Remarks are often made by some newspaper columnists regarding the level of intolerance displayed by students and in particular, the ‘no-platforming’ of an ever-increasing number of people who are yet well known for supporting the very things students protest against. None however, have addressed the question of why this is happening.
My late father spent his career with the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS), doing so for thirty years, during which time he, along with his colleagues, and like soldiers, sailors and aircrew, occasionally got shot at and had to dodge exploding bombs, just like BFBS radio and television journalists and engineers have in more recent conflicts, along with a number of other areas around the world in which BFBS was required to serve Britain’s armed forces.
All had to think about what was said on radio and shown on television (BFBS does both), mostly due to the sometimes sensitive nature of the areas in which they were based. But none have ever had to consider the kind of things referred to in so much commentary both in newspapers - and on social media. Why has such intolerance become so prevalent amongst the apparently mainly younger element who use social media? Why, as has been aptly phrased, the ‘cry baby culture’ risen so dramatically over the past few years?
Trolling or making offensive comments on Twitter or elsewhere is not confined to the young. There are a surprisingly large number of more mature people, many of whom are entirely comfortable and at ease with digital communications (and who really ought to know better) doing just that, making those provocative tweets and comments, but for obvious reasons they are not to be found on the average University campus.
If however, such adverse reactions do really come from the young (and I have my doubts that they all do), the answer as to why some of the young respond as they do is actually rather easy to grasp; they are a product of their time and the fears that have arisen along with it And it is the era in which they have grown up that holds the key.
Think back to 1997. That was the year a fresh faced, youthful looking guy with a winsome smile became Prime Minister. Tony Blair grinned his way to power and for the first time in its history, the Labour Party governed the United Kingdom for over a decade. Thirteen years to be more precise, and it was a period that ended when another fresh faced and youthful chap, in tune with the kids, replaced Blair. David Cameron once described himself as the Heir to Blair and in truth he did have something of a resemblance. Not in looks, but in motive and method.
Since Blair’s arrival, Politicians have, when talking about a number of things, but especially employment and housing, consistently used two words; ‘young’ and ‘people’, in a determined effort to attract the young and thus ignoring or at least dismissing the notion that anybody over 30 matters.
The twenty-one years that have passed since 1997 have seen those now at University reach that age. They have been through the prepubescent stage, through most or all of their teenage years and have reached adulthood in a country where social media is the norm and yet also where a disregard or even a fear of those older than they are has taken an iron grip.
Even more significantly in 1997, their Parents were still young themselves, their sons and daughters either as yet unborn or still babes in arms and pushchairs. And Blair’s rise to prominence was one of which many of them were enthusiastic.
The rise of the internet, the personal computer and more latterly, the smartphone, coincided with the growth of all of these young parents and their children – those now at University – along with ease of communication and social media.
Also heard recently has been a debate over life in the 1950s and early 1960s, raising another significant point, with one newspaper letter writer stating that her generation actually had something of a hard time as they grew up. Many of those are now the grandparents of today’s University students, none of whom have come even close to the deprivations of half a century or more ago.
The last Labour Government was noted for the numbers of new laws it introduced, over 3,500 of them, and all placing an ever increasing restriction on the freedoms once taken for granted in the UK. And to its eternal discredit, the present Government, including the time spent in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, has shown no sign of reducing this.
The direct consequence is that today’s University students, along with those of similar age not in further education, have no direct experience at all of what it is like to go without something. Particularly the ability to communicate.
What a number have experienced however, is the downside of the internet age - the rise of the internet troll. Which is why, albeit for at least some of the right reasons, since 1997, so many new laws placing an ever-increasing raft of restrictions on what we do and how we do things have come into force.
Governments however, cannot micro-manage the society over which they govern. To do so means that, certainly in the UK, basic freedoms are steadily reduced. And one of the most basic tenets of a free society is that of risk.
The risk that we might be harmed in some way; the risk that we might encounter insulting and offensive behaviour from some internet users; the risk that we may be blown up by a terrorist; the risk that we might be offended by something somebody says on twitter; the risk that…there are many.
But we either accept those risks or we are not a free society. We are not a society in which the young challenge and ask questions. We are a society in which we cannot do something, rather than a society in which we can.
And a society in which young people have become increasingly intolerant of anything other than what they have known as they have grown up. A society in which history, and all the lessons that come with it, has been ignored or airbrushed out of their education, which is also a trait rather distressingly shown by too many of those now in Parliament, few of whom have any real experience of deprivation and of the awful destruction that war can bring,
hence the eagerness of both Blair and Cameron to involve Britain in various armed conflicts. Both wanted their ‘Thatcher Moment’, a chance to demonstrate, like Margaret Thatcher did in 1982 with the Falklands conflict, that they were Leaders of Stature who can stride across the world stage as well as run the UK with a firm hand.
But the result, along with their obsession with controlling everything and everybody means that today’s young people, those that Blair and Cameron (along with their successors) so assiduously courted , are now growing up with little or no idea of what real freedom, and the risks that accompany it, actually mean.
Can this be reversed? Can we, as a nation, repair the damage done?
I believe we can. But it is going to require people of rare courage and principle to stand up, stick their heads over the parapet and say, ‘We have to stop what we are doing in the way that we are doing it, we must protect not only our young, but also our old and those things that have mattered most to our country. Our Freedom, our ability to speak without let or hindrance, our ability to offend and be offended - but to counter that by our own ability to argue and debate the point.
And not to merely say that we are not allowed to.
You can read more on risk and the increasing loss of freedom in ‘Comments of a Common Man’, available from Amazon for £12,99
© Kevan James, 2018.