I WAS reminded of an extraordinary event which occurred when I was Education and Employment Secretary (more on that later) when I heard of the decision by University of Manchester Students’ Union to argue for audiences not to clap.
If you haven’t come across this extraordinary piece of nonsense, this is about hijacking the important issue of British Sign Language (BSL) by indicating that those who are hard of hearing, or of a nervous disposition, might well be deeply upset and inconvenienced by people putting their hands together.
By encouraging “jazz clapping” which involves moving your hands outwards, palms facing away, I feel, in one sense, quite sorry for the students who initiated this politically correct approach to protecting their fellow students and citizens.
They obviously genuinely meant well, and believed that they were being thoughtful about others. That is to give them the benefit of the doubt.
However, what lies behind gestures of this sort is a deep misunderstanding about how those who have very specific needs – sensory deprivation and the like – would wish the rest of the world to behave.
This brings me back to the interesting experience of my own.
Many moons ago, I was in the middle of one of my many controversial clashes with the teaching unions.
Bizarrely, I was just announcing a massive increase in funding for both building and reconstructing schools, and for school budgets, which had been so badly hit over the previous decade.
In return, I wanted a genuine drive to dramatically improve standards and proper evaluation of the contribution that teachers were making before they went up the pay scale.
At what was considered to be a reasonably moderate union (now amalgamated), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, I received a very polite and respectful welcome, a little different to one or two of the experiences of shouting, heckling and waving flags which I happily enjoyed elsewhere.
However, a cunning plan had been put together which, in terms of organisation, actually worked. At the end of my oration, instead of boos and catcalls, there was absolute total silence.
It is hard to describe the impact. For anyone used to public speaking, appearing on a public platform and expecting at least some reaction, it would have been bad enough. If you can’t see, it’s devastating.
I don’t expect ever, and I didn’t then, to be treated any differently to anyone else so it never occurred to me until much later than this had far greater impact on me than it might have done on someone who could see the audience.
There are often unintended consequences of gestures like the one by Manchester Students Union.
The same is true in relation to people’s condescending and often patronising approach to race and other equality issues. Instead of people speaking for themselves, those parading their concern about others, and their wellbeing, decide to make decisions for them.
When I was leader of Sheffield City Council, we had a bizarre incident. A well-meaning council officer decided that the term ‘black’ was discriminatory. So words like ‘blackboard’ or ‘blackballed’ were to be ruled out of council reports.
When I found out about this, I immediately intervened, although, by then, it had been given a public airing.
I received an avalanche of letters. Not from trendy liberals but primarily letters from the African Caribbean community in the city. Yes, I mean lots of letters!
And what did they say? ‘Thank you’. They said we don’t want other people speaking for us, and creating tension and unwanted debate on our behalf. Words ‘in the right context’, to mis-quote Humpty Dumpty, ‘mean what we know they mean’.
In my early days, I don’t think I would have continued in politics if ‘jazz clapping’ had been the order of the day. How could I possibly know whether I was getting through to the audience, touching a nerve or lifting spirits?
It is just normal to test out and to value a reaction, good or bad, in respect of oratory – which itself seems to be going out of fashion.
Of course, sensitivity to the ever-increasing fragility of the emotional state of young people is to be welcomed. But all of us live in the real world, which is the world that other people inhabit. So I don’t expect that when people are making public presentations, delivering lectures and the like, they will decline to put up slides, on the grounds that this would be extremely upsetting to me given that I can’t see them!
Just because I can’t take advantage of a particular aspect of life around me, or would find it somewhat bewildering or even excluding, doesn’t mean that everyone else should not get on with their life.
Sorry but it’s true. Consideration and where possible compensating action yes, gesturist rubbish – no.
So, next time you see me in an incredibly busy and over noisy restaurant – which, if I can help it, will not happen – don’t spare a thought for the fact that I’m having real difficulty with conversation and decide that everyone in the in the venue should ‘eat without speak’.
Instead, give me a bit of advice on where I might find a quiet corner to engage in a dying art – conversation.
Lord Blunkett, from Sheffield, is a Labour peer. He was Education and Employment Secretary from 1997 to 2001.