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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Is it time for the old to stop mocking the woke?

I don’t know whether the President of the Girls’ School Association ever reads these Way of the World columns. But I’d better hope not. Because I fear she would deeply disapprove.

This is because Samantha Price – who is also the headteacher at Benenden, a £13,500-a-term boarding school in Kent – says she’s sick of people mocking “wokeness”. In her view, wokeness is simply about “being kind” and “awake to social justice”. Yet “the older generation”, she complains, talk about it “in derogatory tones and sighs”, and dismiss the youth of today as over-sensitive “snowflakes”. She believes this refusal to “keep up” with the times is “unforgivable”, and tells older people to stop ridiculing the “energetic changes” demanded by the young.

A dressing-down from a headteacher is always a chastening experience. I don’t suppose it would do any good to protest that critics of wokeness don’t in fact object to “being kind”. What they object to is sanctimoniousness, self-righteous hectoring, and the quasi-religious denunciation of heretics and unbelievers. In short, the opposite of being kind.

Still, even if we disagree with Mrs Price’s remarks, they are certainly significant, for one reason at least. She says that “times have changed”, and she’s absolutely right.

In the past, after all, headteachers used to order the young to show more respect to the old. Now, it appears, headteachers order the old to show more respect to the young.

It may seem like a surprising development, but I suppose we’ll just have to accept it. Otherwise I dread to think what might happen. We might find ourselves summoned to the headteacher’s study, and told to stop being so impertinent to our juniors and betters. No more of our cheek. No more of our backchat. And no more carrying on as if we know it all. The old should be seen and not heard.

Oh, and stop calling young people “snowflakes”. It might hurt their feelings.

Are good manners ‘unsafe’ now?

Anyone who is awake to social justice, and wholeheartedly supportive of energetic change, will no doubt have been horrified by the story in the Telegraph this Sunday about events at Cambridge University. A group of students at Wolfson College, it seems, have complained about a remark allegedly made by a male photographer at their matriculation ceremony. This remark, they say, created a “targeted atmosphere of inequality” and made them “feel unsafe”.

If you missed the story, you are doubtless waiting in breathless trepidation to hear what this distressing remark was. The answer is as follows. The students had been posing for photographs on a raised platform. And afterwards, they claim, the photographer suggested that “the gentlemen” present could “help the ladies” get down from the platform.

And that, apparently, was it. That was the remark that had made the students “feel unsafe”.

To opponents of energetic change, it may not seem easy to understand why the students should have felt unsafe, especially since their safety was expressly what the photographer was trying to ensure. But this, I suspect, is to take the letter too literally. These days, “unsafe” doesn’t necessarily mean unsafe. Often, it’s simply a useful way of adding emotional force to a complaint about something you dislike or disagree with.

Earlier this year, for example, the Metro newspaper ran the following headline. “Girl, 16, Complained to School After Classic Novel Of Mice and Men Made Her Feel Unsafe.” Again, older readers may wonder how a novel can possibly make one feel unsafe, unless it’s teetering on the edge of a very high shelf directly above one’s desk. But what the girl meant was that she didn’t like the novel’s content, in particular its “one-dimensional” portrayal of non-white characters. Teaching Of Mice and Men, she told a reporter, “is not fair to people who are uncomfortable with racism”.

Similarly, when trans activists began their successful campaign to drive Professor Kathleen Stock out of Sussex University, they put up posters that read, “KATHLEEN STOCK MAKES TRANS STUDENTS UNSAFE”. Of course, at no point had Professor Stock attacked trans students, or threatened to attack them, or encouraged others to attack them. But she had written a book containing views with which the activists disagreed. And as far as they were concerned, it amounted to the same thing.

No doubt lexicographers are abreast of this linguistic development. In the meantime, the rest of us should be on our guard. You never know when some insensitive brute of a photographer might thoughtlessly hold open a door for you, or rudely offer you his seat.

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