The social norms of the 1950s were stifling, but the 21st-century ones are suffocating

The social norms of the 1950s were stifling, but the 21st-century ones are suffocating. By Janet Albrechtsen.

If you thought the social norms of the 1950s were stifling, the 21st-century ones are suffocating. What’s most wretched is that it’s not new: we have reverted to historic norms of blinkered minds and puritanism.

As Ed West, the senior editor of UnHerd, wrote last week: “This is not some dark new age of cancel culture, however, it’s just a return to normality. Those who grew up in the late 20th century were living in a highly unusual time, one that could never be sustained, a sexual and cultural revolution that began in 1963 or 1968.

“But it has ended and, as all revolutionaries must do after storming the Bastille, they have built Bastilles of their own. The new order has brought in numerous methods used by the old order to exert control — not just censorship, but word taboo and rituals which everyone is forced to go along with, or at least not openly criticise. You might call it the new intolerance, or woke extremism, but all societies need the policing of social norms.”

West’s thesis means that the 1979 movie Life of Brian couldn’t have been made 20 years earlier, and it couldn’t be made today: “The Nineties and Noughties were a time of outstanding comedy partly because so much of public morality was up for grabs, and in transition; it was a period in between two quite rigid societies.”

If comedy struggles to find a foothold now, how does religion fit in this brave new world of leftist absolutism? In short, it doesn’t. Or at least certain religions don’t.

Government is partly to blame:

When anti-discrimination laws started rolling out across the country in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, they frequently offered remedies for alleged offence to a person on the basis that they slotted into a listed identity group, without having to show specific loss. Often, all it took was a claim about feelings being hurt. The result: a marketplace of ideas clipped and wired like a bonsai tree.

Though parts of these laws rightly deal with real and despicable harm, like losing your job because you’re pregnant or not being considered by a landlord because you’re gay, other parts of these laws ventured into new territory. The offence and hurt feelings sections abandoned the idea that the law was designed to protect individuals against specific, acute and demonstrable harm. All it takes are unprovable hurt feelings.

The shadow effect of these “offence” laws is just as rotten. The law used to look very dimly on someone who screamed fire in a movie theatre. Now, it’s permissible to clear out a public space by shouting that you have been offended.

So get rid of anti-discrimination law based on feelings — they have backfired.

hat-tip Stephen Neil