In the spring of 1995, Manchester United's French talisman Eric Cantona goaded the English press with some chat about seagulls and trawlers. He was trying to sidestep questions about kicking a man in the chest, and everyone pretended to be confounded by his words.
It wasn't the first act of mass disingenuousness, but it might have been the first to be delightedly consumed by so many. We oohed at Cantona's preposterous Frenchness. We aahed at the audacity of this cod-philosopher king. It was more fun to just ignore the obvious explanation. (Spoiler: he just meant journalists were after some soundbites.)
A couple of decades and a technological revolution later, we found ourselves laughing at a video of a drunk man in the street, which went viral in 2011. He was all over the place! Hilarious! A brutal buzzcut and a tracksuit top! And he's saying he doesn't like Muslamic Ray Guns. Someone made an autotuned YouTube clip. Priceless! Of course, everyone knew deep down that he was trying to say "rape gangs", but what did it matter? The clip got more than two million views. It was pretty funny. Easy to ignore the troubling thought that a horrible and poorly prosecuted crime had encouraged this man-boy out onto the streets to try to voice a half-thought.
And between Cantona and the ray gun guy, we'd become used to it. We started to accept that sometimes, for entertainment or ideology's sake, the press, political class or even ourselves could deploy an alternative reality. After all, you can't fit every little detail into two minutes of airtime or 280 characters, can you?
It isn't inevitable. Amid the cacophony of false equivalences and semi-conspiracies there lies a rich seam of sane and measured comment and debate. You'll find a fair chunk of it on these pages. And the ultimate fail-safe should be the existence of an actual reality: grubby, complex and ludicrous. There's always the temptation to scroll past those sorts of stories as a reader. It's boring, isn't it? And in the case of Donald Trump and Brexit, maybe unfathomable. It can feel like the only events worth getting to the heart of are those within confined spaces: the rights and wrongs of a managerial sacking; the precise level of racism in a presidential tweet. Elsewhere, it's simpler to head for the safety of the pack. We are not living in a 'post-truth' world, we are living lies.
We saw how crushing this phenomenon can be in 2018.
Back in September, one benign use of a common metaphor rallied parts of the British Labour Party into a collective, disingenuous horror when Chuka Umunna asked Jeremy Corbyn to "call off the dogs". Boris Johnson routinely rouses his base with "anti-PC" triggers, whether about the burqa or suicide vests wrapped around the constitution. And the rank hypocrisy of the Tory onslaught after Corbyn's "stupid woman" moment was painful to watch.
There have always been ideological tribes of course, but never have they been so vast or so easily unleashed. As Britain's exit from the EU careers towards some fumbled conclusion or other, the entrenchment is hardening.
Imagine, for a second, being a Brexiteer, forced to concoct a plausible argument that a new referendum on the potential Brexit options was somehow undemocratic. It would be humiliating, but for the knowledge that your crew will nod sagely along in the background, ready to pounce on the social media dissenters.
Equally, any Remainers pretending that the UK can simply step away from the 2016 result must privately suppress the nagging knowledge that it contained valuable lessons about the nature and wishes of the electorate.
In all the hand-wringing about the decline of political and public discourse, it's worth remembering that politicians get lazy when the public are reliable.
And it's easy to be tricked into becoming an ideologue when the choices seem binary: Trump vs Clinton; Leave vs Remain; Serena vs the umpire.
We are the voters, and it is our job to remain inscrutable, hard to read, nuanced and fickle. (© Independent News Service)