Saturday, August 07, 2021

Why Everything I Have Written About Politics For The Past Fifteen Years Has Been Completely Wrong (*)

There now follows a short recantation.

I have spent the last fifteen years barking up an entirely erroneous tree.

Some people do, in fact, believe that it is incorrect to use certain words and phrases for political reasons, and, at certain times and places, these people have, indeed, acted as if they were entirely insane.

Some people do, in fact, treat their aspiration to make society more just as if it were a war, and some of them do, in fact, believe that this war can be won with a keyboard alone. Some of them are not very honest and some of them are over inclined to compare other people with Hitler.

There is, in fact, an identifiable and definable group of people who believe themselves to be more than usually awake to the problems of power and oppression; and these people do sometimes assemble themselves into metaphorical and literal mobs.

Members of these and other political sub-cultures do, in fact, sometimes black-list writers, artists and politicians who they deem to have transgressed certain standards of ideological purity.

The Brigade, the Mob, the Warriors and the Culture really do exist. 

They really do have a way of looking at the world which, if widely accepted, would lead to—if not the literal end of civilisation—then certainly the transformation of it into something which I might not recognise or like very much.

Golden age science fiction really was more fun than the modern stuff. Birmingham city council really did run an event called Winterval. Doctor Who really was better before Jodie Whittaker was cast in the lead role. Hyperbole is a perfectly reasonable way to start an essay, even if everyone knows that you are going to spend they next eight thousand words qualifying what you said in your opening paragraph.

I doubt if anyone ever really changes their mind about anything.

No-one who is walking East suddenly decides to turn around and go West. People just gradually realise that West is the direction they have always been going in.

An example:

Not so long ago I was listening to a podcast about the New Perspective On St Paul, as one does. In the course of the talk, the speaker referred to “the ideas of Martin Luther”—ideas about Law and Sin and Grace and Redemption.

“Oh” I said to myself “That isn’t Martin Luther’s teaching, particularly. That’s just what Christianity is”.

And, at the same moment, almost in the same mental act, “Ah. I see.”

I had not learned any new thing. I knew that my background was evangelical or post-evangelical. I knew that evangelicalism is a form of Christianity which majors on the core fundamentals of protestantism. (That’s why it used to be called fundamentalism. Fundamentalism now means something quite different.) I knew that protestantism was invented by Martin Luther: at any rate I knew that English Baptists and the Christian Union didn’t tend to be Calvinists. But I hadn’t particularly registered before that moment that what I considered to be “my ideas” and “Christian ideas” were specifically Lutheran ideas.

I hadn’t changed my mind. I had merely articulated a thing I already knew. But that articulation coloured everything I thought on the subject from then on. My perception had changed. What I had thought of as The Way Things Are turned out to be How Things Look From the Hill I Happen To Be Standing On.

Douglas Adams says that he was a Christian, for a while, at public school; and that one day he stopped to listen to an earnest street preacher, found himself thinking “this man is talking nonsense” and regarded himself as an atheist from then on.

I am not going to say “Well then, he was never really a Christian. If he had really been a Christian he would not have changed his mind so easily.” Atheists say that about C.S Lewis: he couldn’t really have ever been One of Us, because he liked poetry and studied philosophy and was convinced by really bad religious arguments about trees in quads. I don’t think we should do that. I think that if C.S Lewis said he was an atheist and Douglas Adams said he was a Christian, then we should take them at their respective words. People are what they say they are: black or atheist or Star Wars fan or that other thing we don’t talk about here any more.

But one does, in both cases, have a sense, not of demolition and rebuilding, but of pieces clicking into place. Lewis was always going to be a Christian; Adams was always going to be an atheist. One doesn’t feel that walls have come tumbling down in the face of an onslaught by a superior Platonic dialectical cavalry. It’s more like: “Oh. So that’s what I have always thought, is it?”

So with politics. I have not heard any new arguments. I have not discovered any new facts. No-one has devastated me with a forensic killer question. I have just noticed that what I thought I thought isn’t what I think I think. Some pieces have clicked into place.

Woke exists. It is a bad thing. That appears to be what I have always believed.

I did not, in fact, change my mind about same sex marriage.

My opinion is, so far as I can tell, exactly what it was in 2012. Marriage has a social function; a religious function; and a legal function. Those functions are entangled: you are probably getting married because you want to celebrate your love in front of your friends; but you may not feel you are having a proper celebration without a Priest or a Rabbi in charge, even if you yourself aren’t particularly religious. You may sincerely want to enter into a sacrament according to the tenets of your preferred deity; but your clergy-person cannot perform the rite without filling in the government’s legal paperwork. I thought and think that a formal disentanglement of those functions would have been a good idea. I thought and think that Mr Blair’s idea of civil partnership was a good one. I thought and think that Mr Cameron’s attempt to introduce a third category (relationships which are called marriages by the state but not recognised as such by the state church) is hopelessly confused. I think I understand why some of my co-religionists think that a same-sex relationship can’t be called a marriage; but since I am (as it turns out) a Lutheran I don’t really believe in either priests or sacraments, I don’t feel it matters very much. I thought, and still think, that there should be a single legal process called “Civil Partnership” which applied to both same sex and different sex couples; and a separate process called “marriage” which social and religious groups could define according to their own theories. None of that has changed.

I do accept a much broader definition of “homophobic” than I did at one time: I would not now be comfortable saying “The Archbishop of Canterbury does not think two women should be married in church, but that does not mean he is homophobic”. (I would also not be comfortable saying “This text portrays Chinese people as grotesque villains but that does not mean that the text itself is racist.”)

Two things did change in 2013. It became quite clear that all the arguments being used by opponents of same sex marriage were specious, bonkers, and to use the technical term, completely mental. Christians applied ambiguous dominical utterances selectively and got cross if you went back to the text. Reactionary secularists argued that if men were allowed to marry men pretty soon hedgehogs would be allowed to marry hat-stands. Outwardly sane people claimed that if gay people were allowed to marry, straight people would become less married. Melanie Phillips literally argued that if two men could get married, civilisation would come to an end.

It didn’t. Not so you would notice.

It is very hard to carry on being “not very strongly in favour of a thing” when the people who are “strongly against the thing” can’t marshal a single coherent argument between them.

It became clear to me that a lot of people with whom I was otherwise in sympathy felt that even having the discussion—applying my kind of “let’s think this one through” discourse to the question; treating it like a page from the Gospel of Mark or an episode of Doctor Who—was homophobic in itself. Saying “This is jolly interesting. I wonder what we mean by marriage, and what we think its function in society is, and what it should be?” was like sending out a kind of semaphore signal that said “I hate gay people”. I didn’t and don’t want to send out that signal: so I stopped talking.

More recently, I have learned that asking exactly what we mean by “state”, “right”, “exist” and “Israel” would signify membership of another group which I certainly don’t want to be associated with.

The prevailing climate appeared to be that what mattered about arguments was not whether they were valid or invalid. What mattered about arguments was which tribe they signified your membership of: the light side or the dark side; the goodies or the baddies; us, them, or the other lot. I strongly did not want to be identified as part of Melanie Phillips’ tribe. So I withdrew from the fray.

I am happy with the way things turned out. Civilisation did not end. I am pleased that my gay friends can get married. But I have very much the same questions that I had five years ago. If I were going to equality, I wouldn’t have started from here.

After publishing my ill-judged response to Andrew Sullivan’s theories about Critical (Race) Theory and the Roots of the Woke-ocracy I went away and re-read some of my old political essays.

In 2011, I wrote:

This seems to be rather a good instance of “we are never talking about what we appear to be talking about”, and one of the reasons why I increasingly think that important subjects can only be debated through the medium of 

a: swearwords and 

b: ballads

I thought, or I thought that I thought, that “marriage” was either a social institution, created by the state for some reason; or else a religious thingybob, with a particular significance to the members of that particular faith. I thought, or thought that I thought, you could discuss the rules in that context—is marriage in fact doing what the state wants it to do? is the thing which the state wants it to do a good thing or a bad thing? how do you navigate between the different religious and social meanings in a way which annoys as few people as possible? Can my right to go skinny dipping be accommodated to your social embarrassment, (say by having clothing optional days and frosted glass at the pool) or do we have to say that everything not forbidden is compulsory?

I now see (or think that I see) that questions about “the law” and “custom” and “different people believing different things” are really just a symbolic projection of the Real Thing, which is a power struggle between certain groups. Certain gays want to get married because certain straights don’t want them to; certain people pretend to care about fox hunting in order to annoy the landed aristocracy; and if there weren’t annoying textiles telling me to keep my trunks on then I wouldn’t care whether I went swimming in the nude or not.

We thought we were having a debate. We’re actually performing a dance. The dance steps matter in so far as we don’t want to trip over each others feet, but it isn’t really about the steps, it’s about love and courtship. There’s no need to actually look at what the Daily Mail says, because we already know in advance what they really think because of where they stand within the class struggle.

In 2015, I wrote:

It isn’t that my arguments are “bad”. It’s the whole idea of “argument” that’s the problem. “Argument”, “logic”, “evidence”, “proof”, “neutrality” are things you learned in school, and schools were set up by rich white guys to teach ideas thought up by other rich white guys in order to keep rich white guys in charge.

Everything’s really all about power. (Unless everything’s really all about sex, but that’s an argument for another day.) You might think that you are talking about theology or music or sanitation but if you look under the bonnet, it’s always really about who gets to sit at the front of the bus. The question is never “who is right?: it’s always “which side are you on?”

All of which leaves me rather stuck.

When I’m asked a question, my inclination is always to work out the answer from first principles. At any rate, to use some kind of argumentation and try to work out what the other fella is trying to say, and if he’s wrong why he’s wrong and if he might have a good point. Which keeps putting me on the wrong side of the question....

Despite early assurances, the internet does not contain a 3D virtual reality in which I can be taught Kung Fu by Laurence Fishburne and drown Tom Baker. All the internet actually contains is words. Lots and lots of words. Oceans of words. Millions of writers telling us what they think. Good writers, bad writers, indifferent writers; informed writers; ignorant writers; boringly right, engagingly wrong. Writers telling you what they think about what other people wrote about stuff they read on the internet.

Derrida was right. There isn’t any stuff. There’s only people talking about stuff. I’ve never experienced a murder, or an election, or a football match, or (god forbid) an instalment of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. I just kind of intersect with the ripples these things put out in cyberspace. Which isn’t really a space, and isn’t really very cyber. It’s more like a lot of very bored people making wisecracks in their coffee break.

But all this argument is taking place in a space in which we have already agreed that argument is not even possible. “Right” and “Wrong” aren’t qualities that any argument has: they are just descriptions of which side you are on in a big fight that has been going on throughout history, and will carry on until, any day now, history comes to an end.

Having reread those pieces and several others, various lights came on.

Ah. I see.

When Andrew Sullivan talks about Critical Theory; when Jonathan Pie talks about the Woke Utopia; when Melanie Phillips talks about Political Correctness Gone Mad and even (and typing this makes me feel dirty) when multiple Hugo Award loser John C Wright talks about Social Justice Warriors, this is what they are talking about.

My complaints about Twitter rhetoric in One Hundred and Forty Characters In Search of An Argument maps almost exactly onto what Sullivan describes in the Roots of Woke.

I have literally spent 15 years arguing that The Thing does not exist while actively pointing out and bemoaning the fact that it does.

I feel like a whey-faced Coxcomb.

Something else I haven’t changed my mind about is the wisdom of casting a non-male person in the role of Doctor Who.

I think that gender-swapping or race-swapping established characters sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I greatly enjoyed the Donmar’s all-black, all-female production of Richard II. I didn’t specially think “How challenging and revelatory it is to re-imagine the Duke of York as a woman of colour!”, but I did think that Shobna Gulati did a really interesting job on one of the best and most under-celebrated Shakespearian roles, and that she wouldn’t have been able to essay the part in a more conventional staging. The Tobacco Factory’s Henry V, with a female Dauphin conflated with Princess Katherine, not so much. It failed to build a stage-world which convinced me that women could both lead armies and be sold into dynastic marriages. But theatre is all about trying stuff out.

I am convinced that Peter Parker (or at any rate, Uncle Ben) was Jewish; and have argued that casting a Muslim or (more specifically) a Sikh actor in a movie version of the comic-book would be rather faithful to the spirit of Stan Lee’s text. But the existence of Kamala Khan probably makes that exercise redundant. I wasn’t convinced by Michael Jordan as Johnny Storm, but that was because the whole movie seemed to water down the central conceit of the Fantastic Four as a surrogate 1950s nuclear family. I certainly don’t find it hard to imagine a young black guy being hot-headed, cool, good with motor cars and capable of shooting fireballs from his fingers.

James Bond is as quintessentially and aggressively masculine as a fictional character could possibly be: he very much has to be a boy. Which is exactly why I’d like to try the experiment of making him a girl. No, you couldn’t simply have a female actor playing Bond, in the way you can (arguably) simply have a female actor playing Bolingbroke. The film would have to be about the fact that the ultimate arch-alpha-male was being played by a female. But that in itself would be artistically interesting. Maybe it would be business as usual: Bond would carry on doing all the macho male stuff—fast cars and guns and scantily clad pretty ladies in every hotel bed. The actor would just happen not to be male. That would create an interesting clash between character and genre; it would make all the Bond cliches more visible, and more ridiculous, and funnier. But maybe you would create a new character who was a female inversion of James Bond: ultra-feminine in all the ways Bond is ultra-masculine and misandric in all the ways Bond is misogynist. A bevy of glamorous Bond boys in speedos; incredibly patronising remarks about all guys in the story; sexist flirting with Master Moneypenny. (If Aston Martins and Harpoons are symbols of Male Power, what would be the female counterpart?) It would probably come out as a parody, but then the franchise arguably always tends to parody.

I confess I haven’t seen a Bond movie since Timothy Dalton was the next big thing.

What about a black Superman? My first thought is that since he’s an alien who happens to look like a human being, it makes as much sense for him to be a Negro alien as a Caucasian alien. Granted, Superman’s comic-book appearance is more than usually iconic; but if Zack Snyder can redesign his costume beyond recognition then it is hard to see why a change in skin tone would be a fatal departure. George Reeves doesn’t look any less like Tom Welling than Michael Jordan does. Red underpants are a much more irreducible part of Superman's appearance than a white face, and we’ve already dropped those (so to speak).

But once I try to imagine a black Superman (as opposed to a Superman who happens to be being played by a black actor) I run into hard questions. Are Pa and Ma Ken also people of colour? Does the life experience of a black farmer in Kansas differ from that of a white farmer? Did he come to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men in the 1920s, or the 1950s, or is he a millennial? The Golden and Silver Age Superman presumably grew up in a Smallville which was still segregated. (Did canonical Superboy have any black classmates?) If Jonathan and Martha are white people, what are the specific problems faced by mixed race adoptees? And how would this new version of Superman interact with the political and social questions of his day? A black Superman who stands aloof from the civil rights movement, Obama’s administration or Black Lives Matter is different from a politically neutral white person. The meaning of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” depends greatly on who is saying it.

These are interesting questions with potentially interesting answers. I don’t know whether, by the time you have answered them, you have come up with a challengingly different take on an established character; or created a completely new one. Both are worth doing. But the world may have room for movie adaptations of popular comic book characters which don’t radically re-imagine them.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? “I’d rather watch an adaptation of Superman than a radical re-interpretation of him” is itself a political stance. Choosing not to talk about race is a way of talking about race.

When the idea of a Female Doctor Who was proposed in 2015 I had the same questions as I did when it was raised by the show’s creator in 1986.

"Yes, that would be a good idea, if it shakes the format up."

"Yes, that would be a good idea if a woman actor can find a new way of playing the part and not just try to be a female Tom Baker, or, worse, a female David Tennant."

"Yes, that would be a good idea, provided she still portrays them as an un-cool science geek."

"No it, would be a bad idea if the show became about female-ness, in the same way that it would have been a bad idea for it to have become about Northernness in 2005 or Scottishness in 1987."

I don’t think it matters what has been said about gender in previous episodes. Doctor Who has such a mercurial continuity that what has gone before hardly counts. I think it might have been better if we had stuck with the implicit 1976 canon: the Time LORDS were all stuffy old men, who met their match in the SISTERhood of Kahn. But that was retconned out by Douglas Adams in the first episode of Ribos Operation. Anyone saying that a woman couldn’t play the Doctor because Dalek Invasion of Earth is thinking about this TV show in quite the wrong way.

I’m not sure it is necessary. I think the patriarchal bias of the show was largely addressed by making Rose such a strong and interesting character at the dawn of the relaunch. But by all means give it a go and see if it works.

They gave it a go and it didn’t work, unfortunately.

But, as it turns out, this doesn’t matter, because we were never really talking about Doctor Who in the first place.

Opinion split, neatly, into those who thought that there was an absolute moral imperative for Doctor Who not to be an old dead white guy so that little girl-fans could aspire to be the Doctor one day; and those who thought that this new series, Nurse Who, Doctor Karen, was dead to them and that the BBC had been taken over by Wokes who wanted to destroy civilisation and the next thing would be an episode involving a pregnant man.

Now, if the casting of a TV character is a piece of semaphore and these are the only choices, then I know what signal I have to send. If the choices are between “Doctor Who OUGHT to be a woman” and “Doctor Who CAN NEVER be a woman” I know quite well what side I am on. And I see well enough that by asking “will it work as a TV show? will it be interesting? will it be canon?” I am implying that making a good, canonical TV show is more important than recognising the agency of one half of the population. If I come out and say that I think that the last two seasons of Doctor Who have come very close to killing my interest in the programme I am, in fact, aligning myself with the reactionary nutters. I am making a political statement regardless of my intention. So it is better to just keep my mouth shut, which is what I have largely done.

I have not been cancelled. I have not been herded into an incinerator. I have not been voted off the island. I rather suspect that if I had not deleted the Unwise Footnote I would now have a lot more readers than I currently do.

But I feel constrained. I have constrained myself. Some of the ways I think may cause me to say things which will be interpreted as virtue signalling for the side I do not agree with.

I think that this is what some people mean when they talk about Woke. I think that for fifteen years I have been saying that they are wrong when actually I think they are right.

Buy Me a Coffee at

(*) For certain values of wrong


voxpoptart said...

My position on the last two years of Doctor Who has been "I regret that Chris Chibnall is ruining my interest in the show with his bad writing and show running". He recently announced that he will leave after one more season; my position is "I look forward to his leaving, and I regret that we'll never see what Doctor Jodie could do with good writing". I have taken this position more than once on Facebook, with supportive response from majority-female readers. My friends are quite woke, too.

In other words, in my experience, if you're careful not to blame the female Doctor for the show's problems (which indeed are not about her), it's safe to admit disaffection. I do not promise your experience will match mine, granted.

voxpoptart said...

Good post, btw! The title had me worried.

Richard Worth said...

'I thought and think that Mr Blair’s idea of civil partnership was a good one' We really have gone Through the Looking Glass, haven't we?

SK said...

Gosh. Well… um, yes.

One other thing which I suspect you may be going to address in the next parts is the slide often made from 'this doesn't happen' to 'yes it happens but it's a good thing' ('Nobody ever loses their job for their beliefs' -> 'What about X, and Y, and Z?' -> 'You're going to defend homophobes?'; 'Nobody is teaching critical race theory to kids' -> 'What about this lesson where white primary school kids are made to stand up and apologise to their classmates for slavery?' -> 'You object to reckoning with the legacies of past?').

SK said...

(Sometimes with an intermediate step of 'okay it happens but only in a few extreme cases' which is quickly followed by 'but we should do more of it'.)

SK said...

By the way, having read this taster, if you made this collection available for a one-off purchase price (rather than requiring signing up to a subscription service), I would certainly buy it, as I have other works of yours like One Hundred and Forty Characters… and Do Balrogs Have Wings?, among others.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I am in the process of putting all my recent political essays together into a little book, and will let you know when it's available to buy. Thanks for your interested and support.

Andrew Rilstone said...

1: I don't think that anyone (sensible) has ever doubted that some teachers and some schools sometimes make ill-judged political messages into their teaching. I have probably told the story about how Miss Beale made her class of seven year old pray that Jesus would protect Mr Heath from the miner's union and all other wicked and greedy people.

2: I think we are all inclined to treat "our" politics as the neutral unvarnished truth and "their" politics as biassed political propaganda. "Shakespeare's Henry V is a great patriotic play about how the English are best" = just teaching Shakespeare. "Shakespeare's Henry V is a satire against nationalism and war mongering = appropriating English literature into commie propaganda. ("Do you think Henry V is patriotic or satirical" = airy fairy post-modernist propaganda about books meaning what you want them to mean.") On the other hand, I assume we don't want anyone to neutral about, say, whether the Holocaust was a good thing or a bad thing, or other the earth is round, square or oblong. We may disagree about which box "people are whatever gender they say they are" and "some of the Native Americans had quite a bad time during the colonial era" goes into.

3: "Critical Race Theory" has largely been appropriated by racists to mean "any teaching which implies that racism exists and is bad". This is very clever, because while no-one is quite prepared to say "racism is good", the CRT gambit enables them to say "Saying that racism is bad is bad". I think it would be helpful to limit CRT to refer to certain rather specific post-modern theories about race, and not using it to mean "any lesson which says that slavery was bad, or that some Indians died at Wounded Knee, or that the Civil Rights movement was on the whole an improvement."

4: "Losing your job for your beliefs" is a bit slippery. It would be a Bad Thing if I could be fired because I happened to go to a church which said that being gay is a sin; or even for saying that I agree with my church in an essay or a blog. But if I treat my gay customers or colleagues badly -- or say "I refuse to serve women in Hijabs because of my deep and sincerely held beliefs" -- then I am not being fired for my beliefs, but for my inability to do my job. I believe this the hill J.K Rowling chose to die on -- she decided to frame a case of a person being fire for refusing to refer to colleagues by their preferred names and pronouns as "if you believe in biological gender you can lose your job." I will defend to the death a very strict puritan's right not to speak to or look at any woman outside his immediate family; I won't defend his right to work on the checkout at Sainsbury's.

SK said...

"Critical Race Theory" has largely been appropriated by racists to mean "any teaching which implies that racism exists and is bad".

I don't think that's true; do you have any examples?

I think when people complain about Critical Race Theory they mean teaching a worldview which rests not on the idea that 'racism exist and is bad', (I have never seen anyone either deny that racism exists or claim it isn't bad; indeed anyone I have seen criticise Critical Race Theory is always at pains to point out that their criticism does not mean they think racism doesn't exist) but on a set of very specific and tendentious premises:

1. The whole of our society is shaped by power dynamics which run along racial lines.

2. These power dynamics were put in place to ensure that the 'white' race came out on top and remains on top, and that other races, but especially the 'black' race,

3. These power dynamics mean that racism is present in every interaction between people of different races in our society; it is literally impossible for two people of different races to have any interaction without it being in some way shaped by racism. The
question is never, 'did racism occur here?' but always 'how did racism manifest itself in this situation?'

4. These power dynamics exist independently of anyone's motivations, and indeed override them: even if a member of the 'white' race has absolutely no racial motivations, the fact they exist within this power-dynamic-natrix means that whatever they do will inevitably be, to some degree, racist simply because they live in a society whihc was demigned to push them up and keep others down.

Rejecting these premises and the worldview that flows form them is in no way equivalent to claiming that racism does not exist or that it is not bad. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to believe that racism exists, is bad, and that the worldview that stems form those premises makes it worse, and therefore teaching based on those premises, however well-intentioned it may be, is couterproductive if the aim is to reduce racism (which we should want to do because, as mentioned above, racism exists and it is bad).

In this way by reducing a critique of a real, coherent worldview to just an objection to the idea that 'racism exists and is bad' I think you are guilty here of doing exactly that which you are accusing your opponents of.

SK said...

Sorry editing error; point 2 should end 'are kept in an inferior position'. But that was probably obvious.

SK said...

Actually, I suppose you could claim that that is denying that 'racism exists and is bad' but only if you define 'racism' as meaning 'the power structures in our society designed to keep the ruling race in power and maintained by them through everything they do'.

However that's a very contentious definition of racism and assumes many of its own premises, and it's absolutely not what most people mean when they say, 'racism', which is 'being prejudiced against people because of their perceived race'.

So if you like I guess you could say it's an argument over what 'racism' means.

But in that case it's still not really objecting to 'any teaching which implies that racism exists and is bad'. It's objecting to 'any teaching which is based on the idea that "racism" means that, contentious, definition, rather than the everyday one of being predjudiced'.

SK said...

I believe this the hill J.K Rowling chose to die on -- she decided to frame a case of a person being fire for refusing to refer to colleagues by their preferred names and pronouns as "if you believe in biological gender you can lose your job."

That's not actually what the person in the case was fired for. To quote the plaintiff's lawyer:

' “[The plaintiff] will mostly use a person’s preferred pronouns and avoid drawing attention to their sex if that makes them uncomfortable,” adding that she “reserves the right to do otherwise in circumstances where it feels relevant to do so.”'

And to quote the plaintiff herself:

'I have always said I would use whatever name and pronouns people want at work [but l]anguage matters and if we can't say in any way that someone is male then how can we argue they should not be in women's sports or women's spaces etc.'

And as I understand it the original complaint to her HR department was not over anything the plaintiff said or did at work — indeed, nobody's ever suggested that she ever referred to anyone in any way that made them unhappy at work, and I'm certain that if she had then we would have heard about it — but over her publicly objecting to the inclusion on a 'top women in business' list of someone who was born male.

Surely you must admit that's much closer to 'losing your job for your beliefs' than being fired for being unable to perform your duties.

To use your Sainsbury's metaphor, it would be like firing a Muslim who is quite happy to sell customers alcohol, who doesn't lecture them at all about their choices, but who on their web page writes about how alcohol is evil and the UK should make it illegal.

We're talking about someone who, so far as we can tell — because no evidence to the contrary has been introduced into the legal proceedings, and if there was such evidence it would have been in the interests of the defendants to introduce it, and if there was such evidence it would be the defendants who would have it, so from its absence we can deduce that it doesn't exist — behaved impeccably at work and around her colleagues, but was reported to HR for things written and said outside of work, and as a result did not have her contract renewed.

If that's not 'being fired for your beliefs' then it's surely very very close to it.

The only way I could see you could possibly bring work-performance into it is if you made the case that her expressing such views in public brought the company into disrepute. But then you are definitely saying that people who hold (or, at least, express) certain views in public, even on their own time, even making it clear they are their personal views and nothing to do with their employer, should lose their jobs, regardless of how good they are at their jobs, regardless of whether they actually do treat their colleagues badly, regardless of anything — simply for expressing those views they deserve the punishment of unemployment.

SK said...

But that's kind of beside the point, because at least you recognised it would have been wrong to fire someone for their beliefs, and therefore argued that that must not have been what happened.

However, I have literally seen on the inter-net someone respond to mention of that case not by arguing, as you did, that she was actually fired for not being able to perform her job rather than for her beliefs, but by saying [paraphrased] 'she was a transphobe so it was right to fire her'.

And that was, as I wrote, just after the case having been presented as a counter-example to their claim that nobody was actually being fired for their beliefs.

So regardless of the actual facts of the case this person had just contradicted themselves, do you see? They had claimed no one was being fired for their beliefs; then almost immediately they had turned around and said it was right to fire someone for their beliefs. If they, like you, had made the case that the person wasn't actually fired for their beliefs, then I wouldn't have mentioned it, because that's a reasonable argument. I happen to think it's wrong on the facts, as I outline in the comment above, but it's a reasonable argument.

But you know what isn't a reasonable argument? The argument that person actually made, which was, in effect, 'Cancel culture doesn't exist and if anyone does get cancelled they deserved it so it doesn't count'.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Are there words which were in common usage in the 1970s which would be thought inappropriate in 2020? Yes.

Is there a thing called Political Correctness? Not so much.

Do people sometimes lose their jobs and their reputations because they have said bad things about gay people, forgotten to sing the words of the national anthem, or used their position as a popular children's entertainer to sexually abuse kids? Certainly.

Are there examples of people losing their jobs unfairly, and also of people losing their jobs when they certainly deserved to? Very likely.

Might we disagree about which side of the line a particular person is on? Almost certainly.

Can we call this process "cancellation"? If you really want to. Roscoe Arbuckle was cancelled because of a false accusation of murder. Oscar Wilde was cancelled after he was exposed as a homosexual.

Is there a specific, identifiable phenomenon called "cancel culture"? Not so far as I can see.

Can a writer with 14 million twitter follower and book sales of 2.6 million in the last twelve months be said to have been "cancelled"? No.

Is it at all possible that "cancel culture" means "the criticism of right wing opinions by the left", and that "political correctness" means "things that right wing people don't like very much"? You might think that, but I couldn't possibly comment.

SK said...

You do know that the 'not ever responding to actual refutations, but instead asking rhetorical questions' schtick does occasionally get tiresome?

Perhaps I shall do the same.

Is there a thing called Political Correctness?

So the issues here are 'what is a thing?' and 'who gets to name things?'. Sometimes it's pretty easy: a bunch of people declare that they believe in this thing, and that this is what they call it: 'We believe in communism, and we are communists'. That's pretty clear-cut: there's then a thing called Communism.

Other times, though, there's definitely a thing, but the label gets slapped on it by other people. Generally because the people involved in the thing either don't have a name for it, because to them it's so obvious that it doesn't need a name, it's just how things are; or because they give themselves a name which is vague, or even positive-sounding, or both, like 'Followers of the Way' or something, and people would rather call them something demeaning and vaguely insulting, like 'Christians'.

Is there a thing called 'terfs'?

Is there a specific, identifiable phenomenon called "cancel culture"?

Has the phenomenon of people losing their jobs for holding certain opinions, evne when these are not relevant to their work, increased over the past couple of decades? Yes.

Does it really matter what name we give this phenomenon?

Can a writer with 14 million twitter follower and book sales of 2.6 million in the last twelve months be said to have been "cancelled"?

Has anyone claimed that the writer has been cancelled? No, most articles specifically refer to her as 'the woman who couldn't be cancelled' or 'they one they tried to cancel, but failed'.

Does the fact that the richest woman in the world was unable to be cancelled mean that cancellation of people less rich, less powerful, doesn't happen? Obviously not. That would be like a 6'4" beast of a man with muscles coming out his ears saying that he doesn't understand why women are so worried about walking through the town centre at chucking-out time, after all, he does it loads and has never had any trouble.

Is it at all possible that "cancel culture" means "the criticism of right wing opinions by the left", and that "political correctness" means "things that right wing people don't like very much"? You might think that, but I couldn't possibly comment.

Comment, darling, is all you do.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Your comments have been noted.

(Retires, irked.)

Mike Taylor said...

"People are what they say they are: black ..."

... but not Rachel Dolezal, for some reason.

Mike Taylor said...

"... civilisation would come to an end. It didn’t. Not so you would notice."

Though I have noticed it's been looking its best recently.

Mike Taylor said...

"No, you couldn’t simply have a female actor playing Bond, in the way you can (arguably) simply have a female actor playing Bolingbroke. The film would have to be about the fact that the ultimate arch-alpha-male was being played by a female. But that in itself would be artistically interesting."

Once I had got used to the idea of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, this is what I naively hoped would happen. It didn't of course; we just got David Tennant impersonations. I am still not sure what proportion of Chris Chibnall's blame should be shared by Whittaker.

Mike Taylor said...

Having now read to the end, I see that my previous comment is redundant in light of your Superman analysis, and indeed your Doctor Who comments.

John said...
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