17 August 2021

The Kate Clanchy pile-on shows no one is safe from the speech police


Manners and civility provide social grease and keep the wheels of civilisation spinning. They mean Brits talk about the weather, and Canadians apologise. They’re also why Australians address their prime minister by his first name, the reason New Zealanders take sportsmanship so seriously, and they lurk behind Parisians’ well-known disdain for bad French. People who think we can somehow do without them – ignoring the clear average differences between countries and how their inhabitants comport themselves – are apt to be both bad tourists and bad company.

The line dividing ‘manners’ and ‘civility’ from ‘speech policing’ is a fine one, however. Good manners in many countries (not just the UK and France, where this is still obvious) have roots in courtly etiquette. Louis XIV of France – and his glittering court – represented the apogee of this type of social behaviour, and given what I’m about to argue, it’s worth remembering what it involved.

Courtiers at Versailles had to follow meticulous rules establishing order of precedence when dining. A related system determined who could approach the most important people (apart from the King – many courtiers never saw him, except at a distance), as well as where and when. Body language and turns of phrase were covered by strict codes; these varied subtly depending on the circumstances. Catching the monarch’s ‘eye’ in the correct way was crucial. Rules not only governed which titles should be used to address others, but whether one had the right to use an armchair, chair or stool – or even to sit at all.

France is a republic now; this nonsense undoubtedly fed into the reasons it became one. The most ardent French traditionalists admit the Sun King’s court went far beyond manners and civility, leveraging a barmy system of behaviour and speech policing. It was this history — which I learnt in high school – that came to mind when I first encountered what in those days was called ‘political correctness’ and often treated as a bit of a joke. ‘Those days’ were, of course, the 1980s. I remember thinking that if ‘political correctness’ stopped being funny and optional, it would get unpleasant – and fast.

And, in the current year, it has come to pass. A side-effect of covering the ‘transgender debate’ is to be reminded of the huge significance participants attach to the correct form of words. Just as French and English courtiers had to know how to compose a letter to an archbishop or marquis, modern Wokies learn no less arcane rules about pronouns.

Unfortunately for their cause, those feminists opposed to the way transactivists dictate word use and seek to bring the provision of single-sex facilities to an end are hampered by history too. All civil rights movements had (and have) speech and behavioural codes, but feminism turned its version into an entire academic discipline worthy only of Pseuds Corner. Feminism was supposed to make it OK to say we didn’t want children because we’ve got white carpets and a suede sofa, not to give women licence to go up and down the country putting words in people’s mouths.

I’m old enough to remember endless tedious debates over continuing to use ‘chairman’ or replacing it with ‘facilitator’ in meetings, for example. During one Lions Club function, an older member leaned over the buffet towards me and whispered, ‘I’m sorry, but facilitator sounds like a sexually transmitted disease’. People didn’t like being told how to speak then any more than they like it now. Last month, after I wrote a major feature on the trans issue for Australia’s national daily, quite a few old service club friends contacted me with comments like, ‘I’d have more sympathy with this lot if they weren’t trying to make the Australia Club change its membership rules’ and ‘I’ve spent years having bossy women in HR telling me what words to use; feminists can sit on it and twist’. 

In being compelled to work across the political aisle with conservatives and classical liberals who have long rejected claims that language constructs reality rather than describing it, feminists have learnt the hard way that engaging in speech policing is like drag racing with Lucifer: since he drives while he’s on fire, you’re likely to get burnt.

Over the past 20 years, some women and minorities have moved from demanding not just respect, but cap-doffing deference. On this point, I’m reminded of my father’s 1951 attempt to get an Australian immigration official to use his courtesy title. “That’s not how we do things in Australia,” came the response.

Ironically, my father’s slip (he never did it again) in what is an intensely egalitarian country is indistinguishable from demands by academics and professionals – directed at social inferiors like college porters and airline cabin crew – to use post-nominals or academic titles, to listen rather than speak, or to speak only after ‘people of colour’ have spoken without ‘invalidating’ their ‘lived experience’. Every time I see this, I cringe at the absurd entitlement. I say ‘entitlement’, because high intellect and the executive function needed to make the most of it are inherited in the same way as a grand country estate: from your mum and dad.

Even worse, no-one is safe. Think, for example, of teacher Kate Clanchy. As many people will know, Clanchy is a liberal-left, pro-refugee writer. She’s also undergoing a particularly nasty cancellation over word choice in her Orwell Prize-winning memoir, Some kids I taught and what they taught me. Anthony Brett of The Telegraph provides what in my view is the best account of Clanchy’s tribulations, documenting an extraordinary conflagration that – as it leapt from literary tree to literary tree – threatened to consume Philip Pullman, the Society of Authors, and Picador (Clanchy’s publisher), as well as the author herself.

Clanchy provided kindling for her own bonfire by committing one of author-land’s unpardonable sins: complaining about a negative review. What made this notable was its age (published a year ago), and its presence on Goodreads. Goodreads reviews – like those on Amazon or Booktopia – are written by ordinary members of the public, not professional litterateurs. Taking issue with the people who write them is a bit like political canvassers arguing with constituents on the doorstep during election campaigns. You’re guaranteed to end up with an incandescently angry reader or voter. Unfortunately for Clanchy, the Goodreads reviewer accused her of racism, and – in part because of her politics – she objected. 

One of the noteworthy features of contemporary cancellation is how often it’s directed at figures on the liberal left: JK Rowling being the most famous example. Yes, Wokies will take down a Tory if they can (think Sir Roger Scruton or Toby Young), but lefties of every stripe are vulnerable to deference demands precisely because they take the slurs seriously. If I’m accused of racism or some sort of phobia, I assume it’s in bad faith and ignore it. The only time I’ve risen to the bait was in response to an allegation of homophobia. I suggested “self-hating lesbian” was the phrase my interlocutor was after. Clanchy, by contrast, grovelled and promised re-writes. So did Picador.

In Clanchy’s case, the ongoing attempt to create a woke version of Louis XIV’s courtly etiquette – with its focus on words at the expense of deeds – was exposed for the vacuous drivel it is on Sunday.

Shukria Rezaei, one of her star pupils, waded into the national press, partly to defend her teacher’s language, particularly the phrase ‘almond eyes’, which Clanchy’s critics have decided is a racial stereotype. But Rezaei also wanted to point out that Afghanistan’s Hazaras – she is one – are in mortal peril. ‘I am that girl with the almond eyes,’ she wrote. ‘I am currently writing my master’s thesis on their genocide. For Hazaras, “almond eyes” is a beautiful reference, widely used in our poetry and to proudly describe ourselves’.

Writers attempting to control how their work is reviewed is the flipside of Wokies attempting to control how minorities are portrayed in that work. Neither is possible; doing so requires entering other people’s minds to control their thoughts, ‘opening windows into men’s souls’. Once a book is out in the world, it belongs to the reader, for all that the words therein were the writer’s choice. That said, both the pain and privilege of working with one’s pen for a living is the ability (and right) to say, ‘I’ll choose my words’.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, 'The Hand that Signed the Paper'. Her latest novel is 'Kingdom of the Wicked'; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.