“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” George Orwell, Nineteen eighty four
In Two & Two, a Bafta-nominated short film, a male teacher and twelve schoolboys are in a grey, featureless classroom. Via a loudspeaker the headmaster announces that there are going to be changes and that the students must follow all instructions to the letter. The teacher starts the lesson by writing 2 + 2 = 5 on the blackboard. When the boys protest, he orders them to be silent. He then orders the boys to repeat the equation, and when one student raises his hand to say that two plus two is four, the teacher says, "Don't think, you don't have to think," and again tells the boys that the answer is five.
The teacher then orders the class to copy the incorrect equation into their books. Another student shouts that the answer is four. The teacher angrily responds, "Who gave you permission to speak?" The student defiantly maintains that two plus two is equal to four. Despite the teacher’s attempts to force the student to accept that two plus two equals five, the boy remains defiant. The teacher leaves the classroom and returns with three older students, bearing red armbands. He asks them for the solution to the equation, and they answer ‘five’ in unison. The young student is ordered to the front, where he is instructed to complete the equation, "2 + 2 = ." The teacher says that this is his last chance to give the correct answer. The three senior students suddenly point seemingly invisible rifles at the defiant boy, threatening to execute him. The boy hesitates, but then, boldly writes "4." This is followed by gunfire and the boy slumps to the ground. The rest of the class is silent, stone-faced as they struggle to absorb the ‘lesson’ they have just been given. The senior students carry out the boy’s dead body and the teacher resumes the lesson, continuing to order the students to write down "2 + 2 = 5".
Two & Two is of course an allegory, representing the absurdity of authoritarian attempts to dictate what we think. While the language in the film (Farsi) suggests remoteness from our contemporary experience, it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. Consider the 2017 National Public Radio interview in which John McEnroe had been invited to talk about his forthcoming book But Seriously. NPR reporter Lulu Garcia Navarro said
“We're talking about male players but there are of course wonderful female players. Let's talk about Serena Williams. You say she is the best female player in the world in the book.”
McEnroe: Best female player ever — no question.
Garcia-Navarro: Some wouldn't qualify it, some would say she's the best player in the world. Why qualify it?
McEnroe, caught off guard, explained that men’s and women’s tennis are very different games, and if Serena played men’s tennis, she’d probably be ranked about 700th in the world. Serena herself had made a similar comment when interviewed in 2013 by David Letterman:
“If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0, in five to six minutes, maybe ten minutes . . . . . The men are a lot faster, they hit harder, it’s just a different game.”
What McEnroe said was one of the least controversial statements it was possible to make about men and women, yet the media were apoplectic. The day after the interview, McEnroe was asked by Nora O’Donnell of CBS television if he’d like to apologise to Serena. Unsurprisingly, McEnroe refused to apologise.
O’Donnell was asking McEnroe to apologise for making a statement that is as undisputable as “2+2=4”, yet several indignant reporters accused McEnroe of subjecting Williams to an unflattering comparison.
Though McEnroe had outraged the Woke Inquisition, he was not threatened with actual harm. Not so in many other cases, where careers have been ended by the ‘third rail electrocution’ of gender politics. In May 2021 Lisa Keogh was a final year law student at Abertay University, Dundee, UK. In an on-line seminar she had the temerity to say that women had vaginas and are not as physically strong as men. As a result she was told that she would be investigated and that disciplinary action could lead to her degree being withheld, ending her ambition to be a human rights lawyer.
When medical school professors have to apologise to their students for using terms like ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘pregnant women’, and acknowledging the reality of biological sex is considered transphobic, something is seriously wrong. As journalist Katie Herzog put it:
“Revolutions can be bloodless, incremental and subtle. And they don’t require a strongman. They just require a sufficient number of well-positioned true believers and cowards.”
Martin Hanson is a retired King's College science teacher and author of school textbooks, who now lives in Nelson.