I’m entitled to my stupid opinion, and I say pigs should wear shoes

Patrick Freyne: Eating with the Enemy is a televisual response to our endless opinionising

Jess Kavanagh listens respectfully to Alan McGarry on Eating with the Enemy. Photograph: Virgin Media Television

Jess Kavanagh listens respectfully to Alan McGarry on Eating with the Enemy. Photograph: Virgin Media Television

 

“In this brand-new social experiment, people from all walks of life are paired up with their direct opposite and guided through a menu of questions,” says the excellent Pauline McLynn, narrator of Eating with the Enemy (Wednesday, Virgin Media One).

Their direct opposite! This is exciting. A hirsute hillperson on a date with a svelte hairless cosmopolitan. A red roundy-faced Kilkennyman in union with a pallid ghostly Athlonian. A giant and an elf. A big foot seated across from a head. I slap my hands together in anticipation. I can’t wait for these absolute scenes. But sadly, no, they’re talking about people with “opposite” opinions, not people who are opposite from each other in other cool ways.

Ugh. Opinions. There’s nothing special about opinions. Everyone has them nowadays. Having opinions is an autonomic response like breathing or tweeting. It’s just something that happens when you leave your brain unattended. They’re easy: “Pigs should wear shoes.” “There’s no such thing as France. ” “All black and white animals are really the same species (pandas, magpies, Friesian cows, zebras).”

We gurgle angry opinions onto the screen whenever we’re hungry, frightened or cold

Those are just three opinions I came up with off the top of my head (okay, the black and white animal one is an ongoing obsession). And I’ll still argue those opinions all the way into your face and down your throat until you stop saying that pigs shouldn’t wear shoes, that there is a such thing as France and that all black and white animals are not the same species. If I have learned anything from contemporary discourse it’s that I am entitled to my stupid opinion.

Endless opinionising is a legacy of the tech boom. A bunch of Ayn Rand-reading sociopaths have wired our wild imaginations to our lizard brains using their bewitched difference engines. And now we gurgle angry opinions onto the screen whenever we’re hungry, frightened or cold instead of hunting or voting or putting a jumper on.

Eating with the Enemy is a televisual response to this. In each episode, participants meet each other over a fancy dinner like in First Dates. Except here they are not looking for love, they are looking for a fight because “What is…love?” as a Star Trek alien might say. Much like on First Dates, their conversations are intercut with erotic footage of food being prepared and incendiary discussion topics being texted to them by the producers.

There are also boffins present, because this isn’t a frenetic moral free-for-all but a “social experiment”. In the early days of reality television, people used the phrase “social experiment” all the time until we realised that getting fragile people to sing badly until they cried or filming half-nude attention-seekers on an island on behalf of voyeurs wasn’t actually science. I mean, it’s certainly not how penicillin was discovered (although it might be why it was necessary). But “social experiments” are back and Virgin Media have Dr Malie Coyne, a clinical psychologist, and Richard Hogan, a psychotherapist, on hand to comment on what happens for science.

Coyne and Hogan stand in a bare warehouse, where they presumably live in learned austerity, facing a wall on which are hung many flat screen televisions. This is because they are psychologists, not computer scientists, so every time they need to open a new browser they just buy a new television instead. Classic HSE. Also, they have no chairs.

The well-meaning experts warn about people living in bubbles of homogenous opinion and being incapable of listening politely to different views

Not every participant who appears on this show is particularly well-prepared or well-qualified for an argument. They’re not experts. They guess at statistics, fold their arms defensively and say things like, “Some feelings will need to be hurt. I’m willing to do that to seek out what the truth is”, even though they’re a white man arguing against Black Lives Matter on a reality show, not an intellectual addressing the Dreyfus affair in the pages of L’Aurore. Yes, two white men argue about Black Lives Matter on this programme. In fairness, some of the other issues are a bit more conducive to constructive discussion and everyone is respectful. One polite young technophile discusses the positive side of social media with an understandably tech-phobic mother of teenagers. And while gay Catholic Alan disagrees with bisexual agnostic Jess about polyamory, they are both united in being a bit of crack.

The well-meaning experts warn about people living in bubbles of homogenous opinion and being incapable of listening politely to different views. But, in reality, meaningful real-world conversations between people with different views is usually a consequence of those people being united by something else – volunteerism, family, a sports team, a community. Putting one person across from another to discuss the thing they disagree upon just transforms the real world into a fleshy version of the contextless internet. And the internet, as we know, is a hellspace full of self-wounding rage monkeys.

John Creedon with Timmy O’ Connor Sliabh Luachra. Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland
John Creedon with Timmy O’ Connor Sliabh Luachra. Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland

You don’t find John Creedon mucking about with opinions. When I’m feeling particularly fragile, I pretend his Radio One music show is “the news” in a world where all is well. I suspect a few minutes in Creedon’s presence would deradicalise even the most rabid troll. “Let’s have an old tune,” Creedon would say and the person would forget their rant about snowflakes and sheeple and start tapping their toe and their heart would grow in size (eventually killing them).

In Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland (Sunday, RTÉ One), Creedon wanders well beyond the 5km limit, moving from town to town like other essential workers such as the Littlest Hobo, Santa and the 1980s Incredible Hulk. He is doing this to spread knowledge not coronavirus, but if he does turn out to be the superspreader I’m okay with that. Any viruses in Creedon would be educational and nerve-calming ones with good record collections.

He’s following in the footsteps of the 19th century scholar John O’Donovan, who went wandering to collect placenames for the Ordnance Survey. In this episode Creedon visits Ballinaspittle for the moving statues, Sliabh Luachra for the trad music and Buttevant for the world’s first steeplechase and arse-themed name (spoiler alert: Buttevant’s name isn’t really arse-themed). He also helps find a long-lost cairn that was on O’Donovan’s map before disappearing (he’s basically RTÉ’s Jessica Fletcher) and Professor Luke O’Neill helps him test the healing properties of a holy well (as if he hasn’t enough to be doing). The water has some beneficial qualities, says O’Neill, but also E coli. Creedon doesn’t purify the water, thus reviving its fortunes, but if he had done I’d have called it “Creedon’s Clearwater Revival”. I might do so anyway because I’m very pleased with myself. If you disagree with my choice, come argue with me on Twitter.

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