June 11, 2020

The lad was doing so well. In a debate from which most public figures run a mile, Jonathan Ross had bravely put his head above the parapet. When the comedy writer Graham Linehan and, more recently, JK Rowling came under siege from the militant trans lobby for the crime of speaking scientific truth, Ross had rallied to their side, rejecting any suggestion that either was transphobic.

Naturally, a torrent or two of the abuse directed at Linehan and Rowling then started to head the way of Ross. But he stood firm, seemingly willing to take the brickbats.

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That was until Monday, at which point he performed a reverse-ferret and informed us that he had come to accept that he was, after all, “not in a position to decide what is or isn’t transphobic”. A pretty spectacular climbdown, by anyone’s estimation.

So what lay behind this change of heart? Well, Ross revealed that he had spoken to his daughters about the issue, leaving us in no doubt that it was their intervention which had prompted his volte-face.

It’s unlikely the doughty women campaigning to defend their sex-based rights against the demands of the more extreme wing of the trans movement will be deterred by this sudden turnabout of their fairweather friend. They have already shown themselves more than capable of pursuing their cause without much in the way of celebrity endorsement.

Ross’s capitulation, though, does point to a wider trend of parents who seem only too willing to defer to their offspring on the contentious social and political issues of the day. It’s a trend that dovetails with the more general fetishisation of youth that has become such a feature of our society.

We see it in the veneration of Greta Thunberg. We see it in the campaign for ‘Votes at 16’. We saw it with Brexit in the depiction of young Remainers as tolerant and enlightened in contrast to old Leavers who were bigoted ‘gammon’. We see it in the turmoil at the New York Times, whose owners caved in to ‘sensitive’ young staffers demanding the resignation of the editorial director because — capital offence, this — he ran a piece by someone they didn’t like and to whose words they took exception.

It seems that, for some, the young are right simply by dint of their being young — almost as though to be a teenager or 20-something is to be imbued with a unique insight and wisdom denied to everyone else. Yet there is no logical reason to routinely ascribe to the young these kinds of attributes, so why do it?

One answer might be that as the agenda of woke liberalism becomes ever more narrow and exclusive, its high priests must focus on consolidating support among the sections of society where it is most likely to hold appeal. Broadly, that means courting the young and ‘progressive’ over the older, more traditional voter. Then, so far as there is any chance of popularising such an agenda, it must be done by appeals to the sagacity and vision of its proponents, rather than asserting the merits of the agenda itself (which, as its cheerleaders surely know, will always prove unattractive to large chunks of the electorate). And if that doesn’t work, well, why not try to gerrymander the entire system by driving down the voting age?

None of this is to argue that the young should be seen and not heard, nor to suggest they be discouraged from political activity. On the contrary, much better a next generation — whatever its views — which is politically conscious and engaged rather than one content to hide away in the bedroom and immerse itself in a world of online gaming.

It is, however, to make the case that putting the young on a pedestal and assuming they always know best does nothing to help society find solutions to increasingly complex social and political questions. Neither, in the end, does it do youngsters themselves any favours, for in denying them the opportunity to have their arguments scrutinised and tested in robust debate, we leave them woefully unprepared for the competitive world they are about to encounter. It is surely no surprise that this tendency to grant excessive indulgence to the views of the young has coincided with the slow erosion of free speech on university campuses and the emergence of such sinister concepts as ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and no-platforming.

This undue deference also fails to recognise what we all know: the worldview of the young will often shift as they grow older and find themselves navigating a world of marriages, mortgages and children. Rare is the person who believes at 45 everything he believed at 16. With the long passage of time, in fact, it is likely that the child will adopt the position of the parent on a range of social and political issues – positions that he might once have regarded as antediluvian and reactionary. It calls to mind the reported words of Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

We have enough division within our society at present without exacerbating the generational tension that was ignited in the aftermath of the EU referendum and continues to simmer today. Setting young against old by constantly portraying the former as all that is good and moral, and assuming they will have the answers to all life’s problems, while dismissing the latter as unreconstructed dinosaurs will do nothing to bring a rapprochement.

The young should be treated as equals in the arena of public debate. No more, no less. The cult status conferred upon them by some is misplaced and patronising.

Oh, and Jonathan Ross should have stuck to his guns.