The language we use in public and on social media has repercussions. The first step must greater civility
When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer,” George Orwell said in 1946. As then, so now – but worse. I know, everyone’s always saying things are worse. Let’s not hark back to an age that never existed. But it is time to recognise the conversation crisis in public and civic life.
I don’t quite believe, like some, that the Enlightenment values of tolerance and civilised debate are being reversed; but they are certainly under threat. This age of unreason we’re living through is defined not only by “had enough of experts”, but with normally reasonable people – you and I – behaving wilfully unreasonably to one another. And by the fact civility itself is now regarded as an obstacle to change, where once it was its best hope.
The TV adaptation of her dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale captured the political moment. Ahead of a new series, Atwood talks bestsellers, bonnets and the backlash against her views on #MeToo
“It was not my fault!” says Margaret Atwood of 2017. But it was certainly her year. Now, just a few weeks into January, she is already making headlines with typically trenchant comments on the #MeToo movement. And, of course, the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale returns this spring: she has read the first eight scripts and has “no fingernails left”. While the world – and Gilead – show no sign of getting any cheerier, Atwood is seemingly unstoppable. In March the New Yorker crowned her “the prophet of dystopia” and the TV adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace has orbited her into an international stardom seldom experienced by novelists. Atwood was a consultant on both productions, and has cameo performances in each: as one of the aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale, slapping Elisabeth Moss’s Offred round the face, and as “Disapproving Woman” (the sign on her trailer) in Alias Grace. She will be on set in Toronto for the second season soon, again as a consultant, but not in a nasty aunt outfit this time. “Once was enough.” She has very much been cast to type. “Sometimes I pretend to be a scary old lady,” she confesses over coffee. “Yes I do,” she drawls menacingly. It is a complete coincidence that her near-future dystopia and her historical novel based on a real 19th-century murder have come at the same time, she says. “But they do have something in common: bonnets. So many bonnets.”
“I’m not a prophet,” she says. “Let’s get rid of that idea right now. Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.” She is, however, “sorry to have been so right”. But, with her high forehead and electric halo of curls, there is something otherworldly about Atwood. Dressed in one of her trademark jewel-coloured scarfs and a necklace of tiny skulls, she cuts a striking figure outside the cafe in Piccadilly where we are huddled.