We live in an age of bad temper. Perhaps we always did: it is just that I failed to notice until now, having been too self-centred or contented with my life to do so. But nowadays everyone seems eager either to give or to take offence, or both, as if outrage (given or taken) were some kind of guarantee of personal worth.
Recently, a person by the name of Kellie-Jay Keen Munshull paid for an advertisement in Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, the most important in the city. It read “I love J.K. Rowling.”
You might have thought that this was a fairly innocuous statement. After all, J.K. Rowling has probably sold more books than any other living author, and to judge by the long lines of people who waited outside bookstores on the day of the release of her latest book in the Harry Potter series, thousands of people loved her, or at least her work.
But a sinister or potentially explosive meaning was read into the message by the station authorities.
The person who paid for the advertisement was a feminist blogger who once put a poster up at the British Labour Party’s annual conference, giving the dictionary definition of a woman as “noun, adult human female.” (Who, one wonders, looks up, or needs to look up, the word ‘woman’ in a dictionary?)
This was in protest against the idea that sex can be changed at will, and that a man who took hormones and had certain operations was a woman simpliciter. (The same would apply, presumably, to a woman taking the opposite course; she would not become a man simpliciter.)
Therefore, the station authorities read into “I love J.K. Rowling” an endorsement of the author’s views about transsexualism that have lately been a matter of great controversy, leading to unpleasant, intolerant and cowardly denunciations of her.
Thus, J.K. Rowling had been transformed in the minds of the station authorities from a world-famous author with a large oeuvre into nothing but the mouthpiece of views that enrage certain monomaniacs and those who are terrified into endorsing them.
In an act of anticipatory surrender, or what a clever Dutch friend of mine calls creative appeasement, the authorities decided to remove the advertisement before anyone could protest. In fact, no one had protested by the time they took it down.
With a lack of command of the English language that is now, alas, standard in the governing classes, the authorities issued a statement to the effect that the station and rail network “does not allow advertising that is likely to support one point of view over another.”
The obvious objection to this is that the whole point of advertisement is to support one point of view over another, an advertisement not being a Socratic dialogue with no definite conclusion. What, presumably, the authorities meant was that they did not allow advertisements that promoted one political opinion over another.
But unless J.K. Rowling could be reduced to nothing but her views on transsexualism (which, incidentally, are hardly those of a monster of moral fanaticism), the message “I love J.K. Rowling” could be construed politically only by monomaniacs, even had the message been intended to be construed in this manner.
As it happens, when it was revealed that the authorities had removed the advertisement, they were inundated with hundreds of e-mails protesting their action. In trying to pre-empt protest, they had provoked it.
This is not to say, however, that had they left the advertisement intact there would not eventually have been protest, possibly of a more virulent kind. We shall now never know.
Groupuscules in Asymmetric War
What this rather trivial episode illustrates is the degree to which we are now constantly treading on eggshells, thanks to the ideological monomaniacs in our midst. Our freedom of expression is not under threat from the government (as traditionally it was) but from groupuscules who are engaged in asymmetrical wars with the rest of society.
They care deeply about a single thing—it is the meaning of their lives. The rest of us, among whom the matter is merely one thing among many others, do not care about it nearly so deeply, though our opinion about it may be, and usually is, diametrically the opposite of that of the monomaniacs.
The monomaniacs win almost every time because their advocacy is passionate and continual, while everyone’s else’s opposition is only lukewarm and intermittent because they have so much else to do and think about.
I was first made aware of this many years ago, before the invention of the antisocial media, when I wrote an article about a condition known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (the alternative name sometimes used, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or ME, is in effect a lie).
The organizations of people who suffer from it—debilitating tiredness on effort lasting months or years—were wedded to the idea that it is the long-term effect of a viral infection, though this has never been proved.
People who thought otherwise, and said so in public, became the object of mild persecution: telephone calls, attempts to have them sacked from work, nasty commentary, and so forth. The result was that views other than those of the organizations were rarely expressed in public.
Those who held the differing views simply did not care enough about the subject even to suffer the relatively mild persecution I have descried. They let the matter drop.
This happened to me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a kind of template for future activism: if you can make your opponents’ lives a misery, you are halfway to victory.
This is how what was unthinkable or laughable only yesterday becomes an unassailable orthodoxy today. The speed with which this happens is accelerating.
And since, in the absence of religious belief, causes become the meaning of life for so many, there is a permanent effervescence of outlandish demands, or rather of demands that would have been outlandish only a few years, months or weeks before.
And as soon as the end is gained, the whole caravan moves on to the next thing: for it is far better to travel than to arrive, and protest is an end in itself. In no time at all, we forget that there were ever times (oh, how primitive they were!) when, for example, the word woman meant an adult human female.
Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.