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I don’t believe in gravity but I still fall off the roof
Inherit the Wind should not be a timeless reminder of the importance of free speech. We should have grown up by now. But free speech was kicked in the crotch a few weeks ago. Camus wonders have we reached peak sensitivity? Rude words warning…

A short but impassioned muse on free speech, truth and evolution

You may have heard the story. A well-admired and respected professor at Kings College, London made a lame joke in a crowded elevator during an international conference in the US. When it came to choosing the floor, he said "Ladies' lingerie," a tasteless quip originated from the 70s perhaps and not a great one at that. A fellow professor of women and gender studies took offence, reported him and now he's refusing to apologise. I am certainly not suggesting that the #metoo movement has been anything but a force for good in all walks of human relations but to report a person for a joke in dubious taste… Isn't there a well-defined line anymore, not just a thick smudge of almost arbitrary personal interpretation? Or is this merely a cultural clash of bawdy, out-dated Brit humour smashing into the hull of American political correctness? Are we not straying a little too close to "I didn't like the way he looked at me"? Was the second professor offended? OK. So be it. Let the second professor be offended. Someone needn't be reported for a lapse in comedy judgement. The first professor was not bringing down the entire social edifice of discretion and decorum nor propping up the sexist culture. Or was he?

Yes, if there is an argument to be made, it's due to the sheer weight of 'Men see women as sexual objects of desire equalling, say 80% of media/cultural bias' and 'Women see men as sexual objects of desire equalling 20%. I made up those percentages but I so would love them to be more 50/50. But they clearly are not. If the lingerie joke reinforces the 80% dominancy then it should be tut-tutted at the time but surely not officially reported. As the joke didn't involve a person per se but merely an acknowledgment that straight men find provocative underwear enticing, I'm not even sure it was a sexist comment per se. I just felt that reporting it means we've reached peak sensitivity and a certain degree of peak silliness that belies the bigger Weinsteinian problems we face. Yes, sexism and racism is rife in many cultures all around the world and men exploit women in horrendous ways and we all should do everything in our power to stamp that out when able. But that particular 'lingerie' comment meant exactly what to the second offended professor? "Oh my God, I have to share elevator space with someone with 70's sexist attitudes!" or "Here's a man who loves sexy women's underwear and therefore he should be reported because lingerie denotes that the female body is something that exists for men's pleasure and species procreation." Well, duh and vice versa if I may be so bold. I hope the second professor has reported Coca Cola for that men-as-sex objects window-washing ad some years back. I personally found that rather politically dodgy ad refreshing. It's good to have the left direction stuck pendulum inching right. Men and women are attracted to each other and we allude to this playfully and sometimes in bad taste and it has to be said, it's culturally and wildly one sided. But because of that one-sided aspect, making a harmless, lame joke is not necessarily a reportable offence or a career ending slip (whoops, 'slip'. A regrettable allusion to lingerie) or at least it shouldn't be in a sane society. Have I missed a memo?

I have a dear friend. He's kind, attentive and loyal. He has great friendships that have lasted decades, a lust for life and a professional past to be truly proud of. He's also a sucker for a good red wine. He's significantly two generations older than me because to him (I'll go so far as to reveal his gender) women are still 'birds' etc. I tame his more offensive remarks as much as I dare when out in public but he lived in a society long gone and that society lives within him. In some ways it's part of who he is. And if you have friends, you love them warts and all, right? He's not going to be able to switch off those attitudes but at least he is aware of how out-dated and offensive they now are and chooses his non-PC utterances when he's safe in friends' company. His uncensored attitudes are, ironically, the shock of the old. Of all the books and podcasts I've indulged in since the world went a tad mad, I am more dismayed at what the extreme left are busying themselves over than an old school dinosaur's unapologetic roars. It's like watching someone trying to undo a tight knot while being stalked by a lion. Run! Way bigger problems to deal with! The image that came to mind (unfair perhaps but I'm addressing unfairness) hearing the first professor being reported for telling a short, dumb joke was the pointing hand and gaping maw of Donald Sutherland at the end of the first remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Make of that what you will.

Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah…

The bedrock of a civil society (and not the stones you throw at the poor bastard who liked halibut) is free speech. It's also the foundation, the catalyst for change and social evolution. Countries and religions in which individuals are imprisoned or killed for their outspoken beliefs merely prove how sadly resistant those countries and religions are to new ideas. Are their scaffolds and foundations so weak and precarious that a few words would threaten their stability? Can there be true evolution in their subsequent revolution? When I saw that photograph of Janey Godley in Scotland holding a placard simply stating a fact (OK, OK, a personal opinion that I share), I felt a twinge of pride that I live in a society where that woman can be simply asked to fold up the critical poster for being rude and publically disruptive but not imprisoned or worse for suggesting that the US president is an Anglo-Saxon word of no little power. It rhymes with 'hunt'. No? More clues? A young boy was sent home from school for using a bad word that began with 'c'. His mother said "That wasn't clever, was it?" "No," he replied. "It was 'cunt'."

Free speech means everyone is free to say what she or he wants. If you hate what is said or disagree with it then you have platforms to question it or you can chose to ignore it. I'm not going to go into the slander and libel laws but I do risk a smile knowing that those concepts of law are based on respecting the truth. It's all we have as a baseline and human beings need to respect it. Once that respect disappears (and it's opening the door with its car keys and hat on at the moment) we really are rudderless. Moral compasses will start spinning and the shrug of "I don't care what's true or not," will become the default. And we will be lesser creatures and lesser societies for that.

Brave people on the parapet of reason are trying hard to change the metaphorical giant global tanker's course. I have been ingesting avidly the podcast work of Sam Harris and I resoundingly suggest that you do the same. My conscience is assuaged (I learn and get so much from his work) by a small monthly contribution. His is an intelligent and civilised voice in the cultural darkness that lights a path for us all to see. He is a fierce critic of Trump but then we all should be if we want the world to work. After Trump and Brexit I kept on hoping an adult would come along, push the child's hand away from the controls and make things OK again. Or at least I could have woken up. There is no adult. I am awake. It's no coincidence that Sam Harris' podcast is called 'Waking Up'. Please check it out. As writer Aaron Sorkin had President Bartlett say in The West Wing, "Decisions are made by those that show up." People, we have to start showing up, defending truth and outing lies and the subversion and devaluing of truth. Reading Timothy Snyder's superb On Tyranny is a start. As we collectively wander down a well-worn path (history repeating and all that), we need to be mindful. Here's a start. It's the smallest thing but it's extraordinary how such a small change in your behaviour makes you feel.

From Chapter 12 of On Tyranny

"Make eye contact and small talk… This is not just polite. It's part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers and understand whom you should and should not trust."

In John Wyndham's charming and hugely entertaining science fiction novel The Chrysalids, a woman from a more advanced society arrives to save the lives of nascent telepaths. She's hyper-critical of the society the telepaths hail from, a religious and restrictive one that banishes or murders those with physical aberrations not lining up with the true image (as laid out by self-important human beings with supposed access to divine information – 'wankers' by any other name). She gives a speech at the end of the book, which struck a chord with me recently after re-watching Inherit The Wind.

"Understanding one another, we do not need laws which treat living forms as though they were as indistinguishable as bricks; we could never commit the enormity of imagining that we could mint ourselves into equality and identity, like stamped coins; we do not mechanistically attempt to hammer ourselves into geometrical patterns of society, or policy; we are not dogmatists teaching God how He should have ordered the world. The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution: and we are part of it."

Thank you. Be part of it.

article posted
21 May 2018

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