On Saturday 2 April 2016, two things happened. Well, of course, a million things happened, but these two were connected, and they affected me. One was that Ian McEwan’s comments on sexual identity at the Royal Institution were denounced in the Press by anyone with a megaphone to hand. The second, somewhat bathetic by comparison, was that my tweet on a related matter caused about 10% of my Twitter following to desert me (@JimPowellAuthor).
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I was told to stay away from politics and religion on Twitter, and indeed from many of the things most worth debating. This, in retrospect, was sound advice. It is hard to make oneself unambiguously understood in 140 characters. It is also risky. But where the issue is what may, or may not, be said in public without being damned, it seemed a risk worth taking.
Ian McEwan’s response to his vilification was characterised in the Press as a climb-down. In fact, it was a clarification: a re-expression of opinions long-held and already available. Opinions that, as he put it himself, “would have got in the way of a good story, or the opportunity to be righteous and cross – or venomous in some cases”. But, even if McEwan’s attitudes had been less tolerant, would he not still have been entitled to express them?
My response to being dumped by 10% of my Twitter followers was – how shall I put this? – pathetic. I wrote a blog and then decided not to publish it. The contentious point of view it argued was that people should be free to express entirely legal opinions in public without being crucified on social media, vilified in the Press, forced to resign their positions, or no-platformed by university students. “Human rights,” I wrote, “are now held to extend to the right not to be upset by other people’s opinions. The only proper response to this is ‘grow up’. If no one can say anything that might upset someone else, the human race will soon lose the power of speech.”
This all took place in the innocent days before the EU referendum, when outbursts of hatred and anger against public figures were comparatively rare and provoked astonishment as much as they did disgust. Now, such outbursts are daily events. This week has seen Anna Soubry denounced as a Nazi (supply your own words here: mine fail me) and jostled and intimidated as she attempted to enter the House of Commons, while police officers stood by and did nothing, presumably because they are now instructed that such behaviour is to be treated as a human right.
But I don’t buy the view that it was the referendum that coarsened public debate and legitimised the expression of extreme anger in public. Rather, I think that it was these latent emotions that produced the referendum result. The anger was already there, but few people had appreciated the breadth and intensity of it. Now we do, and it is terrifying.
Nor is this a purely British phenomenon. In America, France, Germany, Italy and many other countries, there have been similar explosions of anger. The precise focus may be different in each case, but the violence of the emotion is the same. Habitually tolerant liberals are not immune either. I have heard at least as much splenetic rage expressed privately by otherwise civilised Remainers as is expressed on the streets by the extremists.
Those of us who grew up in the ’60s like to think of that time as the high tide of tolerance, an oasis of freedom of expression. But there were repeated attempts, often successful, to ban speakers from universities. There were frequent street protests, sometimes violent. Then, as now, the phenomenon appeared in most Western societies. Then, as now, tolerance was granted absolutely to those who held a certain set of opinions, and denied absolutely to those who did not. The passion was overwhelming, as it is today. And, in Britain at least, this anger persisted through much of the ’70s and ’80s.
Then things changed. For most of the ’90s and ’00s, the new generations appeared to be disinterested in politics, unconcerned with the world around them. They worked hard. They didn’t rock the boat. They minded their own business, but not anyone else’s. By comparison with earlier generations and now, it turns out, with a later one, there appeared to be widespread indifference, a lack of passion and certainly a lack of anger.
So much so, in fact, that – in angry despair at the indifference, I wrote this in the late ’90s:
Anarchy is not what it used to be. Juvenile delinquency is a pathetic imitation of its previous self. Riots are non-existent. Football hooliganism has been purged. Industrial action is a relic. If you think all this is a change for the better, the question that remains is – what do we care about? What are we passionate about? Bugger all. It is being bred out of us. We are living in an anaesthetised, purified, pasteurised, homogenised consumerist stupor in which we pee into charcoal filters through lavatory seats sanitised for our protection…
What appeals to you in our 95% fat-free democracy? Tory Lights or Labour Ultra Low? Thank you very much. We will just swipe that through on your credit card and the woman at the till will smile sweetly. And there will be no calories and nothing else: just sterilised shit coming out at the other end.
Be careful what you wish for, I would say now. The trouble is that tolerance and passion make for a tempestuous partnership, whereas tolerance and indifference get on like a house on fire. But how can one possibly argue against tolerance? Or in favour of indifference?
It is never difficult to identify issues that drive public anger, whether it is Brexit now or Vietnam then. But I do not feel that issues alone are a sufficient explanation. There is also a zeitgeist that appears to affect everyone at more or less the same time. A particular spirit arises; it permeates everything; then it subsides, to be replaced by a different spirit. Who can tell how much damage this zeitgeist will do before it runs its course?
In the words of Barry Goldwater, a controversial politician from another age who was also the victim of systematic misrepresentation, “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice.” Passion in the defence of tolerance is no vice either. Both qualities are needed by humanity, and each will have to find a way of living with the other.