A piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times by their columnist Jenny McCartney:
I’m already feeling a little sorry for Emily Dawes, the 21-year-old president of Southampton University’s students’ union, who sparked widespread fury with her tweet: “Mark my words — we’re taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room, even if I have to paint over it myself.” Her choice of target was woefully misplaced: the mural was painted in 1916 by Sir William Rothenstein to commemorate members of British universities who fought in the First World War. Many of them died in water-logged trenches having barely attained adulthood.
It was a silly tweet — and not the only silly one in Dawes’s Twitter timeline. She has already apologised for “the offence and upset” and said that “upon reflection I have realised how inappropriate it was”. The tabloids have had a field day with her wealthy US family home and background, but the press shouldn’t be too hard on her: its own ranks are stuffed with journalists who spent their university years striking similar attention-seeking poses, which they now recall fondly as the political foibles of youth. Today, however, a fatuous statement can cross the world in a matter of minutes and turn a lone student tweeter into a lightning conductor for global derision, resulting in deep personal shock.
That in itself is harsh — yet the wider philosophy underpinning this row is certainly worth examination. In the “woke” campus circles in which Dawes moves, her views are not controversial at all. The rules of modern identity politics have created a new orthodoxy with its own particular language in which many students and academics are fluent, often to the bemusement of denizens of the outside world.
Where progressive movements of the past emphasised shared values and goals, identity politics divides people into categories — mainly according to gender, race and sexuality — and constructs a hierarchy based on the perceived intensity of oppression endured by each group.
The greatest status goes to those with the strongest official claim to victimhood, which is therefore scrapped over fiercely. One thing they all appear to agree upon, however, is that white men belong to the least oppressed category possible. That’s tough luck if you happen to be a white boy on free school meals, statistically the lowest-performing group educationally in the UK.
In this way the complexity of individual experience is often reduced to a crude game of Top Trumps. We all know, for example, that money, class, education and family support play a huge role in an individual’s ease of passage through life — as does the era in which you were born — yet identity politics frequently ignores these factors. That is how we get to the bizarre place in which a well-off, educated young woman can retrospectively dismiss the male foot soldiers of the Great War as distasteful representatives of privilege.
Equally unattractive is the emotional stinginess that such a world-view engenders, as though sympathy must first be rubber-stamped by committee. When James Knight, a student at the University of the West of England, stood as “men’s officer” recently to highlight “how deeply mental health issues run in men”, he was met with a cacophony of condemnation. The National Union of Students (NUS) women’s officer Sarah Lasoye declared, “The role of a men’s officer is entirely obsolete”, while another NUS officer labelled the election “the worst thing I’ve seen in student politics”.
Knight, the sole candidate, withdrew his application. Yet men in the UK are indeed three times as likely as women to take their own lives. It seems odd that while men are constantly lectured about “toxic masculinity”, one student’s effort to promote a more profound discussion of male mental health should be so fiercely shut down. It wouldn’t have replaced any discussion of those issues which most affect women, of course; it might even have illuminated them.
UK campuses seem increasingly polarised. On one side are societies echoing the macho follies of some US fraternities, with nasty initiation rites of the sort that resulted in the tragic death of the young Newcastle University student Ed Farmer in 2016. On the other are the alert legions of the super-woke, clunkily policing public expression. As elsewhere, we are witnessing the dwindling of empathy and the rise of selective condemnation.
Society isn’t static, however, and our view of history shouldn’t be fixed either. The art and history we display reveal how we see ourselves as a country. In the past, too many people were quietly sidelined in our national story: only recently, for example, have we heard more histories of the 1.3m Indian troops who fought for Britain in the Great War, more than 74,000 of whom lost their lives. Last year a long-overdue memorial to the estimated 2m African and Caribbean soldiers of both world wars was unveiled in Brixton, south London.
In the coming weeks, for obvious reasons, we might also honour Rothenstein, that renowned English artist of German-Jewish parents, who championed Indian art and was a dear friend of the great Bengali poet, writer and artist Rabindranath Tagore: deceased “white men” of the Establishment were often not as one-dimensional as woke youth like to assume.
Modern Britain must be a broad canvas — but we won’t get to a better place by dumping large groups of people into newly despised categories and painting over existing pictures. We will get there by bringing more pictures in.
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