Everyone is entitled to respect and to be treated with equality, irrespective of race or gender. I don’t seriously think anyone with any common sense believes otherwise.
But there is a difference between respect and political correctness, or more accurately, what people perceive to be correct.
It is impossible now to make a gender-specific reference to anything without stirring up a hornets’ nest of outrage, some of it sincerely held, some misplaced and some manufactured by so-called social justice warriors determined to see trouble where none exists.
It happened last month when the BBC announced that the next Doctor Who would be female, and this week we witnessed the shoe firm Clarks being vilified on Twitter for marketing a range of girls’ shoes named Dolly Babe, with a heart motif printed on the insole.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, joined in the kicking, saying it was “almost beyond belief” that a major company could think such a thing acceptable. Others put the boot in, too. A knee-length boot, I think, with a high heel.
Clarks is a family firm founded by a family of Somerset Quakers – yes, those radicals – and is not used to controversy except, perhaps, at the till. “What? £45 for a pair of school shoes he’ll have grown out of in two months?”
I apologise. I shouldn’t refer to a child as “he”, especially given Clarks’ attempt at damage limitation. It was working hard, it said (that old PR platitude) to ensure its ranges reflected its gender-neutral ethos.
Gender neutral? In footwear?
In the last shoe shop I was in – it may well have been Clarks – the genders were separated by a staircase, and I’d have been thrown out if I’d asked to try on a pair of stilettos for men.
Look, I understand that the name Dolly Babe suggests a certain stereotype, and that the transgression (is that an acceptable word nowadays?) was compounded by the fact that Clarks has a boys’ football-themed shoe called Leader. But it also has a boys’ style called Maris Fire, which I thought was a type of potato. And among its girls’ styles are Sprint and Hero. So it doesn’t sound to me as if there is malevolent sexism at play here.
And besides, who even notices what a shoe is called? No-one, certainly no child, goes into a shoe shop and chooses a pair based on what is printed next to the barcode. I defy anyone to name any of the shoes in their wardrobe; the pair I’m wearing now might be Hush Puppies Halfwits, for all I know. The only people who look at the names are the staff in the shop – I remember this from my Saturday job in the early 1970s, at what I must now call Freeperson Hardy Willis.
We have moved on since then. A quick trawl through the archives from those days reveals that Clarks girls’ styles used to have a glittery heel and a “magic key” that doubled as a piece of jewellery. But then, as now, no-one forced children to wear shoes they didn’t like or with whose brand image they didn’t identify.
I’m sure I’m not the only parent to have noticed that kids are very particular about what they will put on their feet. Those pink hearts on the insole will be irresistible to some children; anathema to others. They are smart enough to choose.
My own preference as a schoolboy was for a brand of shoe called Wayfinders, which had animal paw prints on the sole and a compass concealed in the heel. I liked these despite the fact that I didn’t identify with animal trackers or adventurers. I wouldn’t have been able to use the compass to find my way out of the shop.
Somewhere beneath all this is a serious point: people should be defined by their qualities, not their gender. And it’s perfectly reasonable to encourage this at an early age; for toy shops, for instance, to arrange their stock according to theme and not separate them into boys’ and girls’ ranges.
It’s also not undemocratic for companies to be named and shamed when they get too big for their knee-length boots – even when the name-calling is done from behind a social media screen that has the effect of filtering out the normal rules of civility.
But this latest skirmish, escalated by technology that fills the timelines of tweeters with opinions they already hold, belongs on the bandwagon of “me too” political correctness that is becoming a parody of itself.