Owen Polley: Woke theories on history, gender and race attract ‘stormy applause’

In The Gulag Archipelago, the dissident Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, described a tribute to Stalin that took place at a Communist Party conference in the Moscow district.

By Owen Polley
Saturday, 13th November 2021, 8:36 am
Updated Monday, 15th November 2021, 10:29 am
Former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan on BBC Sport with Isa Guha during the England and Pakistan game in Leeds on July 18. Vaughan was suspended as a cricket commentator for previous alleged racist banter. That the claims were unsubstantiated didn’t make the BBC pause
Former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan on BBC Sport with Isa Guha during the England and Pakistan game in Leeds on July 18. Vaughan was suspended as a cricket commentator for previous alleged racist banter. That the claims were unsubstantiated didn’t make the BBC pause

He wrote that “The small hall echoed with stormy applause,” to express its appreciation for the Soviet dictator. This ovation continued for eight, nine, ten minutes.

Nobody wanted to stop clapping first and risk appearing less enthusiastic about Stalin than his neighbours. Eventually, to everyone’s relief, a brave paper factory director “assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat”,’ at which point the rest of the hall followed his example.

The grim punchline was that this “independent and strong-minded man” was arrested that very night. He was charged with another offence, but after he’d signed a trumped up document admitting his guilt, the interrogator reminded him, ‘Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.’

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Thank goodness, in this part of the world at least, the expectation of ‘stormy applause’ is not used to impose the authority of a tyrant like Stalin.

However, we see a similar mechanism at work when people or organisations rush to conform with divisive new theories on race, history and gender. Increasingly, they fear that, otherwise, they will be ‘shamed’ in public and lose their job, status, business or more.

You may have heard these narrow ways of thinking described as ‘identity politics’ or ‘woke’. Invariably, they claim to be about ‘equality’ or ‘respect’, but they have been devised by people on the fringes of academia who want to undermine the ways in which we understand our world, whether it’s through science or our nation’s history.

These obscure theories have been slow to take root in Northern Ireland, where our age-old dispute about identity is still at the heart of politics. But now they are steadily changing society for the worse and creating new divisions.

Perhaps the most controversial and high profile ‘woke’ idea involves redefining gender.

In a recent column in this newspaper, Ruth Dudley-Edwards (‘Nolan seen as hero in GB for his Stonewall reports,’ November 2, see link below) explained how it has become almost mandatory to accept that there are an infinite number of genders, untethered to biological sex, and that individuals can choose to move between them.

Young people have experimented with these new categories particularly keenly.

A growing number of children in Northern Ireland now have classmates who claim to have adopted a different ‘gender identity’, or demand to be known by ungrammatical pronouns like ‘they’ or ‘them’.

Marks and Spencer is the latest company to pander to the trend, equipping its staff with name badges that display a “preferred pronoun”. Academics have lost their jobs for criticising ‘trans’ dogmas. And Stephen Nolan is one of the few journalists to investigate how this pervasive ideology has been imposed by organisations like Stonewall.

Most people in the public eye, and certainly most businesses and organisations, keep up the ‘stormy applause’, while allowing opponents of the doctrine to be abused and vilified.

A similar phenomenon is at work when it comes to history and race. Nobody would deny that the fight to eradicate racism and build a ‘colour-blind’ world was justified and necessary. Now, though, a new generation of radicals insists that we must not treat everyone equally and on merit. Instead, we should judge some of them more harshly based on the perceived ‘white privilege’ of their race.

Neither do they think we should study history from a variety of perspectives, with an emphasis on context. Instead, we should use it to indict all western societies of racism and supremacism. These ideas have resulted in removing statues, trashing the reputations of celebrated national figures and attacking cherished works of art and literature.

At the same time, it has become practically impossible to defend oneself from charges of racism. Last week, the former England cricket captain, Michael Vaughan, was suspended by the BBC, after it was alleged he engaged in racist ‘banter’ with British-Asian teammates, back in 2009. Vaughan denied these claims strenuously, describing them as “like being struck over the head with a brick,” but the fact that the allegations were unsubstantiated did not make the BBC pause.

Indeed, the ‘stormy applause’ mindset is now almost ubiquitous in public life. Whether it’s the National Trust gutting its properties for hints of imperialism, health authorities publishing advice for ‘pregnant people’ or universities cancelling thought-provoking speakers.

We’ve seen it frequently in Northern Ireland too. The politicians who competed during a rape trial to condemn rugby players who were eventually acquitted, the MLA who claimed boys have periods, and the people, including naive unionists, persuaded by likes and shares on social media to entertain a ‘conversation’ about a ‘new Ireland’.

As these trends take hold more firmly, we must all decide whether we will join in with the stormy applause. The very fact that you’re holding a copy of the News Letter suggests that you may be more the paper factory director type.

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• Owen Polley Oct 30 (within this there are links to other articles by Owen): Unconvincing poll was twisted to support protocol

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