Berk is defined by the Collins English dictionary as “a stupid person; fool”. Its use has, to me, always implied a degree of ridicule although its origins are really quite offensive (look it up).
That doesn’t make it any less appropriate for Sir John Hayes, who is one of a disturbingly large group of Tory backbenchers who can be relied upon to say stupid and crass things at moments of national crisis.
Here he is on the subject of the record-breaking heat: “This is not a brave new world but a cowardly new world where we live in a country where we are frightened of the heat. It is not surprising that in snowflake Britain, the snowflakes are melting. Thankfully, most of us are not snowflakes.”
Those not in the confirmed berks club will today, on this second day of living in an oven, be largely listening to the Met Office, to doctors, and other members of the coalition of the sensible. We’ll be doing the responsible thing: staying out of the sun as much as we can and doing our best to keep hydrated and cool. We’ll be checking on older relatives, and otherwise getting on with it.
There is a whole group of parliamentary Tory berks who elected him chairman. They’re hilariously called the “Common Sense” group, from which there is clearly a missing “non”. Trouble is, berks with half cooked, thoroughly stupid ideas, have been proliferating like fat flying ants in the sunshine of late. Some of them have very large platforms, often built up with the assistance of social media. Anti-vaxxers are still all over the place. Climate change deniers are still selling their lethal snake oil even with the mercury pushing 40 and wildfires burning through large parts of Europe.
Planet Earth is saying: “Oi, you lot better get this sorted out quick or I’m going to royally mess you up. I’ve done it before, without any help from meteorites. Ask your geologists.”
Did you know there is still even a flat earth society? Kyrie Irving, an NBA player whose current contract is worth north of $136m and who went to an elite US university (Duke) before signing it, once publicly questioned whether the earth was flat on a podcast. To promote conversation, you see. He eventually said sorry to science teachers, and so he should have.
But while flat earthers are basically harmless, infuriating though they may be to people who live in reality town, it is impossible to be quite so sanguine about some of the others. And they have proved highly skilled at building up followers.
Those followers aren’t all berks. Some are anti-establishment types, disinclined to believe official pronouncements for whatever reason. Some of them have jobs and children, and a cost of living crisis to deal with, which means they might not be paying close attention to current events. Some of them may get sucked into social media echo chambers. Experience teaches us that it is terrifyingly easy to do that.
The consequences can be disastrous.
The anti-vax hysteria whipped up during the worst of Covid got people killed. Some of them put up videos while they were dying, recanting their previous views. They were heart-breaking. We may yet see more of their like. And it’s not just Covid. Resistance to vaccination, one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements, has played a role in periodic outbreaks of measles, which has staged something of a resurgence.
The (adopts nasal whine) “suck it up, snowflake, it’s only summer heat and we all lived through 1976” brigade will probably also get people… wait they have. People have drowned trying to cool off. Did you notice that, deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, when you were telling people to enjoy the sunshine? Is this you angling for the chairmanship of the Common (non-)Sense Group when you return to the back benches, which in a sensible world would be yesterday. No? Thought not. (They are, of course, lying. While 1976 was toasty it wasn’t like this. It was several degrees cooler at its worst.)
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What these issues have in common is that parts of the media still have a tendency to frame them as debates on which there are two sides with equal validity, even though on the one side you have science, sensible advice, and dare I say it, common sense. On the other you have lethal fruit loops.
These conversations badly need a reset. Debate is a wonderful thing, but is it really a debate when one side says the earth is flat, solar radiation is no worse than magic moonbeams, vaccines have chips made by Bill Gates in them. It is perfectly possible to distinguish legitimate disagreements over policy positions, culture, sport, you name it, from science vs bulls**t.
I guess we always have our friends to ridicule. Not our friends and neighbours who’ve spent too much time on Facebook. I’m talking about people like “Sir” John. Look, he’s spilled the milk from his fruit loops down his tie. And the food colouring has turned it a funny colour. What a berk.