During most wars, there comes a point when the seemingly invincible attacking army faces a setback. It doesn’t mean the war is over. Often quite the opposite.
They may have become used to a string of victories on the battlefield and taken the end result for granted. They underestimate their enemy.
That’s when the defending army seizes back the initiative. Which is where we are in Britain today.
But hold on, you will protest, you are not even aware of this war. True, we are in deadly combat with a very nasty virus, but so is every country on the planet.
So what exactly is at risk in this new war?
We are at war, where the victims are those who are deemed by the attacking forces to be insufficiently ‘woke’, rights John Humphrys. Left: Actress Halle Berry, shamed after she accepted a role in which she would play a transgender man. Right: Feminist Germain Greer, ‘no-platformed’ at universities
It is, quite simply, something that is fundamental to every democracy that has ever existed. Something without which we cannot sleep easy in our beds at night. It is free speech.
I hear your protests. This is not, for instance, North Korea. We can say pretty much anything we like about our own Dear Leader.
If we think he is a thorough-going rogue who should not be trusted with the nanny, let alone the country, we are perfectly entitled to say so.
It may mean we won’t be getting an invitation to Downing Street for cocktails and canapes once the lockdown is fully lifted. We’ll almost certainly be ‘cancelled’ — a loaded word, more of which later.
But neither will we hear the hammering on the door at 4am that means we are about to be hauled off to the gulag.
No, it’s more insidious than that. And it is entirely possible that you and your loved ones have nothing to fear.
But free speech is not something you hand out in little parcels to those who have earned it. Every single citizen is affected by it one way or another.
The victims in this war are those who are deemed by the attacking forces to be insufficiently ‘woke’.
That, dear reader, may very well include you.
‘Woke’ did not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary in its new guise until three years ago. The definition applied to it was ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’.
Florence Pugh, of Little Women fame, who apologised for her so-called ‘white privilege’ after a picture surfaced of her with cornrows, a type of hairstyle favoured in the Caribbean
So it’s good to be ‘woke’, eh? It hardly needs stating that we should all be ‘alert’ to those offences.
But language is an infinitely complex concept. Words are constantly changing their meanings, or sometimes being added to our vocabulary or dropped.
The Elizabethans had no need for ‘television’. There’s not much call these days for ‘codpiece’.
The problem with this new word is who decides whether you or I are ‘woke’ enough, and what are the motives of those who pass judgment on us?
This is where I get worried. I really don’t know who ‘they’ are. What I do know is that they are out there and they are causing real harm to our precious right of free speech. And I am not alone.
On these pages you will see pictures of some of the victims in this war. One of them is the Oscar-winning film star Halle Berry. She had accepted a role in which she would play a transgender man, but in this new ‘woke’ world that is no longer allowed.
She was attacked by the transgender lobby and has now withdrawn. Her ‘apology’ this week contained some scary language.
It was redolent of the sort of thing you might hear from a prisoner convicted of making critical comments about the leader of a totalitarian regime:
‘As a cisgender woman, I now understand that I should not have considered this role . . . I am grateful for the guidance and critical conversation over the past few days and I will continue to listen.’
Here is an intelligent, experienced actor who has played many different roles in her career abasing herself before the court of political correctness. Or ‘wokeness’.
The court ruled that only if she were herself transgender could she play the part and she meekly accepted that ruling.
Laurence Fox was cancelled for making the point that the way Meghan Markle had been criticised by the media was not rooted in racism
You may remember Eddie Redmayne winning many plaudits when he played a transgender woman in the film The Danish Girl five years ago. It is unimaginable that any casting director would risk such a casting decision today.
Or Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician regarded as the father of modern computing. He was credited with shortening World War II by two years for helping crack Germany’s secret Enigma code.
Turing was, of course, a gay man. Cumberbatch is not. Could he have played Turing in today’s climate? I doubt it.
Dustin Hoffman was a passionate believer in method acting and he enjoyed recalling an exchange he had with the legendary Laurence Olivier.
Hoffman told him he was exhausted because he’d had to film a scene in which his character was supposed to have been up for three days with no sleep.
‘So what did you do?’ Olivier asked. ‘Well,’ said Hoffman, ‘I stayed up for three days and three nights.’
Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician regarded as the father of modern computing
Olivier: ‘Why didn’t you just try acting?’
Very funny, but Olivier was making an important point.Great actors are great because they make us suspend our disbelief. For the hours they are on stage or screen they become the character they are playing.
But perhaps I should have used the past tense in that sentence, now that we find ourselves in this new ‘woke’ world? As I write I can hear the tumbril sent to drag me off to the court of politically correct thinking.
So let me make the point that I am not defending some of the hideous practices of the past: refusing to use disabled actors, for instance, even when they were perfect for the part, or ‘blacking up’ white men to play black men.
They have, mercifully, been abandoned. And it has happened because we collectively decided that sort of prejudice had no place in a modern, liberal society.
Sometimes it took longer than it should have, but we got there in the end.
What’s happening today is different. There is a small group of self-righteous individuals who see themselves as the new guardians of our morality. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself.
Emmeline Pankhurst is a shining example of a woman who helped right a terrible wrong. She and her fellow suffragettes spoke for a vast number of women (and many men) who put themselves in the front line.
What is deeply disturbing about today’s self-appointed guardians of our morality is that so many of them often operate in the shadows, hiding behind the anonymity of social media. Others flaunt their virtue-signalling.
And instead of fighting back or ignoring them when they are at their most hysterical and absurd, one institution after another rolls onto its back and begs forgiveness.
No less a figure than Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer fell foul of the woke warriors when he appeared on a radio programme last week and offered some mild criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Alastair Stewart, cancelled after he’d sent a text to a black political adviser that included the words ‘angry ape’
He suggested that their message might be getting ‘tangled up’. He pointed to their calls to ‘defund’ the police. It was nonsense, he said.
Who could argue with that?
Well, they could. And they did. They announced that he ‘had no right to tell us what our demands should be’.
Starmer’s response was to announce that the Labour Party was introducing ‘unconscious bias training’ for everyone and he would be leading by example.
You might wish to form your own judgment on that by logging on to one of the websites offering such training. There are a lot of them.
Many of the woke warriors are undoubtedly the same people who did their damndest to stifle debate when they were at university — those who ‘no-platformed’ speakers who took a different view from them, forgetting that the essence of a university education is to be faced with different views.
They even targeted Germaine Greer, the bravest of fighters in the great battle to win equal rights for women.
More from John Humphrys For The Daily Mail…
- JOHN HUMPHRYS: I was a useless farmer but even I know cheap meat comes at a heavy cost 03/07/20
- JOHN HUMPHRYS: Have these past months of lockdown finally driven away Petrolhead Fever? 26/06/20
- JOHN HUMPHRYS: We all need true heroes and villains… but which one is Boris Johnson? 19/06/20
- End this race to blame us all: Despite what the BBC might have you believe, JOHN HUMPHRYS insists Britons are NOT all guilty of racism… and warns of a nation more dangerously divided than ever 12/06/20
- JOHN HUMPHRYS: Clock-watching Britain has lost all track of time (and why I wish I could travel back a few weeks) 05/06/20
- JOHN HUMPHRYS: End these degrees of greed. As even the richest universities plead for Covid cash, it’s an outrage many offer only debt and disappointment in return 29/05/20
- JOHN HUMPHRYS: If you love life, leave London – why Covid could kill off the big city dream… and we should all be grateful 22/05/20
- JOHN HUMPHRYS: Has the virus killed off the cult of consumerism? 15/05/20
- JOHN HUMPHRYS: An asteroid could be heading for Earth and yet our leaders are at war with each other 08/05/20
- VIEW FULL ARCHIVE
Sadly, most university leaders caved in to their demands. No student need worry that they might ever be confronted by material that could offend their sensibilities.
They must, at all costs, be protected. If an historical fact is uncomfortable or causes them even the slightest distress, then let us erase it from history.
And their power stretches beyond the ability to censor. It includes the damage the ‘warriors of wokeness’ can do to the reputations and careers of their victims.
So now let me return to that other word that they have traduced — one which most of us had hought we understood perfectly well. Cancel.
If someone is deemed to have broken the rules set by the court of political correctness, the individuals may find themselves ‘cancelled’. I
t’s a form of cultural boycott. It sends a warning signal to any hapless producer or editor that the individual is somehow tainted and should be given a wide berth.
It happened in January to the actor Laurence Fox after he appeared on Question Time. He’d made the point that the way Meghan Markle had been criticised by the media was not rooted in racism.
Not unreasonable, you might think, given that her engagement to Harry had been received rapturously when it was announced.
But the woke warriors went for Fox and his work dried up.
It also happened to my old friend Alastair Stewart after he’d sent a text to a black political adviser that included the words ‘angry ape’.
It had been in a quotation he’d used from Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure and there was no suggestion that he’d used it as an insult. But judgment was passed and Alastair was forced to resign from ITN.
Jodie Comer, 27, has found herself the victim after hundreds of social media users called for her to be ‘cancelled’ – the modern equivalent of being chased with burning torches
The Killing Eve actress was seen outside her parents’ Liverpool property after taking James to meet them this week
It’s even happened to Jodie Comer, the brilliant actor who plays Villanelle in the hit BBC TV series Killing Eve.
She’s been cancelled this week not because she is a sadistic multi murderer like her character but, far worse, because she is dating an American lacrosse player who happens to be a supporter of the Republican Party.
Not that Comer was the first actor to fall foul of the witch-hunt. Only last month, Florence Pugh, of Little Women fame, apologised for her so-called ‘white privilege’ after a picture surfaced of her with cornrows, a type of hairstyle favoured in the Caribbean.
And, of course, it happened to the biggest-selling author in Britain, J. K. Rowling. Her offence was to take issue with an article that referred to ‘people who menstruate’.
She argued that biological sex is real. That, according to the Twitter mob who tore her apart, made her ‘transphobic’. Even Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, who’d never been heard of until Rowling created Harry Potter, joined in the inquisition.
One of the most frightening aspects of this whole process is that powerful people and institutions you might have expected to stand up to the mob seem too scared even to challenge them. It is the posture of the pre-emptive cringe.
But there is some hope, as I suggested earlier, that the defenders of free speech are marshalling their forces at last.
JK Rowling’s signature is one of 150 on an open letter warning of the risk to open debate, while branding US President Donald Trump an ‘enemy to democracy’. The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood has also signed the letter. On Monday she voiced her support for the trans community by tweeting: ‘We’re all part of a flowing Bell curve’
J. K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood and psychologist Steven Pinker are among 150 leading authors, academics and thinkers who signed a letter this week condemning what they call ‘cancel culture’ for stifling freedom of expression in higher education, journalism, philanthropy and the arts.
Another signatory is Sir Salman Rushdie. If any author knows what it is to face threats from those who are offended by your writing it surely is him.
They write about ‘a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments’ that weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity.
The writers acknowledge that the ‘forces of illiberalism’ are gaining strength throughout the world. The success of Donald Trump is proof of that — though it’s possible, if not likely, that his days are numbered.
But what makes this letter so powerful coming, as it does, from such a wide range of thinkers, is the acceptance that there is only one way to defend real democracy. And that is to speak out against those who threaten it.
That may seem so obvious it’s scarcely worth saying. But we have only to look at what has been happening in this country over the past few years to see that the great and the good have cowered in the face of intimidation by the ‘woke warriors’.
If we do not fight back, the threat to our democracy is real. As Rowling and the other signatories put it, ‘the free exchange of information and ideas’ is the lifeblood of a liberal society.
And it is becoming more and more restricted with every passing day.