so large, and so powerful, that a conversation has to happen.

How can a Liberal talk to a hate addict?

How did the Greeks attempt to talk Achilles out of his hate obsession? Perhaps Europe’s earliest poem can give us some pointers.

Achilles was so deep in his sulk, he was happy to watch the Trojans killing his fellow soldiers and advancing right up to the Greeks’ ships.

It’s rather like the Brexiters watching the pound fall, shares in British companies fall, long-term economic figures be revised downwards, government revenue fall, the superpowers Russia and America strut their stuff, young people in Europe crying, middle aged men in Europe vowing eternal enmity, most importantly their own countrymen begging on their knees – and they still refuse to climb down.

Backed up against their ships, the Greeks can see the Trojans’ camp fires all over the plain surrounding them. They send an embassy of three men to try to talk Achilles round. They need his help.

The first man drives Achilles mad with rage. The second causes him to hesitate. The third softens him.

‘Much-scheming Odysseus’ speaks first. He offers Achilles masses of wealth and lists it in detail: money, tripods, cauldrons, horses and seven beautiful women. ‘That’s just for now. Later the King will give you a whole kingdom and you can marry one of his daughters.’

Achilles goes off like a rocket. He will go home tomorrow. He will never ever ever help the Greeks again, even if they offer him all the wealth in Egypt, or gifts you can’t count, as many as sand or dust.

So much for reasonable Odysseus. He is like the Remainers going on at the Brexiters about the economy. Lesson: when someone has a strong feeling, don’t offer money!

Then an old family friend of Achilles, who knew him as a tot, recalls how he used to sit him on his lap and feed him little pieces of meat off his own plate. Achilles says, ‘OK, I’ll decide in the morning whether to go home or not.’

This softening is like the Brexiters who voted Remain to please their children and grandchildren.

Then Ajax, the Greeks’ next best champion after Achilles, speaks up. ‘Royal, resourceful Odysseus.
Let’s not bother with this cruel, disloyal savage. We’re off!’ All he says to Achilles is, ‘We are, or were, your best friends.’

Achilles, rather than whipping out his sword, tells him ‘The way you talk is the way I feel. I won’t run home, but I won’t help you just yet.’ He appreciates that Ajax talks as he feels. Ajax isn’t afraid of Achilles hating him, he isn’t going to appease him.

So much for words. I’m afraid the Iliad doesn’t give us a pain-free solution. Apologies if I held out false hope.

Achilles doesn’t shift from his manufactured gripe until the real pain hits, the loss of the friend he loved most in the world. Then he comes back to the Greeks without bribes, without hope. Fingers crossed for the Brexiters and for all of us, it doesn’t come to that.

Katie Barron has been a Classicist, a financial journalist and a Lib Dem activist. Her books Pilgrimage in Terror and Adventures in Tory Land are available through Amazon.

1 comment:

Jack Russ said...

Well that has got me thinking.....