Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Winding Back The Snowflake-Shaped Clock

Have you noticed how people habitually choose when to get publically offended, using offence as a public convenience to express phoney outrage from the comfort of their ideological hobbyhorses? Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris makes a stupid reference - to "A nigger in the woodpile" - that only someone with the brains of a suet pudding would make, and gets branded a 'racist' by the twitcherati.

Yet the consistently ludicrous Diane Abbott has a string of obnoxiously bigoted comments to her name (''White people love playing 'divide & rule", "London shouldn't have another white middle ages mayor", "Blonde, blue-eyed Finnish girls are unsuitable as nurses because they had never met a black person before" are just some of the lowlights) but you can guarantee that the people castigating Anne Marie Morris would not do so to Diane Abbott - even though it is about as unlikely that Morris is a racist as it is that Abbott isn't one.

Similarly, when the DUP registers on people's political radar, everybody Googles them and unleashes swathes of invective because they are homophobic, anti-abortion, freedom-oppressing, pro-death penalty, science-denying young earth creationists. And yet these views are so prevalent in Muslim communities in our country that very few people bat an eyelid anymore, much less express public disapproval. Snowflakes abound in this offence-seeking culture, but it seems that people are good at taking their offence a la carte.

Now for my principal point. Wind back the clock every quarter of a century in the UK and yes, for sure, you'll see a generation worse than the one that followed it in numerous ways. On things like sex, skin colour, disability, ethnicity and sexuality we used to be terrible, then we got a little less terrible, then a little less, and less still, and then a lot less terrible (as progression generally follows exponential power law patterns). There is still a lot of work ahead of us, but, the likes of Anne Marie Morris and Diane Abbott aside, things are much better than they ever have been.

There are, however, things that are slowing down the progression in some parts, and in others stifling it altogether. One is what has been aptly termed 'generation snowflake', which is where society is helping people along in being too lily-livered regarding matters of offence and/or being offended on behalf of others. The other is the preoccupation with diversity and positive discrimination, whereby everything from businesses to art are valued too much on their diversity at the cost of not being valued enough on their merits.

Now I'm all for diversity, and have written several times about its qualities, and also about how a lack of diversity limits the potential of the agency in question. I have something I call 'The Family Business Impediment' - which, to quote, is basically this:

"Family businesses have a higher probability of doing less well in the market than other businesses - where, by family business, I mean businesses that tend to favour hiring family members over a more competitive recruitment process. It stands to reason that if your opportunity pool of talent is more closely related to average percent DNA shared than it is ability, experience and merit, you limit your chances of finding the best candidate (ditto if you discriminate based on skin colour, sex and sexuality)."

But it's also very much the case that these things can be taken too far, and often are - such as the case where diversity becomes a superficial tick-boxing exercise rather than having candidates that are there on merit.

Apparently last year the Oscars got criticised for having no black actors/directors shortlisted. Now I know little of this, nor much about films released last year - and maybe this was criticism for past legacies - but we mustn't cultivate a society whereby people become frozen with fear if they do something that fails to satisfy a diversity ticking exercise.

Maybe, just maybe, it was thought by the judges that the best films of last year just happened to not have any black lead actors or directors. In fact, given the extreme duress they know they are under to include a diverse range of candidates in order to not appear prejudiced, it's possible, just possible (and I don't know, myself) that the films nominated were genuinely thought to be the best.

I don't want society's generation snowflake to impede people's ability to employ who they think is the best candidate, or to make the kind of TV show they want to make, or to give awards to whichever films they think are best, and so on. This is a thin end of the wedge problem.

I mean, I was reading an article recently (from a few years ago) where a member of staff in a job centre told a prospective employer that she wasn't allowed to put 'Must be had working and reliable' on the job ad for fear that it 'could offend people that are lazy and unreliable'. Yes this was an isolated case that the job centre repudiated, but it shows the level of fear society is able to engender about offending on people's behalf.

I don't want that, just as I don't want schools being afraid to hold an assembly, or nurses being afraid to wear a crucifix around their next at work, and so on, and so on. Personal offence, and its more annoying cousin, offence on someone else's behalf, has been one of the most unsettling and troubling culture shifts in my lifetime.

It is to some extent a sign of our becoming more caring and empathetic too, but equally, I fear, a sign of our becoming more anodyne as we adopt an unhealthy risk-aversion, a protectionism if you like on intellectual ideas for fear of being hounded as a sexist, a racist, a xenophobe or an Islamophobe.

Finally, in a past Blog post, I proffered an answer to the question about what it is that has caused us to journey from reasonably intrepid proponents of free expression to lily livered impotents - and it is on this note that I shall end, as it occasionally bears repeating:

"I can think of two main changes that might have altered the public consciousness. In the first place, the country now has a lot more diversity, which means there are a lot more minority groups with views that differ from the mainstream. And in the second place, computer technology has undergone radical changes, which means there is mass communication going on, and also that everything everyone does it pretty much under external scrutiny now.

Personally I see no reason why either of things should cause us to become spineless again, but it would appear that we have. Diversity of people has generated an unprecedented range of beliefs, opinions and cultural practices that appear to make many people uncomfortable in expressing themselves for fear of upsetting someone, or being labelled a racist or bigot.

The widespread fear of upsetting Muslims is perhaps the most obvious case in point. And the extent to which everyone can have their say on social media is unprecedented too - it appears to be bringing with it a huge rise in vile threats and guttersnipe abuse, which as a consequence appears to be making many people fearful of free expression once again. But I've said it before on here, and I'll say it again - we must stop this train of timidity in its tracks as soon as possible."