People Say The Funniest Things
'Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.'
The contribution that social intolerance is making to our political culture in the UK is impossible to ignore. Last week both liberal political commentator Ian Dunt and satirist Jonathan Pie articulately bemoaned the 'outrage machine' on both the right and the left that stifles honest debate, ruins lives, and divides society to the detriment of all (please do look at both links).
Whilst this environment of mistrust, paranoia and hysteria feels new, it may be part of a broader pattern of behaviour. With your indulgence, I will list a number of random historical events that took place, not too far from home and not too long ago.
In early 1321, a rumour started in the town of Périgueux that the wells were being poisoned by lepers. The rumour spread as far as Spain and hundreds of lepers were burned at the stake. The rumour then mutated; by the summer of 1321 it was the Jews who were said to be poisoning wells, hundreds were executed. In 1348, the rumour returned during the bubonic plague and in the German Empire, hundreds of Jewish settlements were burned to the ground.
In 1589, James I returned home from a trip to Denmark convinced of the existence of witches. He instigated the North Berwick witch trials in which 70 women were killed. Over the next 60 years, an estimated 50,000 women were executed as witches across Europe.
In the Russian Revolution and for most of the life of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, the employment of terror, paranoia, the identification and exile of enemies with unorthodox ideas, guilty or not, often following lurid public show trials, were its defining feature. As Lenin put it openly, 'We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.' In East Germany, at its peak, one in every 6.5 people was an informant for the state; the Stasi had files on 5.6 million people or 1 in 3 of the entire population.
In 1868, public hangings were banned in the UK. For centuries, they had been a popular form of public entertainment. Capital punishment was finally banned by parliament in 1969 in spite of broad national support to retain it. In 2016, 53% of those who voted Brexit were still in support of its return.
In 1999 former Coventry City goalkeeper and senior Green Party spokesman David Icke claimed that the British Royal Family, amongst others, were shape-shifting reptiles. His books have sold in the millions, translated into 11 languages and his speeches fill large arenas. He is currently an anti-lockdown campaigner alongside Piers Corbyn.
Also in 1999 British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared, bizarrely, on This Morning in order to suggest that the England Manager Glenn Hoddle should be fired. Days earlier, Hoddle, (who had left school at 16 and only lately embraced spirituality), had been tricked by a journalist from The Times into suggesting there was a link between reincarnation and disability. 90% of those polled agreed that he should be fired. He was.
In 2000 a new type of reality TV began to revolutionise popular entertainment. Contestants in shows like 'Big Brother' were microscopically surveilled, scrutinized, judged, shamed and ultimately exiled, through a public vote. At its peak, 5-6million people tuned in each week. It is claimed that in the 18-34 age bracket, more people voted in Big Brother than voted in the 2005 UK General Election. The format led to the rise of Donald Trump in 'The Apprentice' and also his cheap UK imitations on the TV, Sir Alan Sugar and politics, Alexander 'Boris' Johnson.
The idea of exile via popular vote very quickly seeped out from televised entertainment and into real life as organized activists on the right and the left began employing new platforms like Twitter to identify, shame and exile both celebrities and ordinary people. Private companies, universities and other institutions began lowering the bar of evidence for those accused of wrong-doing and it became common for individuals to be fired as a direct result of perceived threats to the reputation of employers. As the practice became normalised, traditional concepts of justice such as fair trials and the possibility of verdicts of innocence began to disintegrate.
In 2020, 150 writers including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem and Noam Chomsky signed a letter asserting their support for free speech and denouncing 'a vogue for public shaming and ostracism' and 'a blinding moral certainty'. Upon discovering that controversial author JK Rowling had also signed the letter, author Jennifer Finney Boylan publicly apologised for signing, saying 'I thought I was endorsing a well-meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming'. Salman Rushie, whose own experience of being 'cancelled' (almost terminally) by religious intolerance, remained on the list. The uncomfortable facts stated in the letter were quickly forgotten. When some of the most respected liberal figures in the arts need to imperil their reputation by supporting it, we can know for sure that freedom of speech is not in vogue.
The truth is that, in the UK, as elsewhere, there has been a strong and consistent pattern of intolerance, censoriousness, hysteria and the desire to publicly shame, punish and exile. The 'string 'em up' mentality is borne from the same ignoble instinct of the human psyche, whether it comes from a liberal or a conservative bias. It merely manifests as liberal or conservative. It is also wildly counterproductive. Both sides of what has become known as 'the culture war' need to understand the following fact:
When you turn offence into a currency that is free to generate, be certain that, a) it will proliferate and b) it will be used against you.
The unfortunate but inescapable conclusion is that oftentimes, the problem is... us.
The print media reflects our unhealthy and prurient obsessions with the private lives of others, the TV our passivity, films reflect our unsatiated desires for sex and violence, the church reflects our vanity and politics our hypocrisy.
If it's true that we get the politics we deserve, then we need to start with ourselves.
Have a great week,
James and the Renew Team