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Angela Tilby: Identities are reduced to politics

06 November 2020


I AM becoming uncomfortable about the word “uncomfortable” — a word that is being used increasingly as a weapon: a righteous word if you are wielding it, a word of condemnation if it points at you.

Some time ago in an academic institution, I gave a talk in which I briefly mentioned the ongoing debate about sex and gender. Afterwards, one of the audience came up to me and said reproachfully that my off-the-cuff remarks had made him feel uncomfortable. My instinct was to retort that being made uncomfortable was part of any genuine educational experience, but I quickly realised that what was being communicated to me was that I had unwittingly crossed a line in such a way as to cause deep personal offence. I felt mortified, and guilty.

On reflection, I suppose the proper thing to have done would have been to issue a trigger warning, i.e. “I am about to say something that may make some of you feel uncomfortable,” or to avoid the topic altogether. Avoidance would have been the easiest course to take.

We are all gradually being persuaded that to make anyone feel “uncomfortable” is tantamount to a hate crime. The SNP’s proposed Hate Crimes and Public Order Bill is intended to protect minorities, but its reach could extend, according to the Scottish Justice Secretary, to cover even words spoken in the privacy of the home. If ever passed, it would usher in the age of Big Brother.

There is something not only illiberal, but also frustratingly illogical, about all this, and the lack of logic is in the double use of the word “uncomfortable”, which conceals a massive prejudgement. It is, apparently, OK for some people to make others feel uncomfortable, but, if these others do the same, they are guilty of aggression. The issue here is who makes the judgement, and who decides who is guilty and who is innocent, because this decision is made not on the basis of personal knowledge, but on the basis of a reduction of persons to their class, colour, ethnicity, or religion.

This is why I regularly feel uncomfortable at hymns and preachy prayers that glare unforgivingly at various social injustices. I wonder why my feeling uncomfortable is a good thing, while my making someone else feel uncomfortable is an aggressive act. I already know the answer. In spite of being female (and so part, apparently, of the largest disadvantaged group in society), my other multiple privileges (which I freely acknowledge) make me one of the oppressors rather than the oppressed.

The soft totalitarianism that is now so widespread in our institutions, including churches, means that all identities are reduced to politics. And that is the point at which we are all so resentfully uncomfortable that we simply beg for tyrants to save us from ourselves.

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