Something troubling is happening to our girls. I noticed it again most recently at this year’s Battle of Ideas — the annual festival of free speech staged at London’s Barbican by Claire Fox. It’s a wonderful event, where ex-revolutionary communists like Claire rub shoulders with Thatcher-ite radicals like me and we’re reminded how much we have in common. I feel right at home among the bright, engaged, friendly crowds and when I speak I generally get a warm reception.
But there are always exceptions, aren’t there? On this occasion the trouble came from a bloc of teenage girls in the audience for my panel. Judging by their accents and dress and demeanour I’d say they probably came from one of the more selective London day schools. One after another they stood up to denounce me, just like my own teenage female does most of the time when she’s at home and I venture an opinion. Except Girl is away boarding at the moment, so I did rather feel: ‘What did I do to deserve this busman’s holiday?’
My panel’s topic was gun control in the US. More specifically, it was about how since the Parkland, Florida school shooting, the debate appears to have been hijacked by photogenic teen survivors of the atrocity with their #neveragain campaign, their endless appearances on CNN and their nationwide protests featuring bussed-in parties of winsome, placard-wielding kiddies warning that next time it could be them.
Had I really wanted to wind my audience up I could have said — as I more or less believe — that every man, woman and child should be obliged to have a gun from the age of eight onwards. But because I was in an emollient mood, I decided instead to focus on a slightly more nuanced point about the way that, increasingly, kids like the slightly spooky Parkland survivor David Hogg are being used to advance political causes. My view is that it’s one of the more disturbing trends of our age.
Partly, what I object to is that the mere state of youth is being used as a substitute for argument: ‘Look at these fresh young faces! See their innocence and promise! They want guns banned/CO2 emissions radically reduced/animal cruelty ended/Britain to remain part of the European Union. What kind of monster would you have to be to deny our most precious commodity the brighter future they crave?’
Also, it’s yet another manifestation of the ugly identity politics which is causing such needless division in our culture. It has set women against men, ethnic minorities against white people, trans activists against the ‘cisgendered’, and — as was very much evident in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, where older people were repeatedly urged to hurry up and die for having voted the wrong way — the young against the old.
And I really don’t want to live in a world where I have to go round hating kids just because they’ve been trained up, like the Red Guard or the Young Pioneers, to strut round making themselves objectionable with half-baked, second-hand political opinions. Not — as I was at pains to stress — that I blame the kids themselves for this trend. I blame the adults, mostly on the left, who are taking advantage of those characteristics that make the young so ripe for exploitation: their naivety, their impulsiveness, their passion, their idealism, their vulnerability to peer pressure, their lack of restraint, the fact that by definition they are unwise because they have not yet had the experience to form a mature, considered view.
This was the point where — according to an audience member who was sitting among them — the girls’ ears started to blow steam. And when the time for questions came, they stood up, one after another, to tell me how very, very cross they felt, how totally entitled to their brilliant opinions they were and what an awful, stupid old man I was.
No doubt I’ll be accused of more patronising sexism by some of the girls when, inevitably, their parents draw their attention to this column. But I’m afraid that what I say is true: nothing that any of the girls said, not one thing, presented anything by way of a lucid, viable counter to my argument. It was pure ‘muh feelings’ emotionalism, laced with burning entitlement and more than a hint of cry-bullying passive aggression.
I’ve noticed this a lot. On school and university visits, in panel discussions, on social media, the kind of normal discourse that previous generations took for granted has been twisted to the point of unhingement by girls alternately sobbing like victims and then shrieking at you and trying to get you banned or — in their dreams — locked up. No one seems to have told them that if you’re going to chip in and you can’t make an intelligent point, then at least make a funny one. It’s as if young women these days have been encouraged to believe that righteous fury is enough: merely being angry is a moral act which relieves them of any obligation to truth, wit, logic, justice or indeed feminine grace, subtlety and charm.
Of course, girls have always had it in them, this tendency. But it’s only in the last few years that this consuming rage has been weaponised in the name of ‘empowerment’. Except that it’s not empowering. Far from showing women at their best, it often brings out their worst. Truly, I say, as the adoring father of a teenage daughter, our girls deserve better than this.