I’m beginning with an apology this week. I am going to be a little personal and, if not defend myself (which I know I should not do,) at least try to explain myself a little, in case it might be helpful.
I decided when I began to write for this paper, that I wouldn’t read the correspondence columns in which I would obviously often be denounced by people who didn’t know me as ‘….’ well – you know the list …no need to repeat it here. The temptation to defend myself personally, rather than defend the ideas I offered might become too great.
I was careless the other day and glanced at a letter in which my critic found himself bemused. He had met me once, at a funeral I had taken, and found me apparently reasonably humane. He just couldn’t square the experience of meeting me in person with the person who expresses the ideas I do, in print.
This is no surprise to me at all. Something has happened in the last 30 years or so that makes it increasingly difficult to separate emotional reactions from ideas, and emotional reactions from our assessment of other peoples’ humanity or lack of it.
It seemed almost to start with Princess Diana’s death. The community was suddenly divided into two groups- so emotionally charged as to be deaf to one another. It’s happened a lot since, most obviously with Brexit. We find we can’t easily talk to one another across the Brexit minefield and retain either our respect or our affection for the people on the other side.
The gay marriage issue has had the same effect. And this is the personal bit. I was on the ‘other side’ of the debate for a long time. I don’t need to explain why. It may be enough just to say I enjoyed the company of my gay friends very much, and felt very defensive for them.
The change in our social conversation that has happened in my adult life time has just been astonishing; for the next step in the culture wars, transgenderism, was almost weird. Never could I have begun to imagine that the qualification for speaking in a university, or holding down certain types of job, would become whether or not you believed that someone born a man, who mentally preferred to be seen as being a woman, had to be called a woman, or offered made up personal pronouns of their own preference. I couldn’t have conceived that even Germaine Greer or Peter Tatchell, paragons of right-on, compassionate liberalism, would fail the test and have their voices silenced.
And ultimately, that’s what it seems to me to be all about. A strange, creeping movement of emotionally driven but ideological censorship, centred on sex, that is closing down free speech.
I have two issues in particular. One practical problem for me is that I have found sexuality so complex, variable and fluid, that don’t see how anyone can sensibly use the clumsy term ‘gay’. I remember a friend of mine whose hand I held as she ‘came out’ to her parents and grandparents when she was 21. I wiped her tears and helped her be brave, and encouraged them, to love her enough to hear the truth. Which is why I was so taken aback when she told me when she was 30, that she was in love and marrying a man. But much more important than bisexuality or gender fluidity is the idea that we can use sex and sexual attraction or appetite, to divide people into different categories of being human.
It seems quite crazy to me that we should do so; and really rather degenerate; degenerate because sexual appetite is one of our least noble and most basic, and almost animalistic of our appetites and activities; however fun, captivating and sometimes almost addictive it might be. What a truly odd, narrow and shallow way to define a whole complex human being.
I don’t believe in dividing people into categories according their race. I don’t believe in doing it according to their intelligence. I don’t believe in doing it according to their physical size, or hair colour, or job. Why on earth make sex, (complex and fluid as it is) above everything else the creator of a of non-negotiable ideological apartheid for human beings?
And then worse than that, oh so much worse, make this the clumsy and brutal instrument for shutting up anyone who disagrees with the project or categorisations.
So this has nothing to do with failing to exercise compassion, or empathy or kindness or mutuality to friends or strangers who need it.
It’s the difference between wanting to make sure your friends and passengers in a shared car journey are comfy, and well fed, enjoying the music and happy, at the expense of pointing out that we are careering towards a head-on collision that is going to do the most terrible damage.
Once we lose our freedom of speech and the freedom to test out ideas that it protects, our civilisation and humanity will have disappeared. And frankly, I don’t think sex, or who you do it with, will be much of a consolation.