The new normal?

Like many of you, the past 12 months or so has brought about very significant changes to my life and my work as a Councillor. Although I had to adopt a lower profile – no delivering leaflets, no monthly surgeries, no knocking on residents’ doors – I have still been very busy at both Councils and helping residents.

And I have been facing the same challenges as many of you – juggling the demands of home schooling with work. It has become the ‘new normal’.

Now the end is in sight, and I am looking forward over the coming weeks to see some degree of normality return.

But what is normal?

… seeing friends and family … being able to go to shops and restaurants … go on holiday …

I am sure everyone has their own measure of normal which for them, will mark an end to this pandemic.

There will be some things we have learned over the past year that will possibly enhance our lives in the future. The use of ‘zoom’ for talking to distant friends and relatives, increased flexibility in our working patterns, our appreciation of basic freedoms …

It is the last point that I have learned so much about over the course of the pandemic – how ready we are to surrender our basic freedoms, and how difficult it can be to get them back.

Twelve months ago, we all saw lockdown as a necessary price to pay to bring the pandemic under control. We willingly adapted to staying in doors for all but essential reasons. We gave up our freedom of movement. We gave up our freedom to see friends and family.

It was right that we did this, and I have little complaint.

However, as quick as the Government was willing to take away these freedoms, they need to be equally quick to restore them. I am not saying they have done anything wrong so far in the ‘roadmap’ to recovery, but it is important that we don’t take our eye off the ball. No traces of these emergency measures must be left in place for a moment longer than necessary.

I have very mixed feelings at the talk of ‘vaccine passports’ – I am at heart a libertarian – and anything that impinges on individuals’ freedoms must be avoided at all cost. The talk of compulsory vaccines is equally frightening and an afront to our freedom.

But on other hand, how do we move forward if the only thing keeping us safe is the vaccine? How do we prevent further outbreaks if there are those who choose not to have the vaccine and yet won’t declare they are a possible risk to those around them?

I certainly don’t have an answer to this, but I don’t wish to see our freedoms further eroded.

Not entirely unrelated is freedom of speech and expression. Although problems were starting to appear before the pandemic, the rise of intolerance towards those with differing views and opinions has been massive since last spring, and is something we should all be worried by.

I will start by saying there are clearly some views and opinions that need to be suppressed. I won’t spell them out here, but in a civilised society there are some ideologies and views that have no place. But these are the exception – and most of them are covered by the law of the land.

Notwithstanding these exceptions, we should be free to express and discuss controversial views and opinions; even those that some people find distasteful and go against the tide of pubic opinion.

More commonly known as the ‘cancel culture’, we have seen time and time again examples of those who dare to speak out on ‘controversial’ issues being ‘cancelled’ if their opinion is seen as incompatible with the current standards of acceptable thought, or if it tries to correct – or at least offer an alternative to – a well-established and accepted mis-truth.

We really have seen the rise of George Orwell’s ‘thought police’ !

One does not have to agree with someone’s opinion to support their right to hold and express that opinion. This is a fundamental freedom, and the day we lose that right is the day we cease to be a free country.

There have been many examples of this – some very recently and very high profile – take Piers Morgan for example. Because he dared to question the veracity of some of the claims made during ‘that interview’, he was ‘cancelled’. He lost his job.

The actor Laurence Fox made some comments last year that were considered offensive and controversial. But whatever one may or may not think of the substance of what he said, he had the right to say what he did without facing the massive backlash that has made him the pariah of the acting world.

Sadly, we have seen this happen locally, with many examples of individuals – including elected Councillors, Council Officers and others – being ‘cancelled’ for expressing and supporting particular views and opinions (or indeed, for not expressing and supporting particular views and opinions), or giving their version of the truth, contrary to that promoted by others

Those who have dared to put their head above the parapet have been subject to an ‘internet pile on’. They have been mercilessly criticised, verbally abused and subject to calls to be sacked – to have everything taken away from them – to be ‘cancelled’.

No view or opinion should be exempt from scrutiny or public debate, but there is a line which seems to be increasingly crossed; when reasonable scrutiny becomes unreasonable, where the treatment of the target is best described as bullying (although, apparently, I am not allowed to use the ‘b’ word as it offends those who fear their behaviour might be interpreted as bullying and this may damage their reputation … I say if the cap fits, wear it!).

The only people who should be offended by the use of the word ‘bullying’ are those who see traits of bullying in their own behaviour.

All of that said, I have confidence in the silent majority: most local residents are rational people with a good amount of common sense. They know the difference between reasonable debate and bullying. They know when the line is crossed.

Debate and discussion are a healthy part of our democracy. Everyone should be free to express their views and opinions without fear of the internet pile-on. Bullying and the ‘cancel culture’ have no place in a civilised country.

Ironically, I will no doubt be subject to abuse and ridicule for this post by the same small group of people who have tried – and failed – to cancel me over the past 12 months. Well, I have my bingo card ready with your names on it, and I expect to declare a full-house very shortly!

Cllr Amanda Dodwell

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