Friday, 30 June 2017

The 1950s were crushingly conformist? They had nothing on the 2010s!

I didn't reach these shores until late 1958 or early 1959, so I missed most of the '50s. Besides, I was only six at the time. What I mostly remember were the Teddy Boys, the industrial grime on the buildings (accompanied by a deliciously rich, murky smell), the fascinating honeycomb coverings on old-fashioned gas-fires, and the weird, tasteless green stuff that began appearing on my plate (Norwegians didn't do salads back then). And television, which hadn't yet reached the Frozen North. Without any meaningful memories to guide me, I'll accept the orthodox view that social attitudes in the 1950s were as drably conformist as everyone says they were. Certainly...

...homosexuals, black and Asian immigrants, women wanting abortions, career women, woman who had been raped (well, let's be honest, women in general), the disabled, the mentally ill etc. faced prejudice. Dress codes were still fairly strict. Obscene language, blasphemy, nudity and depictions of - even the discussion of - sex were heavily censored on films, television and the stage.

A lot has changed - much of it for the better - since "the end of the 'Chatterley' ban and the Beatle's first LP." But we seem to have traded one version of restrictive, stifling, "fit in or fuck off" conformity for another - and I'm not sure the modern version isn't considerably more sinister and claustrophobic.

There was an item in today's Telegraph, "Academics fear for their jobs if they speak out', which demonstrates the very thing which makes me question the standard view that the 2010s represent a sort of nirvana of freedom compared to the bad old days:
Students are now so powerful that university professors are afraid to teach controversial subjects for fear of being sacked, an academic conference was told on Thursday. 
Professor Dennis Hayes, a co-founder of “Academics for Academic Freedom” said that universities were now ruled by a “culture of censorious quietude” where academics were not able to discuss “anything difficult.”
Speaking at the University of Buckingham yesterday, Prof Hayes added: “There’s an interesting turn today, it’s not that people are abusive, it’s just that they don’t say anything at all in universities.
“There’s so many things that could be discussed that you dare not say. And the consequences of arguing anything difficult is potentially that you could be sacked.
“These are mainstream views, of the state, institutions and particularly universities. Gay rights, feminism, gender fluidity, fear of Islamophobia‎, the belief that we are all unwell, identity-based politics, are not views that challenge conventional thinking in the way that every university has in its charter.
'These are conventional thinking. You dare not say you're against gay marriage. Just discussing any of these things can get you in serious trouble if not the sack. What exists in universities is a culture of censorious quietude."
How depressing! What the hell do these young people talk about during their all-night gabathons? Presumably they sit around compiling lists of heretical fellow-undergraduates, lecturers, administrators and visiting speakers suspected of not fully supporting the articles of faith on Professor Hayes's list, and planning how to ruin these vile deviants' careers.

What's the point of going to university if you can't explore a wide range of ideas freely and robustly? Who wants to spend three years learning the "right" opinions - and being punished for expressing the "wrong" opinions? Who the hell got to decide what was right and wrong in the first place? Or perhaps it's not having to think that appeals to our Little Red Book-waving Stepford undergraduates. As George Orwell wrote:  “Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” The refusal to engage with different opinions is surely an indication of laziness - a fear of having to think. And the fear of entertaining "unacceptable" ideas - of even hearing them - is a symptom of moral and intellectual cowardice. As George Orwell's son Richard Blair put it when unveiling a plaque to his father in Canonbury last year:
“Students need to be upset. Because if not they won’t be able to face up to the real world because it is a bastard place. If you do this all the way up till you graduate you are really not prepared.”
I bet students in the 1950s were a lot tougher than their cotton-wrapped modern equivalents, with their no-platforming and their safe spaces and their terror of having their dreary orthodox opinions challenged in any way. And I bet their lecturers weren't the sorry collection of mealy-mouthed, white flag-waving conformists they seem to be today. I have no desire to return to the '50s - but if I had to choose between being a student now or then, I'd definitely choose then: for obvious reasons, people knew what fascism was, as many of their parents and lecturers had risked their lives to defeat it, and I bet they could spot a fascist a mile off. Now, universities are crammed with fascists who don't have a clue that that's what they actually are - and, because they're too damned scared to listen to anyone who might question their silly beliefs, there's no danger of them ever realising it.

I'll leave you with a contrarian view of the '50s from Frank Johnson, a working-class East End boy who went on to become the funniest political sketch writer of his generation:
“…to grow up in 1950s London was to grow up in the last decade when everything was more or less as it should be.”
With opinions like that, he'd probably be no-platformed by any "decent" university today. And the fact that he never attended university probably goes some way to explaining why he was so funny and so original.


  1. In a classic example of synchronicity, I wandered downstairs after writing the above and started watching "Tom Jones's 1950s: The Decade That Made Me" on BBC4, which started off with a number of elderly talking heads giving their opinion of the '50s - they were either "grey and boring and flat" or "giddy and full of optimism" and "extremely cheerful." Take your pick. A surprisingly excellent programme.

  2. I was blissfully happy in the 50's that is until a large boy accompanied by a much smaller boy murmured "swank" in passing as we exited our different schools.The comment caused a brief introspection and a modification in deportment for which I'm eternally grateful.

  3. Are you sure he didn't actually say "Let's wank"? Probably not - or his Jesuit teachers would have thrashed him till he passed out.

    My son once reported overhearing a boy from a nearby school, heading with some friends towards a bus stop, say, "Oh God - I suppose we'll have to catch a peasant wagon." Probably a rabid Corbyn supporter by now.