There’s a rule of thumb in journalism that when something happens once it’s a phenomenon, if it occurs twice it’s a coincidence. But if it occurs three times it’s a bona fide trend with all that implies.
I thought of it when I read about a speech given by Alex Mahon, chief executive of Channel 4, who bemoaned how social media has left Generation Z ill-prepared for the world of work and lacking the ability to get along with colleagues who might have different views.
“They haven’t got the skills to discuss things, they haven’t got the skills to disagree,” she told the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge.
Her words echo those of one of our most eminent scientists, the internationally renowned evolutionary biologist Prof Richard Dawkins who has expressed the same concern, albeit in a different context.
He is horrified by the emergence of “cancel culture” in which militant transgender activists seek to censor anyone who fails to endorse the (crackpot, outlandish and nonsensical) view that a biological man can become a biological woman.
“The worst aspect is that if someone disagrees with you, they won’t engage in debate, instead they will brand you hateful, cancel you and sometimes destroy your career,” he told me when I met him last week.
“We need to discuss these things, to listen as well as speak. Instead, people get shut down.”
It’s a scenario all too familiar to those who have been the focus of the frenzied transgender witch-hunt; from the orchestrated pile-on endured by Harry Potter author J K Rowling to philosophy academic Prof Kathleen Stock who was threatened, harassed and bullied out of her academic post after a campaign by staff and students alike.
Her crime? A belief in biology. She too expressed her frustration at the lack of dialogue. Time and again she has invited discussion, only to be met with abuse.
Over at Channel 4, Mahon cites an over-reliance on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube for undermining young people’s communication abilities.
“What we are seeing with young people who come into the workplace, Gen Z, particularly post-pandemic and with this concentration of short-form content, is that they haven’t got the skills to debate things.”
It’s a genuinely thought-provoking insight into why some youngsters refuse to engage; it’s because they haven’t been shown how to marshal facts and put forward a cogent case in defence of their position.
So what to do? Prof Dawkins has a proposal.
“I think children should be taught critical thinking from an early age,” he explained to me. “Teach them how to discuss and how to argue based on evidence, rather than everybody citing their own ‘lived experience’, which is of no relevance to the rest of the planet.
“Young people are inevitably swayed and carried along by ideology and I do have some sympathy for them, so let’s give them the tools to think for themselves.”
Here we have three intelligent, informed voices urging us to teach children how to articulate their feelings and how to give others a fair hearing. It’s certainly a trend – it needs to be transformed into a movement effecting real change in how we educate and prepare the next generation for life in an online age.