The Queen has been dead for a week. And whatever you views on the monarchy, it's an important event. The reaction to it, online and off, has been a test case for our discourse, and how we can navigate it.
My own reaction to that reaction surprised me. First I thought the people bashing the monarchy before the Queen was in the ground, were being churlish and opportunistic. Then I started to think they were right, and the time was now to debate the crimes of colonialism. And over the last few days, I've ping-ponged back and forth, and sometimes drifted in between.
I tried to reconcile these views by writing them out. And in so doing, I started thinking of a bad date. Between two activists with strong opinions.
So I wrote it as a screenplay instead. Bear with me as I try to get these two talking.
* * *
INT. A BUSY ITALIAN RESTAURANT – NIGHT
[A man and a woman, both activists, ￼glare at each other across a table. Each is holding a menu. It’s a date. And it’s going wrong.]
SHE: For fuck’s sake…
HE: You’re misunderstanding me. I don’t even care if the monarchy’s abolished…
SHE: …the Queen was the figurehead of a brutal, racist system which caused millions to suffer. And she refused to apologise for it.
You consider yourself an activist. Now you’re saying people shouldn’t complain about all that?
HE: I think she actually oversaw decolonisation.
But no, what I’m saying is the way social media and the commentariat are burning with rage for the Queen since she died... It just doesn’t sit right with me.
SHE: This isn’t personal. It’s about what she symbolised.
HE: Yes, and for some she symbolised stability. You know, the world is pretty crazy right now. We’ve had a pandemic, we’ve got climate change, a cost of living crisis. And our leaders are useless.
So yeah, people are mourning the death of stability, too. Not the end of the bloody empire, which we’re all better off without.
SHE: If you sympathise with a symbol of oppression, you’re enabling that oppression.
HE: You know, only a toddler sees the world in black and white.
[She shakes her head, drops the menu on the table. And gets up to leave.]
OK wait. Can we start again? I shouldn’t have said that, OK. Sorry.
SHE: This is your last chance.
[She sits back down; signals the waiter.]
And let’s jump to the main course.
HE: Alright. But let me explain my position. Please. Most of these criticisms against the Queen, they’re not good-faith, constructive arguments. They’re a reaction to all the piety around the mourning. To the earnest coverage and the pomp and the gun salutes. And by the way, I find all that ridiculous too!
The kind of commentary I’ve been seeing… it represents so many of the pathologies that infect our discourse today.
[She rolls her eyes. Picks up her menu.]
They’re out in full force. You've got The Grouchy Contrarian. The like-hungry dork riding the viral wave with his Big Bold Take. The opportunistic ‘activist’ who didnt have a view on the monarchy until this morning.
And you know what’s worse? Beneath it all there’s a… disdain. Towards regular folk who are grieving.
It reminds me of 2016, with Trump and Brexit. Remember The Deplorables? Or when Obama said Middle America “clings to guns and religion”…
It's fine for us to disagree with these people. But arrogantly implying they're idiots for feeling the loss of the Queen, while trashing something they believe in… will only make them double down. It'll polarise things further.
SHE: [Looking up from her menu.]
How can you know what’s in people’s minds?
HE: What do you mean?
SHE: You suggested the Queen's critics are doing it to score points, right? Well how can you know for sure?
HE: It seems obvious to me. But of course I can't know for sure.
SHE: Right, you can't. So you have to go by what they say.
I can play that game too, you know. I could say that right now, you're trying to guess the motivations of the Queen's critics to avoid engaging with their arguments. But then we’d be going around in circles, wouldn't we? And this date wouldn't be over any faster.
So let's try a simpler explanation. That people are just… expressing what they believe! And to hell with why. And all of us should do the same. Express what we believe, get challenged, challenge back.
HE: OK, wait. The Queen isn’t even buried yet. Millions are mourning her. Whether you agree with them or not. Millions of probably-totally-decent people. And out of respect for them, don’t you think we should hold back on attacking her? Isn’t that the right thing to do?
I mean, look at what this professor wrote:
[He takes out his phone, shows her the infamous, now-deleted tweet from Uju Maya.]
SHE: Yes, I've seen it.
HE: What a cynical, horrible comment. And there are many more out there like it.
Do you think this professor is making the world a better place, by writing that?
SHE: You realise you’re channeling Jeff Bezos now, right?
HE: You’re not answering my question.
SHE: Alright. First, that professor was affected personally by colonialism. Her family suffered a lot after Britain gave independence to Nigeria. So she’s speaking her truth. You can hardly expect her to shut up.
But OK, I didn't like her choice of words. It was distasteful. I’d never wish pain on another human being.
But the point is, when you take all these comments together, you get debate. It's messy, chaotic, sometimes rude. But it moves us forward. It helps us get to the truth. It's valuable, it's vital.
And by the way, her university distanced itself from the tweet. And Twitter removed it! You probably cheered when that happened.
HE: No, quite the opposite. I think the professor should be able to say things like this. I wish she hadn’t, but she should be able to.
And Twitter deleting it, well… that’s an example of stupidity begetting more stupidity. The tweet should stay up and contribute to the discourse. And the university's reaction was pretty cowardly, too.
The more I think about it, my issue is less with the way people are criticising the Queen, and more with their timing. I’m still not clear why we can’t wait a week to whack the monarchy. Wait until she's in the ground.
SHE: Because the time to have that debate is now. While the Queen is in the news.
HE: Is it, though? What’s the strategy here? Who are you trying to persuade? People grieving won’t be receptive to things that contradict their beliefs. In a week, they’ll probably be more so.
SHE: I think the ‘strategy’ [she does air quotes] is for everyone to get things off their chests. That’s what debate is about.
Freedom of expression doesn't respect a mourning period, nor should it. The stakes are too high for that.
[There’s a pause.]
HE: You really don’t give an inch, do you?
SHE: You’re tiring.
HE: I like you for it, though.
The waiter comes over.
SHE: [To the waiter.] We’re ready.
WAITER: Of course. What would you like for your starter?
SHE: The smoked mozzarella skewers, please.