At the risk of never being able to eat avocados in this town again, I admit I laughed out loud at a Toby Young gag about getting through five boxes of tissues while watching a Comic Relief film about starving children.
One of the more obscure obscenities in the recent harvest of the Tory journalist’s Twitter feed, the condemnation of it shows the loudest attitude towards loutish humour right now is censorious, the illicit comment being one of many found after Tobes was appointed to the board of the Office for Students. Earlier this morning, he resigned.
This new regulator has been set up to ensure that a student’s degree is worth the fees, and will also handle university minister Jo Johnson’s pledge to defend free speech on university campuses.
That a board member of a free speech watchdog was forced out for being offensive is the kind of comedy censorship generate by default. By earlier example, in 2016 a student called for a free speech society at the London School of Economics to be banned shortly after it was formed over fears of campus censorship.
A range of allegations were arrayed against Young. Shadow cabinet members contend that because he tweeted a lot about tits and made some raunchy jokes he must be some raving misogynist, as Labour MPs Dawn Butler and Angela Rayner claimed in a letter to the prime minister. But saying you like boobs is hardly sexist, however boorish it may be.
The leading change.org petition cites his views on ‘inclusion’ as reasons for him being disbarred, although Young denies the interpretation of the blog post which prompted this attack – and it is hard to believe he objects to wheelchair access. (Few will believe that Young wanked over a charity relief appeal, either.)
The insincerity or stupidity of some of the outraged is at least reflected on by more thoughtful critics. As Janice Turner, who once edited him, wrote in the Times: ‘The sad, stupid thing is I doubt Young does believe disabled pupils should be denied wheelchair ramps, or grammar school kids at Oxford are physically repulsive, or working-class people should be eugenically screened.’
Reading comprehension fans will note this last item doesn’t reflect Young’s views even as expressed, but even in the age where journalists’ sources are easily accessible online it matters less what you said than what people think you said, as ex-Googler James Damore could tell you.
Not being in education, it is hard for me to say whether Young was actually qualified for the role, though his experience setting up free schools presumably has some bearing.
However, Stephen Bush of the New Statesman has written about broader problems with the Office for Students that sound plausible, and there are other deeper complaints about the board composition available for those who care about policy.
But this column isn’t about that, and nor is the bulk of the criticism. In British public life hoards of screeching puritans now seek to silence every inept remark, off-colour joke or nasty jibe, threatening deviants with loss of position or livelihood.
This is doubly wrong. While what somebody laughs at tells you something about them, mockery is not straightforward. One of the most insufferable progs I know – whose right-on opinions would make Laurie Penny question her piety – has a sense of humour that South Park’s creators would pause at before cackling.
Second, though every pseud in the land would curbstomp their own nan for a chance to whack themselves off publicly about diversity, most do not care for the most important sort of difference – thought. But oddballs, outcasts and the socially uncouth are inevitably some of the most original thinkers, and exactly the sort who can offer alternative views on boards.
This urge to purge every heresy from public life impoverishes us then, not merely by limiting what we can laugh about, but what we can think about and how we can improve things. The rude, crude and lewd should take public office – for their benefit and ours.
Image based on picture from Marco Mézquita at Pixabay