Dominic Sandbrook: Farewell to the hate mobs' joyless intolerance

Dominic Sandbrook’s 2020 vision: A farewell to the hate mobs’ joyless intolerance of anyone who dares disagree with them

With Christmas upon us, it seems fitting that the Church of England is making the headlines.

Unfortunately, it’s doing so for all the wrong reasons. Two days ago the former chaplain to the Queen, Dr Gavin Ashenden, announced that he was abandoning Anglicanism to become a Roman Catholic.

The reason, he explained in a blistering broadside, is that the Church of England no longer defends Christian values.

According to Dr Ashenden, Anglican leaders have surrendered to the new orthodoxy of the liberal Left, which is ‘highly intolerant of dissenting views’.

In particular, he says, Church leaders have given in to the transgender lobby, refusing to stand up for the principle that the ‘vast majority of us are born one of two sexes — male or female’, which most of us regard as simple common sense.

Democracy depends on competing opinions. And we all learn far more from people who disagree with us than from those who reinforce what we already think. Pictured: A Remainer and Brexiteer have a debate outside parliament

For Dr Ashenden, who as a young priest smuggled bibles into communist Eastern Europe, all this is a depressing symptom of a general narrow-mindedness. 

As he explained, ‘freedom of speech is slowly being eroded’, while ‘those who refuse to be ‘politically correct’ risk accusations of thought crime and Christians are being unfairly persecuted’.

Obsession

The sad thing is that all of this rings absolutely true. In recent months our cultural elite’s obsession with the transgender issue has plumbed truly absurd depths, typified by the Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson’s attempt to persuade voters that people should be allowed to choose whether to be men or women without following any legal or medical process whatsoever.

(Currently, to legally change gender, people must be diagnosed with gender dysphoria and live in their ‘true’ gender for two years.)

Dr Ashenden’s story is a reminder that the 2010s has been a decade of increasingly strident and intolerant political correctness, with institutions such as the Church of England, BBC and National Trust taking ever more extreme, bizarre and unrepresentative positions.

I could fill every page of this newspaper with examples. Not surprisingly, universities have been among the chief culprits. I think of the students at Cambridge and Cardiff who tried to ‘no-platform’ the veteran feminist Germaine Greer because she dared to suggest that men could not ‘become’ women.

The 2010s has been a decade of increasingly strident and intolerant political correctness. Pictured: Peter Tatchell during Pride in London 2019 

Author J.K. Rowling was engulfed in a Twitter row after she defended a woman called  Maya Forstater

Then there were the students at Canterbury Christ Church who no-platformed the veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell because he had dared to stand up for Ms Greer.

Like many political trends, the illiberal intolerance of the liberal Left has been imported from America. There it goes under the label of ‘wokeness’.

To be ‘woke’ is to be committed to social and political justice — and no one would argue with that as an aspiration. Sadly, it has come to mean being piously and annoyingly Left-wing — and utterly unable to countenance alternative views.

The irony is that people who consider themselves woke rarely do anything concrete about it. 

Instead, they spend all their time on social media, especially Twitter, whipping up online mobs whenever somebody uses the wrong word or makes the wrong kind of joke.

In his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson recounted several examples of people who had misspoken online or otherwise made off-colour remarks and — thanks to the vicious efforts of a whipped-up gang of enraged keyboard warriors — lost their jobs and livelihoods. What makes these mobs do it?

One of the many ironies about such people is that they believe themselves achingly modern, tearing down ways of thinking that have existed for millennia. But they are actually the heirs to a very long tradition of joyless intolerance.

Maya Forstater was sacked as a researcher at a European think-tank after she dared to say on Twitter that men who have sex-change surgery are still biological men

From England’s 17th-century Puritans, who shut down the playhouses and tried to ban Christmas, to the hatchet-faced witch-hunters in colonial America, history is littered with people who spent their time denouncing their neighbours as debauched reactionaries. 

The mad Renaissance friar Girolamo Savonarola, who briefly took over Florence, burned books, paintings and tapestries, and tried to stamp out any vestiges of fun or humanity, would have fitted in very well with today’s Twitterati.

So would the Pharisees in the New Testament: sneering, arrogant intellectuals who hated Jesus for exposing their snobbery and hypocrisy.

Backlash

What these people also had in common is that they all over-reached themselves, provoking a backlash among ordinary people who were sick of being harangued by a handful of fanatics. And, thank the Lord, we seem to have reached a similar tipping point today.

As luck would have it, Dr Ashenden’s broadside coincided with an extraordinary Twitter row engulfing Harry Potter writer J. K. Rowling, usually a heroine of the right-on Left.

Rowling’s crime was defending a woman called Maya Forstater, who was sacked as a researcher at a European think-tank after she dared to say on Twitter that men who have sex-change surgery are still biological men.

As is now traditional, the hyenas of the transgender lobby waded into battle — only to find Rowling’s vast fan base returning fire with gusto. 

Then another Twitter celebrity, comedian Ricky Gervais, got stuck in to them too, joking sarcastically that ‘those awful biological women’ would never understand the joys of ‘becoming a lovely lady so late in life’.

This was the cue for more howling from the online Pharisees. They never seem to understand that the angrier they become, the more the rest of us laugh at them.

There were the students at Canterbury Christ Church who no-platformed the veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell (pictured) because he had dared to stand up for Ms Greer

The truth, of course, is that these people have never been more than a tiny minority. Because they dominate online platforms such as Twitter — to which most people do not belong — they have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, which means they get a shock when they discover what ordinary people actually think.

In a sense, this was the story of the General Election twelve days ago. A tiny, fanatical, highly vocal minority ventured out from their online bubble, and were staggered to discover that the vast majority of the British people regarded their hero as a fool, their promises as unbelievable and their beloved manifesto as utter madness.

But if the tide has turned, as I hope it has, where do we go from here? Well, since it’s the season of goodwill, perhaps both sides in the so-called culture war should start by putting down their weapons.

Few of us, whatever our politics, would deny that social media brings out the worst in people. We could all do with thinking a little more and tweeting a little less.

The last decade has been a low point for public debate, thanks not least to activists’ fondness for shouting and screaming. It baffles me that so many self-declared liberals, in particular, are intolerant of difference and so reluctant to listen to contrary opinions.

Indeed, earlier this year almost two-fifths of Remainers told an opinion poll that they would seriously mind if their child married somebody who had voted Leave. So much, then, for their cosmopolitan open-mindedness!

Humility

Yet democracy depends on competing opinions. And we all learn far more from people who disagree with us than from those who reinforce what we already think.

So as we prepare to celebrate Christmas and bid farewell to the 2010s, I hope fervently that we will leave behind the age of confected outrage, the culture of ‘calling out’ perceived offences and the hysterical obsession with political correctness.

We have so much more in common than we think; we just need to recognise it, that’s all.

So here’s my Christmas wish list for the next decade.

A bit more freedom of speech, a bit more tolerance, a bit more perspective and a bit more humility. Is that really too much to ask?

Happy Christmas!

 

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