In the 1950s, Britain was a giant in world manufacturing.
The country resounded with the clang of steel and the roar of furnaces: Industries like ship building, cars and aviation produced a quarter of the world’s manufacturing exports.
Now it’s 2%. But never mind. There are still some things we are great at producing. Faux outrage, wilful misunderstanding and artificial apoplexy.
No surprise, then, that this week, 150 academics, writers and activists – including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Harry Potter author JK Rowling – signed an open letter to Harper’s magazine applauding recent social change but calling for a less censorious attitude to public debate.
A censorious response to their letter inevitably ensued on social media.
Those talking about contentious issues need to take care – but is there really any need for professional-grade offence taking?
It feels like the nation swarming round to chant and point simply for the drama.
Remember school days when the cries of “Fight! Fight!” rang round the playground, and the herds ran to watch the overspill of some emotional disturbance that they had no real interest in except to see the resulting blood? That kind of drama.
Take Miriam Margolyes and JK Rowling as recent examples. Margolyes has just been cleared of offending the nation.
Appearing on a late-night comedy show, she criticised the government’s handling of the pandemic, saying “I had difficulty not wanting Boris Johnson to die. I wanted him to die, and then I thought, that reflects badly on me and I don’t want to be the sort of person who wants people to die.
“So, then I wanted him to get better, which he did do… but he didn’t get better as a human being and I really would prefer that.”
Margolyes always raises eyebrows but a grand total of 494 complaints were received as a result of these “offensive” words.
Offensive? What… because she said she didn’t want him to die? She didn’t want to be the kind of person who ill-wished somebody?
Or maybe because she said she wished he would be a better person. Because that’s definitely offensive, isn’t it? Who ARE these 494 people? Boris’s mum and his 399 cousins? (Or his secret children, perhaps?)
I’m sorry. Was that offensive, that sly little dig at Boris’s sexual proclivities?
Let me apologise in advance before Mr and Mrs Outraged pick up their pens. Because if there’s one thing that goes with the increasingly popular sport of faux outrage, it’s faux apology.
Still, I apologise if you’re offended about, what was it again? Oh yes, Boris’s children.
And anything else I’ve said that upsets you. In fact, I know it’s going back a bit but while we’re on the sorrys, could I just apologise for the destruction of Melos by Athens during the Peloponnesian War?
Sincere apology is necessary. You know, when a government handles a pandemic disgracefully (still waiting) or fails sick, homeless and vulnerable people.
Or when Eton apologises to writer Dillibe Onyeama for the racism he experienced there in the 1960s, which seems very important except that Onyeama himself says the apology was “not necessary” which is interesting.
Maybe because he’s thinking, well, that took a while – why now? Perhaps he recognises the fashion for erasing history with a glib and cynical apology that is more about timing than sorrow.
Good for JK Rowling. She didn’t apologise for her words on feminism and transgender rights.
Let me be clear here – just like Rowling was – and say that I genuinely care about the pain of transgender people. So much so that I wrote a book about it.
Rowling also says she cares and knows that transition will be the right choice for some people. But being empathetic doesn’t mean you lose all critical faculties.
When Rowling read an article that spoke of “creating a more equal post-Covid world for people who menstruate”, she tweeted: “I’m sure there used to be a word for these people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
What’s wrong with that? How does insisting that “people who menstruate” are actually women, detract from transgender rights?
When did we have a societal common sense bypass? Why do we have to move from stamping minorities underfoot, like splattered insects, to a sycophantic position of taking offence on their behalf when none is intended?
All the young Harry Potter actors – Daniel Radcliffe, Emily Watson and Rupert Grint – waded into social media to align themselves with the “offended” trans community (were they?) – and against the woman who made them millionaires.
Send them all back to Hogwarts until they learn the magic of critical thinking, I say.
The American essayist, Tim Kreider, notes that we revel in “righteous outrage” because it saves bothering with the “harder, messier work of understanding”. That’s certainly evident in current debates.
Sometimes, the misunderstanding seems wilful. You can’t deal with the hard work of real change when there’s the distraction of faux outrage from those who can’t be bothered really caring but are happy to make a noise.
There’s so much to do. Let’s concentrate on the real stuff.