There’s a Tracey Ullman comedy sketch about the extreme and ugly form of political correctness afflicting the youth. It’s set in a self-help group for ‘people who are so woke [i.e. attuned to left-wing grievance politics] they are finding it impossible to have any fun at all.’
A newcomer to the class tells his story: ‘It started with the little things — signing an online petition; going to a march. Well, before I knew it, I was writing to the Guardian about LBGT representation in the Harry Potter books…’ At this point, a prissy young woman interjects: ‘Which is shocking by the way.’ The therapist (played by Ullman) calls her to order: ‘Yes, all right, Libby. We’ve all read your blog.’
Last week, at Cambridge University, I had an encounter with a real-life Libby and the experience wasn’t funny one bit. It was discomfiting, it was embarrassing, but above all it was depressing, for it reminded me just how painfully in thrall some of our brightest and best are to the toxic, joyless, cry–bully creed of Social Justice Warrior grievance politics.
The occasion was a black tie dinner for the university’s Conservative Association (CUCA). I was the guest speaker. And the theme of my speech — ironically enough — was how we can win the war for real conservative values in an age when a shrill, angry, increasingly aggressive left is so determined to close us down at every turn.
I began by outlining how much things have changed since I was at university. In the 1980s, there were no campaigns to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ (i.e. purge it of dead white European males), no ‘safe spaces’ to protect us from scary new ideas, and certainly no awkward compulsory ‘consent classes’ in Freshers’ Week.
‘Don’t you find it insulting?’ I asked my audience. ‘Even if you couldn’t quite make it into Oxford, you’re clever enough to have got into Cambridge. Yet here you are, the week you arrive, being forced to attend classes in which blushing second-year students are required to tell you why it’s not a good idea to rape people?’
This point seemed so crushingly obvious I was sure it would win me thunderous applause. Not at the Labour Club, the Vegan Society or the Zero Carbon Society, maybe. But this was CUCA, the last outpost of soundness in a Cromwellian university town otherwise swamped with political correctness. So I waited, briefly, for the roars of hearty, wine-fuelled, undergraduate approval.
But the roars never came. Instead — surely this had to be my imagination? — there was an awkward silence, followed by some shuffling as two or three people exited the room. I thought: ‘Hmm. Bit rude. Maybe they’re desperate for a pee.’ So I ploughed gamely on with an analogy I had prepared earlier.
It concerned Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, getting into a time machine in the 1970s and instead of pressing the button marked ‘Next week’s Top of the Pops’, accidentally finding themselves in 2018 and discovering to their horror that attitudes to celebrities and underage girls had changed somewhat.
All right, so the analogy was tortured and preposterous, not to mention crass and tasteless, but that was rather the point. I’d been worried that the seriousness of my underlying theme might cast a downer on the evening. ‘This’ll perk ‘em up,’ I thought. ‘God knows, if you’re a Cambridge conservative, a bit of shock-jockery must seem like manna from heaven.’
I had thought wrong. This time, very emphatically, a girl stood up and, with a loud cry of ‘Disgusting!’, walked out of the room, accompanied by at least one female companion and possibly some males too. By now, I felt I was in real danger of losing the entire room. But I soldiered on, making the serious points I’d intended to make, but without trying to embellish them with any of those awkward things that outside Oxbridge are known as ‘jokes’.
Then we ritually sang the national anthem and ‘Jerusalem’, as is presumably the custom at CUCA dinners, after which it was all over. Or so I thought. The CUCA committee members, the president especially — poor chap, he’d invited me as his star turn — seemed to want nothing to do with me. Luckily, those members who had enjoyed my speech (roughly half the audience, I’d guess) were keen to take me to the pub to help me drown my sorrows.
As I went to the bar, out of the corner of my eye I noticed with a shudder the girls who had walked out. They glared at me. I retreated outside with a large gin and a few male undergraduates, trying to put the earlier events behind me.
But it wasn’t to be. Shortly afterwards, the landlord came up to me. ‘I want you to leave now!’ he said. ‘Why? What’s he done?’ asked all my companions.
‘There’s been a complaint. A young woman says you said something offensive to her on my premises about rape!’ he said. This went on for ages: the landlord adamant (on this random female customer’s say-so) that I must go; my doughty companions equally insistent that I must stay. (Thank you, boys. I will never forget how you stuck up for me.)
Later there was yet more grisliness as the two girls came up to harangue me and justify their moral outrage. ‘So you’re saying you don’t believe rape culture exists?’ said one, working herself up into a frenzy of cry-bully self-righteousness. Not her fault, I suppose. If you’re constantly told — as her generation of women has been — that you’re the helpless victim of an oppressive rapey patriarchy and that your holy mission is to avenge yourself by whatever means, then stuff like critical thinking, decorum, good manners and a sense of proportion tend to go out of the window. But it’s an ugly and frightening thing to behold.