Public conversation

Chancing my arm writing on this subject. I’ll narrow it down to the suburban British Character. I’ll leave the country set to another time. There’s about 25 million of us packed into the South East of England and lots more scattered across this fair island.
It used to be possible to draw a picture of a British policeman or woman and compare that picture with an American or a Continental European equivalent and the differences were immediately obvious. Not anymore but with one visible exception – a gun. The idea that the police were just citizens in uniform is different from viewing them as an arm of the State employed to enforce the law. Some of this British picture is mythology but that still matters because it impacts public behaviour. Undeniably there is a convergence going on where in years to come it will be impossible to tell police officers apart. Perhaps this is inevitable given that the threats we face are likely to be common ones.
Moving on. There are a lot of images locked in our collective memories, usually based on black and white movies that stereotype the British character or should I say characters? Now, I will get into trouble. Except for the gifted few, there’s reason to say that the British are not good at the art of conversation. It’s true the British weather in its infinite variety always gives us a place to start. Moaning about the trains, busses and planes provides a good kicking off point too. However, these paths are so well trodden than no blade of grass can grow. Our humour is full of stereotypes verbally tripping over themselves to the amusement of others. Pedants will pick you up on grammatical errors with a smug smile knowing how much irritation they cause. Freely expressed opinions can be trumpeted without any consideration for the consequences.
I recently came across a Punch cartoon by Pont. It’s beautifully concise. A middle aged man, presumably a neighbour, is leaning on a garden wall with his arms folded look straight at you and saying: “I suppose you know you’re doing that all wrong.”
That one small drawing from the 1940s communicates a whole doctorate of study on the British character. I can see elements of this in the way the debate is going in the run-up to the referendum on UK membership of the EU. It’s coming more from the Leave camp than the Remain camp but it’s there nevertheless. Maybe in our public conversations we need to find a better way to persuade people rather than saying to them bluntly: “I suppose you know you’re completely wrong.”

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