(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, January 9).
The news story that kind of summed up 2019 for me, in a dismal way, was one that appeared in the week before Christmas.
A woman named Maya Forstater lost her job at a British think tank called the Centre for Global Development for tweeting that there were only two biological sexes. She questioned government plans to let people decide their own gender and expressed the belief that “trans” women could not truly describe themselves as women.
Forstater appealed against her sacking but lost her case, an activist judge describing her remarks as “offensive and exclusionary”. Where freedom of expression fitted in, if it was considered at all, wasn't clear.
At this point you could be excused for wondering whether the entire Western world has been seized by a collective madness. A woman lost her job, and brought the full weight of the judicial system down on her head, for expressing a view that until relatively recently wouldn’t have caused so much as a raised eyebrow, and which the overwhelming majority of ordinary people – that is to say, those who haven’t been infected by the virulent contagion of transgenderism – very likely still share.
Note that Forstater didn’t set out to incite hatred of trans-gender people or suggest they be persecuted. She simply asserted the right to express her view that “trans” women were not real women.
Notwithstanding the florid rhetoric of the judge, no one was damaged by this opinion. Of course it outraged transgender activists, whose offence-detection meters are permanently set on 11, but that doesn’t equate to harm.
Nonetheless, the message from the employment tribunal to anyone rash enough to consider challenging the shibboleths of identity politics couldn’t have been clearer.
But it got crazier still. Enter J K Rowling, the author, who expressed support for Forstater on Twitter. At this point the Twitterati decided Rowling was a far juicier target than Forstater and turned on her like a swarm of angry wasps.
She was attacked as trans-phobic – 2019’s most tiresome buzzword – and condemned as a terf, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist. The author’s leftist credentials (Rowling campaigned against Brexit and once donated 1 million pounds to the British Labour Party) were no protection.
The Forstater-Rowling story encapsulated two of last year’s dominant themes: the neo-Marxist Left’s intolerance of dissent and the crucial role of the ironically misnamed “social” media in howling down anyone who dares to question approved ideology.
It also highlighted the sheer aggressiveness of minority-group activists in attacking anyone who challenges them. The standard tactic is to demand that the dissenter be sacked, regardless of whether their personal views have any bearing on their ability to do their job.
If the offender happens to be a broadcaster, celebrity or even sporting hero (as in the case of Israel Folau), this is invariably accompanied by a strident campaign for a boycott of their employer and/or sponsors. The aim is to intimidate people into silence, and the tragedy is that it often succeeds.
It’s hard to recall a time when politics were more polarised, overheated and intolerant of ideological difference. The latter is ironic, given the woke Left’s supposed embrace of diversity.
That was another feature of 2019: the emergence of that word “woke”, which supposedly denotes support for oppressed minorities, but which rapidly became synonymous with a vicious new form of puritanism.
Last year saw the finger-wagging prigs in full, sanctimonious flight. It was a year in which vindictive mobs constantly patrolled the digital public square, Twitter fingers poised to denounce anyone foolish enough to question received wisdom on a range of hot-button issues that included race, gender identity, Islamophobia, gay rights, climate change – in which anyone who expressed even mild scepticism was vilified as a denialist – and the angry new kid on the ideological block, veganism.
Yet for all this, 2019 was also strangely reassuring. Because when it really mattered, the barrage of noise and confected rage from the woke Left counted for nothing.
In Australia, left-leaning media pundits were confounded by the election of Scott Morrison’s right-of-centre government. In Britain, Boris Johnson’s Tories stormed to a resounding victory marked by the mass defection of pro-Brexit blue-collar voters from the Labour Party.
In the United States, the Democratic Party appears to have become collectively unhinged in its obsessive pursuit of Donald Trump, aided and abetted by news media that at times seemed almost hysterical. The result is that we go into an American election year with the unpleasant prospect that Trump will be returned to the White House.
In all three countries, the left-leaning commentariat which dominates the public conversation has shown itself to be hopelessly out of step with the ordinary people who decide elections. Have they learned nothing?