Between school and university, I spent several months as a lowly scientific assistant in a government Pest Control Laboratory.
It was a good introduction to my first “scientific community,” consisting of a bunch of friendly, and sometimes eccentric, biologists ranging from the double-barrelled ex-army scientific director of the place, to the most junior researcher, one of my two immediate bosses, a bearded Mancunian who did research on moles and bemoaned the fact that he earned less than his brother did working on the Ford assembly line.
There was also a range of scientific support staff like myself, together with various animal keepers, secretaries and Ken, the gamekeeper, who used to shoot rabbits for us. There was also a middle-aged grey-coated messenger whose name escapes me, probably the lowest in the pecking order, to whom I passed the odd remark, but who kept himself to himself. Let’s call him Percy. You had the impression that, as a simple soul, he was somewhat intellectually intimidated by all the PhDs and the academic conversation.
When politics was discussed, although some of the guys, being “intellectuals,” were Labour supporters, the dominant opinion was Conservative. This was, after all, traditionally-minded Guildford (or actually Worplesdon, for those who might understand the distinction).
I can’t remember exactly what one particular conversation was about, though I have a vague idea it may have involved something about serving in the military. Whatever it was, conservative views were being expressed, when suddenly Percy the messenger burst out with a diatribe of radical socialist views. He spoke eloquently for about three minutes before lapsing into embarrassed silence and sloping off saying he had other work to do.
I agreed with very little of what he said, but it always struck me as significant how this ordinary, quiet guy must have been keeping his real views on life to himself in an environment which, if not in any sense hostile, was alien and unconducive to them. Good for you, I thought. To be human is to have the freedom to speak one’s mind, and the social structures of the scientific laboratory had, inadvertantly, made that difficult for at least one human being created in God’s image.
Oddly, what reminded me of that episode after nearly fifty years was the decision to speak out by someone ostensibly quite unlike Percy: the actor Laurence Fox, son of the venerable actor James Fox and educated at Harrow and RADA. His decision was precipitated by the decision of his alma mater RADA to invite the submission of scripts, subject to formulaic constraints on the proportional representation of women and other minorities. Fox realised that this was both nonsensical, and the culmination of restrictions on a whole raft of opinions which he held, but which it is somehow “forbidden” to voice in acting circles.
He spoke out partly, perhaps, because a recent painful divorce made him less bothered by others’ opinions of him, and partly because he doesn’t want his children to grow up in world where thought is censored. Nevertheless he was fully aware that, despite his strong professional reputation, his honesty might mean he never works again.
That has also been the experience of many others. In the world of stand-up comedy, a younger guy, Alistair Williams, began to ask questions when a routine he did that appeared to advocate for Brexit suddenly led to work drying up and being shunned by his peers.
Why, he asked, were my anti-Brexit jokes OK, whereas the one which really connected with what audience members were thinking is anathema? He began to realise that the issue was not just Brexit, but a whole swathe of opinions one was no longer allowed to hold.
It seems that within all walks of life, odd individuals are coming up against these barriers increasingly, leading to professional ostracism, loss of jobs, or even investigation for “hate speech.” The nurse sacked for offering to pray with a patient; the doctor sacked for being unable to deny science by recording transitioned males as “women” in medical reports; the oceanographer sacked for reporting that the Great Barrier Reef is not dead; the primary-age child asking to be excused from lessons on same-sex marriage; the preachers arrested for mentioning (generically) sin; the football fan imprisoned for exposing the official suppression of the investigation of child sex-abuse rings; the ex-policeman who, after Tweeting on the science of gender, is questioned by police who have a brief to “challenge belief systems” (presumably by the yardstick of some offically approved belief system); and so on.
There are some significant differences between these modern experiences and those of Percy half a century ago. His “silencing” was purely local to his workplace (no doubt he expressed his socialism freely at the pub with friends, or at politcial meetings), inadvertent, and without consequence. Theirs (which is to say, “ours”) is everywhere public in our society, perfectly intentional on the part of those furthering the agenda, and loaded with adverse consequences ranging from being de-personed on social media to being prosecuted. Or slugged by Antifa.
The wonder is how easily the rest of us tolerate this descent into totalitarianism. It maybe that some of us are too young to remember any other world, and the rest of us are old enough to be ignored as mere leftovers of imperialism, racism, and white patriarchy. We’re not all so old, though.