TITANIA MCGRATH: SATIRE IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE
Updated: Nov 6, 2019
SUNDAY 3 NOVEMBER, 10:00—11:30, AUDITORIUM 1
IN CONVERSATION WITH ANDREW DOYLE
Thirty years ago I remember satire being part of mainstream television. There was Spitting Image of course, the show which turned the great and the good into latex puppets. It amused the nation and often offended those in power, especially politicians. A little later, Chris Morris’ Brass Eye mocked the sensationalist nature of news media, including how it created moral panics, rather than informed reporting. In the 1980s, there were plenty of left wing, stand up comedians, at a time when the right of centre, led by the Tory Party, dominated British politics. Today, if I want to be sure of seeing good satire, I visit Comedy Unleashed at The Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green on the second Tuesday of every month. It sometimes feels like the last bastion of comedy: then again it is usually sold out.
"Can we still be satirical?"
Comedy Unleashed’s co-founder, Andrew Doyle, is also known for creating Titania McGrath, the ‘Woke’ queen of Twitter. ‘Woke’ (I think) describes someone who has 'woken up' to social injustice and, like Titania, is determined to change the world for the better. However, Titania's idea of injustice is when the England football team have no fat players in it. 'Can we still be satirical?' asks interviewer, Ella Whelan. The answer is yes, but not as easily as in the good old days. In fact, according to Doyle, the very fact that Woke: A Guide to Social Justice, Titania McGrath’s treatise, got published at all is a minor miracle. Most publishers would not attach their name to such a work. Titania McGrath is a rich, privileged, slam poet who is committed to the overthrow of the patriarchy. Then again she is flawed. In her recent contribution to The Critic she explains, 'I joined Extinction Rebellion last year because I care about the environment and I wanted to meet Emma Thompson.'
McGrath ridicules a particular type of pseudo-lefty, young graduate who yearns for victimhood despite enjoying the fruits of a free society and an affluent family. The Critic quotation echoes Doyle’s contempt for the new left: 'just because you put a rainbow flag on your Facebook page, it doesn’t make you left wing.' Hearing real life, Oxbridge graduates complaining about being overlooked by the patriarchy is naturally funny. At the same time there is a danger that all young people, studying or not, can be tarred with the same brush. Most university undergraduates of course are not like Titania, and the label ‘generation snowflake’ can be very unhelpful, not to say inaccurate. The problem is that Woke representatives, despite being small in number, are very influential with top jobs in the media, politics and academia. It means that individuals who see themselves as social justice activists get to set the agenda on behalf of a majority who are nonplussed by its logic.
But the joke, Doyle feels, is rightfully on the elite minority. In mocking social justice he is definitely ‘punching up’. Perhaps mockery is exactly what it needs. Paradoxically, the social justice movement is now in danger of committing social injustices. In attempting to promote ‘diversity’ greater priority ends up afforded to those from Titania’s background: the affluent and privileged. It is not necessarily the case that women, for instance, are always oppressed. A quota to prioritise female writers in television is likely to open the door only for affluent, well-educated, female writers. If the BBC really wants to promote diversity, Doyle points out, they could employ only 7% of their workforce from private schools (consistent with the 7% who attend private schools). The problem with the BBC’s current idea of ‘diversity’ is that it does not take social class into account. Nor, for that matter, does it take diversity of political opinions into account.
“People don’t read anymore.”
So what has gone wrong? 'People don’t read anymore,' explains Doyle, with the knock-on effect that critical thinking is becoming obsolete. 'There should be a critical thinking component to school exams. As soon as you commit an ad hominem attack, you fail. As soon as you mis-characterise a person’s opinion, you fail.' These are failures routinely made by mainstream journalists, in Doyle’s experience, to the point where it is difficult to know whether people are doing it deliberately or not. Rod Liddle, Jo Brand and Boris Johnson are just some of the names mentioned by the audience of those whose views or opinions have been mis-characterised in recent times by the mainstream media or on Twitter. 'People assume that they know what I think because of my comedy,' says Doyle, 'to the point where there is a second constructed version of me who thinks things that I don’t even agree with.'
So just how literal are people in their thinking? Either they are unable to tell the difference between literal and figurative expression anymore, including jokes, or they are pretending that they don’t understand a comment providing an opportunity to ‘cancel’ the individual in question. The ‘cancel culture’ (trawling through someone’s online activity in order to find something incriminating enough to end their career) is certainly influential. It is hard to believe that people who studied at top universities are unable to tell the difference between a metaphor and its literal meaning. When Boris Johnson uses the word ‘surrender’, who really thinks that he is advocating war? Perhaps the Academy of Ideas should change its festival name: ‘The Respectful Exchange of Ideas 2020’ (or something suitably benign.)
Woke: A Guide to Social Justice, by Titania McGrath is published by Constable.