20 May 2021
Home Office Loos
By John Watson
Had Canute read Monday’s edition of The Times, he would probably have smiled. That eminently practical monarch, famous for his seashore demonstration that bullshit cannot stand in the face of the real world, would have found plenty to illustrate his thesis.
Although it is hard to imagine the stern 11th century king, indeed emperor, taking much of an interest in the toilet arrangements of the Home Office, the consequences of the decision to make them all unisex illustrates his point perfectly. Women employees felt exposed by the new arrangements and so ended up using the lavatories in other government buildings, something which no doubt involved going out in the rain and wasting a great deal of time. So the attempt to forward the course of feminism through this progressive change hurt the very people who feminism is supposed to support. Brilliant! What fool blindly pursued that agenda and how much money will it have cost when the loos are, as no doubt they will be, re-separated? The point to note, however, is not just that a bad decision was made but that a measure generated by political and sociological theory came crashing to the ground when it came into contact with unyielding reality.
Much the same can be seen with the anti-vaccine movement where many people, out of all sorts of principles and prejudices – some religious, some libertarian, some linked to bizarre conspiracy theories – ignored their invitations from the NHS. Now that it is clear, following the emergence of the Indian Variant, that those who are not injected may join the list of casualties, take-up rates are improving. Principles and prejudices wilt when exposed to the flame of danger.
The third example is the re-emergence of the sitcom Friends where commentators have deplored the fact that none of the six main actors is coloured. Here the anvil of reality is the reaction of the fans. Presumably those promoting the show will reconfigure it in whatever way will produce the best audience figures. If a majority of the fans prefer it as it was, why change it? If they believe that introducing a black character would attract followers, then that is what they will do. It is not political theory but the reality of audience attitudes that will drive the decision.
Together these examples carry a message and it is important to read it correctly. It is not that human weakness betrays the men and women of principle when they are faced with practical problems but rather that most social principles are a luxury, only useful when they work in a world occupied by real human beings living in a way in which human beings actually want to live. Unless it passes that test, sociology is mere thistledown, a cloud of feathers in the breeze. The fact that so many theories seem to fall into this category is a reflection of the way they are put together, with their roots in the abstract rather than in the lives of the human beings who will be affected. “The women in the Home Office, are unisex loos convenient for them?” “Those afraid of dying of covid, will they refuse the jab when they see that it might save them?” “The fans of Friends, will they still turn on their televisions?” These essential questions are often regarded as almost secondary considerations when actually they are the fundamental ones
Basing theories on abstract generalisations is largely a form of laziness. The alternative of looking at how people behave is difficult because people are complex, so the theoreticians scamper to the more simplistic alternative. Start with the theory and build your system as if people are what they ought to be, rather than what they actually are. Anyone can do that. “Dividing loos means distinguishing between men and women, something which is abhorrent to the modern belief that we should abolish all distinctions in the way the sexes are treated. Ergo, the loos must be unisex and the women affected should be pleased”. When reality bit they were not. Begin with the propositions “people who do not like the idea should not be vaccinated” or “fans of Friends should not mind a change in the cast” and you get to into much the same mess.
Social theories do of course have their merits. Emphasising inclusiveness, for example, encourages people to become more considerate to each other. But waves come up and then recede and from time to time one gets the smell of a turning tide. The increasing clashes as the world of new ideas confront the rocks of practical reality is likely to end in the triumph of the latter. Yes, I think Canute would have smiled.