By Clare Foges in THE TIMES, 22 October 2018
Watch out Fisherman’s Friends, Earl Grey tea, Daddies sauce: your time may soon be up! Last week we saw the demise of the Gentleman’s Roll, a product from Waitrose containing Gentleman’s Relish among other delicious things. After an outcry on Twitter in which the sandwich name was deemed sexist, Middle England’s favourite supermarket was forced to capitulate: “It’s never our intention to cause offence. We’re not dictating who should eat this sandwich . . . we are planning to change the name soon.”
Another product bit the dust: Kleenex Mansize tissues. Kimberly-Clark, which owns the brand, said it “in no way suggests that being both soft and strong is an exclusively masculine trait, nor do we believe that the Mansize branding suggests or endorses gender inequality . . . ”. Nevertheless, “we decided to renovate our current product sub-brand as Kleenex Extra Large”. Pity these poor po-faced PR departments — on permanent red alert for a slip into ageism or transphobia — for this is the age of easy outrage. The pattern is set thus: an object of offence is identified, the storm brews on social media for a couple of days and the cries of “apologise!” grow louder, until the guilty company or individual does just that.
Over the past year or so, off the top of my head, we have had University College London apologising after a tweet that said it was “dreaming of a white campus”; the bakery firm Greggs apologising for replacing the baby Jesus with a sausage roll in one of its adverts; Princess Michael of Kent apologising for wearing a blackamoor brooch; the YouTuber Alfie Deyes apologising for trivialising poverty for his attempt to live on £1 a day; the beauty company Dove apologising after a Facebook campaign in which a black woman removes a jumper and is transformed into a white woman; H&M apologising for having a black boy on its website wearing a hoodie saying “coolest monkey in the jungle”; and a deputy governor of the Bank of England apologising for describing the economy as “menopausal”.
We seem to be running at two or three such incidents a week. The Twitter mob stamps its collective foot and asks for the ban, the U-turn, the apology — and gets it. To most of us, this is maddening. These frivolous little fights suck up energy and stir further acrimony into the division that is the bitter flavour of our age. What disturbs, too, is the sense that the tail is wagging the dog. A minority of permanently offended people are dictating the terms on what we should buy, what we should watch and how we should express ourselves while the sane, silent majority roll their eyes.
Yet this is not one of those political-correctness-gone-mad columns, lashing out at virtue signallers for their showy piety. Instead, I have been wondering whether we should view this fashion with more sympathy, as a symptom of the uncertain and volatile times we live in. Could it be that, beneath the right-on bluster, the offence police are simply seeking to exert some control, to make up for the lack of control they feel elsewhere in life?
We know this impulse in our own lives. Overwhelmed by a big event that is beyond our control, we take solace in small, achievable tasks. Faced with the fear of change we clean the fridge out; faced with the threat of redundancy we have an urge to unknot the ball of string in the kitchen drawer. Housekeeping combats anxiety by giving us the sense that we are achieving little victories. The tins in the cupboard are aligned and life is under control. These offence-storms might be seen in the same way. Faced with a world where the strings are always pulled by unseen hands elsewhere, “clicktivists” can exert control and power by forcing Waitrose to rename a sandwich, or Tesco to make its trolley signs gender neutral.
So let us look at these keyboard warriors in a new, more kindly light. The permanently offended are typically those much-maligned young “snowflakes”. I don’t buy the idea that the young have never had it so bad but I do think they’ve never (outside of wartime, perhaps) had it so uncertain. Aside from the vast Brexit question mark hanging over the UK, there are question marks over automation and the labour market; over whether there will be enough jobs to go around and homes to live in.
This year’s Prince’s Trust Youth Index, which takes an annual look at young people’s attitudes, found that the number of 16-25-year-olds who did not feel in control of their lives had increased by more than a third year-on-year. Almost half fear that the economy will provide fewer job opportunities in the next three years. As the trust’s chief executive puts it, there has been “a staggering deterioration in young people’s confidence in themselves and in their future” and a “cliff-edge decline in young people not feeling in control of their lives”.
Becoming part of a mob on social media gives these young people a chance to “take back control”. Yes, they might be powerless over the immediate concerns of their life; they might have a job that is insecure and a dream of owning a home that is impossible, but through the power of numbers and the loudhailer of social media they can have power in the real world. They can help bring corporations to heel, feeling they are making a difference even though their own prospects are stuck in cement.
All this is not to suggest I have endless patience with the permanently offended; far from it. But instead of always raging at different tribes over the abyss of mutual loathing and confusion, it is important sometimes to try to understand. Perhaps these rows are born not only from a desire to signal virtue, but from insecurity. Believing this will not change the fact that the professionally outraged are annoying, but it may help us view these endless Twitter storms with a little more sympathy.