Johnson wants us to feel outrage. Let’s take back control – starting with ourselves | Peter Ormerod

What did you feel? Maybe it was anger, fury, fear. Perhaps it was excitement, hope, a certain thrill. It is unlikely that you experienced the announcement of parliament’s prorogation in purely cerebral, intellectual terms: it is hard to remain numb in the face of such drama. We are emotional beings and the emotions we felt were entirely natural and human. There is nothing wrong with them.

But in all likelihood, whatever you felt was precisely what you were expected to feel. For the people in No 10 care only that you felt something. And they will be delighted with their latest wheeze, which has already served its purpose: to create outrage and entrench opinion. The ferocity of the reaction is all part of the plan. It is time for those of us who are opposed to it to become smarter and wiser in how we deal with all this.

There are some fundamental points to grasp first. Foremost is that this is a government in a constant state of campaign. It is trying to get into our heads; the operation is led by veterans of Vote Leave, after all. Such tactics are most effective against those who think themselves immune to them, those who boast of their rationality and independence of mind. Vote Leave knew which of our buttons to press: campaigners for remain seemed not even to know there were buttons.

This brings us on to the rather heated matter of triggering. It sometimes seems the word needs its own trigger warning, such are the reactions it elicits. Having been employed to alert readers or viewers to content that may especially alarm them, it is now used routinely by rightwingers to mock the supposed “snowflakes” of the left. But we all get triggered in some way, and the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is well versed in the art. We know this because he triggered millions of leave voters: he has spoken of the phrase “take back control” as “triggering loss aversion”, a phenomenon noted in cognitive psychology. His No 10 is clearly using similar techniques now, and if it uses them against its supporters, we can be sure it will do so against its opponents.

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This puts many of us in a difficult situation. To react is to play their game; not to react looks like passivity or acquiescence. But there are ways through this. Perhaps we can start by better understanding ourselves, acknowledging that we are vulnerable to the wiles of those who seek to manipulate our emotions. We can try to learn why we react in certain ways to certain things; our opponents should be gifted no advantage in this regard.

Then, when we are next provoked, we can try not so much to react as to respond. We can take our time, thus disrupting their preferred sequence of events. We can tone down the emotion and be pointed and meticulous in our language, for our opponents feed off our fury. We can shun cheap stunts and photo opportunities. We can note what our opponents are doing and let them know we know. We can deride them subtly, thus exposing their weakness and feebleness, for our opponents are human beings too. We can use every ounce of our emotional intelligence to undermine the methods of those who wish to use our own feelings against us. And we can refuse to be drawn into the very politics of division on which they thrive, resisting the urge to label, dehumanise and “other” them. They won’t know what to do with that.

I may well be wrong about all this. There may be no method at play: perhaps the government is just being clumsy and has blundered into this storm. It is also quite possible that I am right but that the strategy is bad and will backfire on the government. And it is certainly true that Cummings is no genius: he is fond of talking about branches of history, but failed to foresee quite how rotten is the branch on which the referendum left the nation teetering. But it would surely be naive to dismiss the possibility that we are being played. That anger, that fury, that fear: it is all justified, and it can fuel us and inspire us. But we need to use it imaginatively and intelligently, to outflank and outmanoeuvre our opponents. Right now, we are playing their game by their rules. It’s time to take back control.

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Peter Ormerod is a journalist with a particular interest in religion, culture and gender


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