Is my generation the one which has seen more change in social attitudes than any other in our history?
I know, of course, that every generation makes that claim. But I wonder whether mine is actually correct.
This thought was brought on when I was desperately trying to think about a topic for one of my unread pieces here on the Bulletin. Brexit and Trump were out. People who are in other respects quite sane become totally deranged when contemplating those subjects. It is safer to steer clear of them.
I racked my brains (OK, not many of them, I know). And then I struck on this topic. I remembered reading several stories in the newspapers in recent days which all had one thing in common: that which was accepted as the norm in my youth was now considered abhorrent.
What were these stories?
Well, first, there was the now standard article by a delightful young female journalist who admitted, because honesty is the best policy, that she had once slapped the leg of her child when it was being horribly obnoxious. She had agonised for ages. She accepted that what she had done was dreadfully evil. She commissioned an expert to write a few paragraphs explaining why every child who has ever been smacked by its parents will become a psychopath. She desperately hoped that no other mother would ever do what she had done.
I suppose that must all be right, I told myself. But then I thought back to my own childhood. In particular, I remembered arriving, aged thirteen, at my public school (Americans will need to know that a public school would be described, in their country, as a private school). There were about twenty of us new boys in my boarding house. Conversation turned quickly to the subject of punishments. Would they be much worse than those we were already used to? We all, or nearly all, competed in our stories about the vicious canings we had suffered in our prep schools (8 to 13). But one boy (I will call him Andrew – though Christian names were obviously not used) announced that he had never been caned. He had not even been slippered. We stared open-mouthed at him. Was it really possible for a boy to go through five years of prep school without ever being beaten? But then he capped his own story. Not only had he never had any form of corporal punishment in school, but, wait for it, he had never even been spanked by his parents. The rest of us were dumbfounded by this astounding news. You needn’t worry. He was caned within a few weeks and was no longer seen as a freak.
The point of that anecdote, of course, is that something that was seen as quite normal not long ago is now seen as being appalling. The delightful young journalist’s expert may well be right in saying that we twenty new boys, back in 1965, were all completely ruined by the punishments we thought to be normal (as, I assume, were pretty well all children in those days – a whole generation wiped out). I express no opinion on that. My purpose is definitely not to say that the old days were “good” old days. I merely comment on how everything has changed so rapidly.
Then there was that story about the BMA instructing its staff not to describe anyone who is pregnant as being a woman on the grounds that the pregnant person might be transsexual (or transgender as such people now have to be illiterately described) and be deeply offended at being called a woman. If anyone had prophesied such an injunction from a respectable medical organisation in 1960, 1970, 1980 or even 1990 he would have been laughed out of court. But now, in 2017, we express no surprise at all.
There was another story. A law has been passed permitting men who were convicted of homosexual acts, so long as they were consensual, to ask for pardons. In the days when those poor men were convicted almost all “decent” people thought them to be evil. Those days were not long ago. Now, we salute the former criminals as being living saints.
Let me go back again to the 1960s. Before I do so, I must stress again that I am not being, in the modern term, “judgmental”. Indeed, if I judge at all I suspect I will be harsh in my estimation of how we used to behave, not how we behave now.
There is a myth about the 1960s. All those who never lived through that decade think it was a time of extraordinary liberty. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Well, let me tell you, it was not. Yes, of course, we heard strange stories about the antics of pop stars (they sometimes kissed people to whom they were not married). We teenagers longed to be brave enough to grow our hair so long that, like the hair of the Beatles, it would actually touch our collars at the back (we never got away with that). We had heard of drugs, but we never came across them (though my brother, who went to Westminster School as a day boy with the sons of lots of rich people, did tell me that some of his pals took drugs).
But we were also horribly intolerant. Homosexuals, or “queers” as they were known, were universally despised (probably by some who were actually homosexual themselves). Black people were generally assumed to be inferior to white people. That said, I vividly remember the one black boy in our school. He was, I think, a prince. Obviously, we called him a nigger. But we were also rather in awe of him. He kept coming top in classes and he was a brilliant sportsman. But no one could escape the fact that he was black, and therefore inferior. God, we were horrid (and very stupid). Funnily enough, I can recall practically no anti-semitism. I think we probably thought Jews to be different, but probably rather superior.
Now, not that many years later, all has changed. In the 1960s there were judges who adored being foul to homosexuals and blacks. Today no one can be appointed to the bench unless he or she is fully signed up to “diversity”. If you question the wisdom of sending people to prison for saying beastly things about same sex marriage you can never be a judge. If you profess the Christian faith you must accept you can never hold any public office (other than Prime Minister – not quite sure how she slipped through the net). This is a brave new age. And it is gigantically different from the age in which I was brought up.
The changes have been truly remarkable. Some, at last I express an opinion, have been wonderfully beneficial. But others have been awful (if the BMA’s antics are anything to go by things are going to get even worse). My point, though, is not that everything is getting worse and worse. It is simply that everything is changing at an extraordinary pace.
So, please, all you splendidly progressive people (many of whom are even older than I am) have pity on us lesser people who fight to keep up with you. We are not nearly as nasty as you think us. We will adapt in time.