June 26, 2020

Was there ever a time when honest disagreement over contentious issues was deemed permissible? Were we ever truly free to say what we believed, without fear that the Thought Police would come calling? Was it always the case that a rigid conformity of opinion held sway on certain questions, with all dissent destined to be met by a wild hysteria and demands for swift recantation?

It is easy, when surveying the public square today, characterised as it is by such deep-rooted uniformity and a climate in which any sort of resistance constitutes a revolutionary act, to conclude that things must have been this way for all time. That the uncompromising group-think that pervades so much of our discourse has always existed. That freedom of expression and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ are obscure concepts peddled only by heretics and those with a kamikaze disregard for their own reputations or careers.

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Like a prisoner who, as his sentence grinds on, finds it increasingly difficult to recall a time when he enjoyed liberty, our society risks falling into the trap of believing that the ever-tightening constraints placed upon our freedoms have always bound us.

It is not so, of course. In fact, we don’t have to travel too far back to identify a time when our culture was quite different. If someone said or did something crass or thoughtless – even if the act was committed in the full glare of publicity — society would generally react by curling its lip or tutting or dismissing the culprit for an idiot. And then the world would move on. Nobody had been injured, nobody died, and one person might have been left feeling a bit embarrassed or sheepish. Real opprobrium was reserved for those who truly deserved it.

How the world has changed. It seems unimaginable today that someone — particularly anyone with a public profile — could depart from the orthodoxy on any subject of delicacy or contention, especially one of cultural sensitivity, without inviting the now-customary storms of outrage. These usually begin with a rabid kind of finger-pointing, invariably conducted through social media, and very quickly progress to demands for an apology, appeals to the transgressor’s employer that he be fired from his job and, where the individual enjoys any sense of prominence, an insistence that he be banished from public life for good. The actual merits of the person’s words or actions are irrelevant. All that was necessary for the pitchfork-wielders to do their worst was that ‘offence’ had been caused. When the storm eventually passes, the person is likely to find himself excommunicated from polite society.

The disturbing thing is that this ‘cancel culture’ has taken hold not because it can claim support among the mass of the population, but because a minority of intolerant fanatics has somehow managed to cow everyone else into submission. They have effectively been allowed to set the boundaries of acceptable debate on certain topics, to decide on behalf of us all what constitutes a legitimate opinion, and to determine the sanction to be imposed upon anyone who refuses to comply.

And, faced with this growing threat to our freedoms, our ruling class, including most figures in the fields of politics, business, the media and public services, have cravenly folded. Worse, in many cases they have actively sided with the zealots.

Which brings me to Jake Hepple. I have little doubt that Mr Hepple is a bit of an oaf. I’m not sure what he was trying to achieve when he arranged to have a plane trailing a “White Lives Matter” banner fly over a football stadium in Manchester when a match was taking place. He may have simply wished to make mischief or court publicity. Or perhaps his actions were genuinely intended as a sardonic rebuke to the Black Lives Matter movement and some of its more questionable aims and tactics (which, in spite of what we are led to believe, do not command unanimous support throughout the country).

Whatever his motives, it was a pretty silly thing to do. Of itself, however, the message plainly wasn’t offensive. White lives, after all, do matter. Taken in isolation, it is a statement with which few would disagree.

The response, then, to his stupid stunt should have been to shake our heads at its puerility and hope that the perpetrator faded into obscurity as quickly as he had come to our attention. But, of course, in these days when ‘silence is violence’, quiet dismissal of Hepple would have been tantamount to endorsement of his actions. So the wheels of the bandwagon started rolling, and everyone duly clambered aboard.

First up was Burnley Football Club, whose players were taking part in the match inside the stadium (while, it should be noted, displaying the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ on their jerseys) and of whom Hepple was a supporter. The banner was ‘offensive’, said the club in a statement, before going on to pledge that those responsible would be issued with ‘lifetime bans’.

Then, so it seemed, anyone and everyone who might in some way be connected, however tenuously, to Hepple or the incident felt obliged to express their own words of condemnation. Blackpool Airport, from where the plane had taken off, said it stood against ‘racism of any kind’ and promptly vowed to suspend all banner flights. The CEO of the UK Civil Aviation Authority itself, no less, also saw fit to weigh in, resolving to work with the police in any subsequent probe. Right on cue, Lancashire police then launched an investigation, only to confirm a day later – entirely predictably – that it would not be pursuing the matter any further because no crime had been committed (thereby leaving us to conclude that its initial actions were motivated more by PR concerns than by any serious belief that the law had been broken).

Football pundits tripped over each other in the rush to express their full-throated fury and indignation – though whether they truly felt such levels of outrage or merely felt compelled to pretend they did because, well, it was expected is another question.

Most absurdly of all, a Danish brewer issued a statement disassociating itself from Hepple and assuring us that it did not condone racism in any form after a photo emerged on the internet showing him holding a can of its beer. I half-expected McDonald’s, whose logo could just about be seen behind Hepple in the same photo, to announce that he was no longer welcome to eat their Big Mac and fries.

Needless to say, after all this outcry, Hepple was sacked by his employer.

On one level, some of this reaction is quite simply absurd and deserving of mockery. On another, however, it is deadly serious. Because, in the end, this isn’t just about Jake Hepple. Nor is it about the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s about a culture of intolerance and dogmatism that has poisoned our society — a culture that permits only a single and established view on particular questions and unleashes swift retribution upon those who dissent.

A cultural revolution is taking place across our land, and opponents can expect no mercy. It is Mao Zedong meets Joseph McCarthy. It is unhealthy; it is oppressive; it runs counter to our nation’s long-cherished traditions of liberty and free expression; and it leaves millions of ordinary people feeling alienated, dismayed and bewildered.

If we are ever to force a retreat — as we surely must — it will be done through the mainstream majority coming together and saying enough is enough. Until now, too many among those who wield power and influence in our society have demonstrated an abject cowardice as this new tyranny has taken hold. They have kept their heads down and hoped for an easy life. That must change. Because, if we’re not careful, it will soon be too late to do anything about it.