Let her eat her words
Sad, isn’t it, that if fell to Rod Liddle, writing in the Spectator, to defend Joan Bakewell for her comments on anorexia made last weekend? Where are the liberal voices defending Bakewell’s right to think – and say – what she damn well likes? Drowned in a tsunami of bile on social media, that’s where.
Bakewell, who used to read Harold Pinter’s manuscripts to tell him if they were any good, who once endured being told by the head of BBC News that women would never read the news because their voices were too high, their clothes were too distracting and they would cry if the news were bad, who has, in other words, lived a little, was roundly pilloried for daring to suggest in conversation with the Sunday Times that anorexia could (my emphasis) be caused by narcissism in society. So intense did the hate fest become, you felt that obituary writers up and down the country must be dusting down Bakewell’s send-off and adding the line: ‘In later life, her reputation was tarnished by her hateful and outmoded comments on anorexia nervosa.’
Let us forget for a moment that Bakewell was being interviewed – or thought she was – about the Wellcome book prize, not about anorexia. Let us forget that narcissism and vanity are not the same thing, as many of Bakewell’s Twitter critics appear to believe they are. Let us even forget that Bakewell, at 82, with a distinguished broadcasting career behind her, much of it spent in nuanced analysis of complex moral issues, might justifiably feel entitled to a little, you know, respect. Or at least to be given the benefit of the doubt. Or at the very least not to be told, as she was in one particularly winning salvo, that she should feel free to fuck off at a time of her choosing. Let us instead ask ourselves one simple question: is Joan Bakewell entitled to form a view as to the causes of anorexia nervosa and to express that view?
Her critics seem to believe that she is not entitled to do this, because, variously, she doesn’t have a daughter with anorexia or she hasn’t read the research. But what they’re really saying is that she’s not entitled to express her view because it offends them. ‘I nearly died from anorexia at 16 @JDBakewell,’ raged one Twitterer. That’s sad. But it’s not Bakewell’s fault. And it doesn’t change the fact that she, like everyone else, is entitled to her opinion.
Of course, you could argue that it doesn’t matter what folks say on Twitter, and in many ways it doesn’t. At moments like this, Twitter is little more than a megaphone for bullies who wouldn’t tell you to fuck off at a time of your choosing to your face. But the absence of voices, especially liberal voices, raised in support of Bakewell is dispiriting and perhaps accounts for her decision to apologise. Liddle interprets the apology as a sign that Bakewell is right about anorexia. Nothing hurts like the truth, he suggests, and those who wound by telling the truth about sensitive subjects must be brought to their knees to grovel.
There’s something in that. But whether Bakewell’s comments are true or false – and there is no way of knowing because there is no proven cause of anorexia, just as there is no proven cause of alcoholism or cutting or any of the other myriad ways in which we harm ourselves – the reaction to them reveals two disturbing trends.
The first takes us right back to the oldest prejudice of all: misogyny. Silly old biddy. Stupid old dinosaur. Ridiculous old woman. That’s how some Twitterers saw fit to describe the veteran journalist and Labour peer. It is intolerable, apparently, that an old woman should have a view, much less express it. Bakewell is nearly as bad as that other daft old bat, Germaine Greer, who, as everyone must by now know, had to be no-platformed because she is a transphobic bigot. And whaddya know? There was Bakewell in the Guardian only last month speaking out against no-platforming. It’s a witches’ cabal.
The truth is we cannot afford to bully these intelligent, articulate women into silence. Increasingly, they are all that stands between us and a kind of insane conformity to agreed falsehoods. Even if we think they are wrong in their views, we should still welcome their interventions. For it is against the file of other people’s opinions that we sharpen the axe of our own critical thought.
The second disturbing trend exposed by the reaction to Bakewell’s anorexia comments is a growing inability to grasp that truth. It was pitiful to watch Bakewell diligently parrying an avalanche of Twitter barbs with clarifications, until eventually, after six hours – six hours, God love her – punch drunk she withdrew. With a couple of noble exceptions, the people she was dealing with weren’t interested in clarifications. Neither were they interested in apologies, which – natch – were too little, too late. They just wanted to have a good old hate.
I hope they enjoyed themselves. They certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves. The victim of their spite is not so much Bakewell, though she has been almost absent from Twitter since, as the right to free expression, which, as Nick Cohen pointed out in another Spectator piece this week, already lies bloodied in the gutter.
Anyone who considers themselves to be on the liberal left urgently needs to get down with the daft (but oddly courageous) old bats to defend that precious right. This time last week, across the pond, Donald Trump’s son was tweeting that: ‘Liberals love the first amendment until you say something they don’t agree with.’ We wouldn’t want to prove him right, now would we?