We’re all so ‘woke’ nowadays, it is safer to say nothing at all

We needed to move on from a culture of sexist, chauvinistic, discomfiting and offensive 'banter' - but have we gone too far the other way, asks AILIN QUINLAN
We’re all so ‘woke’ nowadays, it is safer to say nothing at all

Bill Murray has spoken out about the suspension of filming of his new movie, Being Mortal, following a complaint against him.

POOR Bill Murray. Your heart would go out to him. But at the same time, the man has my respect.

The chastened 71-year-old was talking about a poorly-judged joke that led to his being accused of misconduct, which in turn triggered, yes, in true ‘woke’ tradition, the full suspension of his latest film.

Which in turn shows just how far the pendulum has swung in terms of what is and is not considered appropriate these days.

Although details of the controversial exchange have not been publicly revealed, Murray talked to CNBC about the claim of “inappropriate behaviour” made against him, sheepishly acknowledging that what he assumed was funny - because it would have been considered funny years ago - was no longer acceptable.

Big learning curve.

He described the incident as a “difference of opinion” with a female colleague working on the film. He said it had been a big lesson and that the whole incident had been an education for him.

And, he added, with customary verve and courage, that it was a “sad dog that can’t learn any more”.

Murray’s experience reflects how humour has evolved over the decades – and it has taken decades – with offence often being taken now at jokes which were once considered quite normal.

Thirty years ago, some of the things that were said to me and other young female employees by both male colleagues and men generally - and very openly in the workplace and in society generally - were demeaning and offensive.

Many of these so-called jokes and ‘witty’ comments were deeply sexist, chauvinistic, and horrendously discomfiting and offensive.

There were some truly nasty sexist quips that I felt obliged to laugh at because I was young and the only woman present.

Such comments left me feeling small and demeaned and furious, both because of the nasty nature of the joke and because I didn’t know how to handle it.

Comments and jokes which no young woman in their right mind should, would or could be expected to tolerate today.

The thing is, while once upon a time people could and would make the most horrendously inappropriate remarks without anyone turning a hair, we’re all so ‘woke’ now that the bar has plummeted in terms of what is considered ‘acceptable’ commentary.

And while explicit behavior, images and demeaning comments are par for the course on social media and, indeed, in nightclubs and other venues, things in society seem to have turned upside-down-righteous, with many older people, like Murray understandably feeling a bit lost.

Like the middle-aged nurse with a very senior position in a busy hospital who confided to me that she often felt on a knife-edge when talking to younger colleagues “in case I’d say the wrong thing”. It had become so nerve-wracking in the past few years, she said, that some mornings she wasn’t sure how to – or even whether she even should - give a cheerful greeting to certain younger colleagues. They seemed very “sensitive” and “easily offended” was how this kindly, hard-working woman put it.

A clerical officer - experienced, early fifties - in a large State organisation actually told me that she finds it’s almost easier to “say nothing” at all in the office, than to make a bit of small talk. You might, she explained, inadvertently come out with a comment that would once have been considered mildly humorous and quite inoffensive, but which could now result in an accusatory silence, or concern about someone’s dignity in the workplace or an accusation of misconduct. You watched your words in the office, she said – talking wasn’t worth it. She mimed a wipe of the brow.

And I know what a high level tech executive with a large multi-national meant when he summarised to me what he felt was the key message of a recent mandatory programme of “unconscious bias training” across his workplace. The message he took out of it was that it is probably best to say nothing to anyone. Because anything you say could be misinterpreted. And then you were for the high jump, no matter what you actually meant in the first place because optics meant the company couldn’t be seen to tolerate anything that came with a label of inappropriate behaviour, no matter how mild or inoffensive it was intended to be.

So the pendulum has swung, it has swung wide and it has swung far and things have changed.

People’s awareness has certainly and justifiably changed for the better.

So yes, things really needed to change. Attitudes needed to change. Mindsets needed to change. Most of us think before we speak now, because attitudes and mindsets have changed. And rightly so.

But, sadly, I’m wondering whether, in fact, the pendulum has swung so very far, and whether things have changed so very, very much for the better, that somehow we’ve found ourselves at another extreme.

We’re all so ‘woke’ that, far from feeling we can say anything to anyone, it’s become safer to say nothing at all.

Can I suggest that perhaps we’ve all become a little too much ‘woke’, a little bit too politically correct, and more than a little bit humourless and over-full of an overblown sense of importance?

When a perfectly justifiable course in “Unconscious Bias Training” leaves a man I know to be intelligent, sensitive and, in fairness, pretty ‘woke’ to begin with, feeling he’s safer not talking to his colleagues at all, maybe it’s time to press the pause button on our ‘wokeness’.

When a senior nurse, a decent person, who has managed a responsible job in the workplace for three decades, feels she could maybe be chastised for wishing a young colleague good morning, maybe it’s time to press the pause button.

When an experienced administrative worker is fearful of making a mild comment about anything to colleagues for fear of being brought up on a charge of inappropriate behavior, maybe it’s time to stop and think for a minute...

What have we recreated? Some kind of repressively politically correct and carefully policed Westernised version of Communist Russia?

Have we gone a little too far?

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