You may have seen this video of Owen Jones storming off a Press Preview on Sky News on 12 June. He has since claimed that his reason for doing this was that the host Mark Longhurst and his fellow commentator Julia Hartley-Brewer refused to acknowledge that the Orlando attacks were homophobic. Many have rushed to Jones’ defence, arguing that the views expressed by the host and his co-panellist were homophobic and demanding apologies. But that’s not what this is about. Because that’s not what actually happened.
Thirty seconds into the clip Jones has already stated that this was a homophobic attack, and the host has agreed. Three minutes in, Hartley-Brewer includes homophobia on a list of issues that are connected to the tragedy. There’s really no argument here.
No, Jones went on the show with an agenda. Play up the homophobic element of the crime and minimise the influence of radical Islam. Jones represents an ideology that needs to pitch this act as one of Western-bred homophobia and nothing else, and the real reason he stormed off and left was because the discussion was not happening on his terms.
He starts to get upset when (as the host explains at least twice) the conversation moves away from his agenda to cover other aspects of press coverage of the issue. The point he finally walks off is very telling: a Telegraph front page headline specifically stating that the attack targeted gays is shown, and the host starts discussing Stonewall’s response to the atrocity. This directly contradicts the point Jones has made earlier that the gay community is not being placed at the centre of this discussion.
He’s just been proven wrong. At the start of the interview he was visibly upset and had probably been crying. He’s not particularly famous for his ability to weigh up both sides of an argument anyway, but in this frame of mind someone from the Isis-has-nothing-to-do-with-Islam brigade just doesn’t stand a chance.
All this sums up perfectly the behaviour of the regressive left and the generation of fragile flowers they are creating. As Claire Fox talks about in her new book, I Find that Offensive, where she describes groups of schoolgirls in tears and hugging each other for support because she challenged their way of thinking, these young people are fed a load of ideology as if it is absolute fact, spend a huge amount of time in an echo chamber that affirms their beliefs, and are taught that disagreement is tantamount to physical assault. They are taught that any dispute of their point of view is a ‘microagression’ that can be taken as yet more evidence that everyone is involved in some conspiracy to oppress them, a Lewis’ law-style logical fallacy.
We should not be surprised, then, when they react emotionally. What’s so diabolically clever about it is that they’ve been taught that the symptoms of having an emotional reaction; starting to shake, increased heartbeat or other fight-or-flight reactions plus tearing up and feeling terrified are actually evidence that trauma is being experienced or relived in some way. But a fight-or-flight reaction is not, in itself, trauma. It’s a defence mechanism.
I’d like to discuss this in the context of another story from 2012. It didn’t get a huge amount of media attention but it did the rounds of my little internet community and it’s stayed with me since. During a Sociology lecture at an American college, a lecturer who is trying to teach students the difference between correlation and causation uses the example that sales of ice cream can be positively correlated to incidents of rape. Once she explains that it’s actually an increase in heat that affects both statistics, a group of students get up and walk out of her class.
The students who walked out of the lecture were prepped to react in the way they did. They had almost certainly been taught that rape culture is everywhere. They were given good grades for writing about it – potentially even college credit for fighting against it. But then they didn’t really see much of it anywhere, of course, because it doesn’t exist anywhere close to the extent they imagined.
So what happens when someone brings up their most sacred topic – in a way that forces them to think actively about the fact that it may be affected by factors other than the prevalence of the evil patriarchy? Their palms start to sweat, their knees turn to jelly, anger and indignation choke them. They can’t argue back because there really isn’t anything particularly meaningful to say; they’ve just been confronted with the fact that their belief system doesn’t give them all the answers. So they just leave.
I’m not saying the analogy with Jones’ situation is perfect, but it’s a feeling we’ve all felt; someone wounds our sensibilities – perhaps when we’re already feeling particularly vulnerable – some of our most deeply held beliefs are at stake, and so we have a fight-or-flight reaction. Remember, this isn’t a state that only happens when the threat is real – the threat need only be perceived. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this state is not a million miles away from that felt by accusers in a little place called Salem in 1692. It’s normal to feel like this sometimes. But teaching people not only to indulge these feelings, but training an entire generation to revere them as evidence of special victim status will have dangerous consequences, and it is my guess that we will sadly be seeing a lot more episodes like this on national television as the decades go by.
The lecturer in the ice cream story is very contrite, proclaiming that if she uses the ice cream example again she’ll certainly issue a trigger warning for ‘rape’ in case there are students who literally have some kind of allergic reaction to the word ‘rape’ itself (anyone spot the problem there?). But thankfully Julia Hartley-Brewer did not capitulate. She’s been around long enough to understand that these are not people who genuinely want an apology because you hurt their feelings that one time. Unlike that poor Sociology lecturer she knows that all this public shaming and repentance feeds into a wider goal of making everyone afraid to disagree. That’s how this genuinely-felt victim status actually brings a lot of power. Another similarity with the Salem story.