Damned by a selfie, in the new era of intolerance

This week, Angela Rayner was condemned for posing for a photo with a private-school head. Such tolerance just gets in the way of forgone conclusions, says David James

Group of friends, posing for a selfie

A selfie can reflect outwards, and what it reveals about its audience is not always pleasant. In this age of social media, those innocent moments of narcissism – a few captured seconds caught in a departure lounge with a famous face, say – can be interpreted as a statement of shared intent, of diluted principles and betrayal. 

These are snapshot times, when instantaneous judgements are the only ones that stick: Instagrammed and slammed, damned quicker than it takes to set your future to portrait mode. Inconsequential encounters, which would once have been anonymous and forgotten, are now reduced to both transient but inerasable images, which have the potential to destroy careers

They are trites of passage, imbued with concocted significance by accusers who are so woke they never sleep but, instead, scroll and scrape their way across data seabeds like 21st-century sea cucumbers, but with less empathy. 

The new spirit of intolerance

There were two moments this week that captured the new spirit of intolerance that we are now mired in: one American and glamorous; the other British and domestic. Both are educational, because they both tell us more about the critics than the criticised. 

Last Sunday, the American comedian, television presenter, and LGBT campaigner Ellen DeGeneres sat down to watch the Dallas Cowboys take on the Green Bay Packers. She was with friends, and evidently happy. She was in the best seats in the house, and she was looking forward to watching her team. 

What a fool she was. How naive, how innocent of the new crucible we live in. She made the mistake of sitting next to the former president of the United States, George W Bush. Bush is a man who, when in office, opposed legislation that supported the issues that DeGeneres campaigned for. 

The outrage was immediate and vicious. To her credit, DeGeneres took on her critics, delivering a masterly monologue which advocated tolerance and being nice, two qualities that nowadays on social media seem as out of place as stove pipe hats and penny farthings in the Tour de France. 

Distorting all rational thought

Meanwhile, in England, the same thing happened. Only, typically, it happened differently, with fewer celebrities and no jokes, but a level of sanctimoniousness on the side of the accusers that would have embarrassed Torquemada. Again, a phone was held aloft, an image captured, a tweet tweeted. 

And then the imbroglio that masquerades as Labour’s education policy unfurled itself, demogorgon-like, with all its unique ability to contort and distort all rational thought on the taught and the bought. 

The head of an independent school took a selfie with the shadow secretary of state for education, Angela Rayner, and commented: “Great meeting @AngelaRayner today. We agree that we all want to work together to create the best possible education for every child in this country, focused on #pupilsnotpolitics and found much more that unites than divides. I left inspired.”

Such an unwanted outbreak of tolerance and desire for mutual understanding was inevitably and immediately pounced on by those who now influence Labour policy on education. This was a thought crime that could not go unpunished. 

Modern-day child-catcher

Leading independent-school abolitionist Holly Rigby pronounced that Rayner was “cosying up to defenders of elite privilege”, adding that “my young people deserve better”. It’s difficult to argue with this without appearing like a modern-day child-catcher, seeking to steal away the hopes of her “young people”.

The choice was simple for the @abolisheton campaigners. Rigby, herself educated in a selective school, demanded of a democratically elected working-class MP, who left school at 16, that she should “pick a side...are you with the people or the privileged?” 

Thatcherite in their certainty, these new puritans see everyone as either one of us, or the enemy. You’re either with the kids, or you are on the side of the oppressors; you either want independent schools shut down or you are Jacob Rees-Mogg.

In this Manichean world, all nuance is expunged because it slows down reaching a conclusion that has been met before the debate began. So what’s the point in that? Conversation, discussion, tolerance, seeking understanding – such qualities are, for many, precursors to an inevitable “sell out”. So they must be resisted. This is social policy played out with all the subtleties of the Bash Street Kids.

Cartoonish new world

Before we go bravely into this cartoonish new world, we should revisit the old, problematic, sepia-tinged one before it disappears into an erased past. We should read again DWEMs like John Stuart Mill, who claimed that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that... He must be able to hear [opposite views]...from persons who actually believe them...he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

Today, expressing such open-mindedness – to sit next to your opponents in a stadium, or squeeze into the same iPhone screen – would result in the father of modern liberalism being cancelled.

When did we become so timid? How did we become so afraid of difference? We move from the shoulders of giants to the hashtags of minions, and it reduces us all.

David James is deputy head (academic) of an independent school in the South of England

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you