In the Telegraph today:
I was put in a bad mood recently after hearing the Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid on Desert Island Discs. She said she was glad that artists often no longer worked alone, preferring to be members of groups. The word “group” makes grumps like me shudder, being one of those rarely invited to join them. I am wedded to the image of the lonely genius toiling in the attic rather than a culture where the individual counts for less than the group and its inclusivity.
Perhaps I would have been less irritated if individual thought, cherished in the West since the Enlightenment, were not so obviously and everywhere under attack. Or if the resulting lack of ability to think independently were not having such a desultory effect on many areas of our national life. We often hear sad stories about older people being duped by phone fraudsters, but it seems that even extremely bright younger people are credulous, too. Nobody appears to be immune from this plague of uncritical thinking.
PwC, the massive accountancy firm, has decided to send its highly paid staff on compulsory classes to “foster scepticism”. They need to be deliberately enabled to challenge their clients. At the moment, apparently, they believe everything they’re told, and the problem has been linked to a string of failures by the company’s employees.
What has happened? This is meant to be an age where anyone can have an opinion, and where no authority is safe from a sceptical population. Instead, groupthink has set in, and scepticism itself is discouraged. An increasing number of topics seem to demand acceptance without question: Islam; the evils of Trump; the need for #MeToo; British responsibility for slavery; the validity of transgenderism; even the future of the NHS. Discussion is not allowed.
Most worrying of all, fear of independent thought is evident among the bright people at our top universities. Professor Nigel Biggar, the Anglican theologian and priest, was ostracised at Oxford University for defending the British Empire. More than 50 of his colleagues condemned his research into the legacy of colonialism. Nearly 200 academics from the UK, US, India and South Africa criticised Oxford for even allowing his project.
It’s tough and lonely being a sceptic or merely to ask questions. It takes guts to stand against the crowd, easier if you already feel like an outsider or, more happily, are powerful enough to be immune to attack. There are a few still willing to do so. Celebrities recently bold enough to put two fingers up at the current virtue-signalling climate include Meryl Streep. In 2015 she rejected the label “feminist” in favour of “humanist” and has decried feminist terms such as “toxic masculinity”, which she says are harmful to men. Mamata Banerjee, the Indian politician, bravely challenges groupthink about Hinduism and Islam. John Cleese recklessly caused a stir by saying London is no longer an “English city”. And then there is curmudgeonly old Andrew Neil, sidelined by the BBC, in my view, for being as well prepared as a top QC as he ruthlessly interrogates both Left and Right.
But it’s all in pursuit of an increasingly contested, vexed and vanishing commodity: the truth.
Good to see that someone in the mainstream media is standing up for the virtues of scepticism and rebelling against groupthink. I would only add to climate change to her list of topics.