James O’Brien’s book How to be Right is a commentary on the most turbulent years in recent UK history, yet its approach to how the ‘will of the people’ is shaped and manipulated has much wider relevance.
2016 was the year the world went to pot. The UK voted to leave the European Union with about as much forethought as a crap parent ‘just popping out for fags’ and never coming back. Hungry for a share of the WTF pie, the USA voted Trump for president and promptly started locking kids in cages. It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.
How to be Right catalogues this global carnage-cum-fuckery, illustrated by the rise of fear, fake news and prejudice among everyday people and in the press. Consequently, the book is also a vehicle for O’Brien to demonstrate his response to the kind of rank or racist opinions which were common before the ’70s but – like a Bernard Manning revival – are now back on the circuit.
O’Brien has plenty of material to draw on here, as much of the book’s material is compiled from call-ins to his LBC radio show. Given the nature of talk radio, this means many examples of people who don’t like foreigners, homosexuals or feminists, but who choose to dress their prejudice as some other kind of outrage or moral hand-wringing.
Selling gender-neutral clothes is deeply troubling, says one caller quoted in the book. Another opines that waitresses who were pawed and clawed at the Presidents Club charity dinner are the ones who were out of line. Mostly, however, callers regurgitate fact-free beliefs picked up from fact-free news outlets and social media.
Almost all of these callers are given [very gentle] bloody noses by O’Brien, because beliefs like this – intuited rather than real – fall apart under even the lightest scrutiny. For those listening in (or perhaps reading similar comments online), such opinions lose their power to depress or to silence criticism as they’re revealed as hokum, or when the mechanisms that feed the rage are laid bare.
[On reactions to a Muslim woman photographed checking her phone immediately after a terror attack on London’s Westminster Bridge in 2017]
Think, for a moment, of the fundamental presumptions and prejudices that fed the instant popularity of this profoundly false meme. First, that so many people were so keen to castigate a woman in a headscarf that they didn’t even pause to wonder at the absurdity of suggesting she could be unconcerned by events that could easily have killed her.
This doesn’t mean the holders of such beliefs hang-up having seen the ‘error of their ways’; presumably many hold fast to their creed. As a demonstration in critical thinking processes, however, and in explaining why the world turns the way it does, How to be right is both slightly comforting and somewhat depressing.
Countless lefty liberal snowflakes have invoked visions of Orwellian nightcome before now. However, it’s never seemed quite this tangible. These days it’s easy to encounter people who will – completely unironically – tell you we’ve always been at war with Oceania … or that video evidence of the president mocking a disabled reporter is ‘fake news’. Politicians and newspaper moguls blatantly rule for power’s sake, and not for the people. The rabbit hole gets murkier, racists get braver, experts and critical thinking are out of fashion, and objective truths are disposable.
The book’s title suggests a kind of manual, which it may be for some readers, though I suspect success will be harder fought down your local Wetherspoons. The more balanced view is that it’s a demonstration of O’Brien’s personal philosophy, which isn’t about belittling differing opinions, but more shining a light under the bed. It’s a surprisingly kind line of inquiry, except when directed at those who manufacture and exploit rage.
How to be Right is a commentary on modern times, and yet its biggest achievement is countering extremism and hatred with something very like humanist patience.
James O’Brien, How to be Right … in a world gone wrong. Virgin Digital, 2018
Similar to: Factfulness (Hans Rosling), Failure to Quit (Howard Zinn)
CREDITS & COPYRIGHT
Words: my own except where quoted.
Photo by Andrés Gerlotti via Unsplash.