No more shades of grey: why, in a world of paradoxes, can't we hold contradictory ideas in our minds?

Judge Peter Bowers is right. Whether in politics or our personal lives,

we think in binary terms. This is the tragedy of our species

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There was something deeply symptomatic about Judge Peter Bowers this week describing the burglar Richard Rochford as “brave” and David Cameron, without actually having any detailed knowledge of the case, immediately going on ITV’s breakfast programme to insist that burglary was, in fact, cowardice. Cameron insisted that he was going to give householders the right to defend themselves, violently if necessary, against intruders – which would no doubt increase the amount of courage it would take for someone to break into a house.

Perhaps this was his intention – to promote courage in burglars, and to weed out the cowardly ones. More likely it is simply a result of the kind of muddled thinking that seems to afflict us all when it comes to moral reasoning. This is not an attack on politicians, or burglars for that matter. As a novelist who is interested in exploring grey areas, I am frequently taken aback by the human determination to make everything into a black and white issue.

Similar examples came when the 9/11 terrorists were described as “cowardly” when, however malign, they clearly were not, or when government drugs adviser David Nutt said taking ecstasy was statistically less dangerous than horse riding – which it is. He paid with his job, and anybody who wishes to speak the uncomfortable truth in the face of tribal opinion takes the same risk.

A civilised society like ours remains deeply uneasy with shades of grey. Obviously a burglar can do a bad thing and also be brave. I make no comment on whether it was true in the case of Richard Rochford, only that it was likely. Walking into someone else’s house not knowing if there is going to be a big bloke with a carving knife on the other side of the door cannot be a pastime for the faint-hearted. If you are stupid, drugged or desperate enough, bravery may not be an issue, but it is self-evidently likely to be.

Before all you left-liberals out there start hugging yourself on how tolerant you are about grey areas, compared with the rabid right, hang ’em and flog ’em brigade, I think the left is equally culpable. While Julian Assange is not accused of rape, his case highlights this very well, with the cries that “rape is rape” from those who believe that sexual violation is the primary moral issue, against those who think that civil liberties are the primary moral issue, and that one of set of issues is stacked against the other. This is absurd, but it is almost risky to say it is absurd. The issues are not stacked against one another. Furthermore, all rapes are not equal, any more than all murders are equal, which is why there are three degrees of it in America, and many mitigating circumstances here. To be dragged into a bush by a violent stranger and brutally raped is self-evidently different in degree from agreeing to having sex with a man when drunk, and then realising the next morning that you were not properly responsible for your choice.

This is not exactly parallel to the Assange allegations but the point stands – or at least is arguable. Likewise the fact that Assange is a civil liberties hero does not mean he cannot be capable of very sleazy and illegal behaviour. I know that even by stating these facts, I am being a hostage to fortune, but that is the nub of the matter. Clear thinking on all emotive issues is closed down by tribal loyalties. I am not being a “good” liberal by not agreeing that all rapes are precisely morally identical, therefore I must be bad person, or worse, a supporter of George Galloway.

All rapists are usually condemned as evil and beyond redemption by the left, who simultaneously, with their relativists’ hats on, deny the possibility of evil. You will rarely hear a feminist defending a rapist the grounds of his upbringing.

This inability to hold contradictory facts in one’s head – when in my view the whole human world is one of paradox and uncertainty – is what gets in the way of genuine , useful debate at all levels, both personal and political. We think, even at the highest level, primarily with our emotions, which is why left and right continue to endure even when the facts of politics and existence are ultimately the same. We tend to believe, however much we pay lip service to reason, what we find it emotionally reassuring to believe.

The clearest example of this in my memory was the James Bulger case. This illuminated emotional, polarised thinking on both sides. For the right wing, and probably the average person in the street, it was doubtless straightforward. The boys who killed James Bulger were born wicked and deserved anything the justice system could throw at them.

For the left, again, evil is held not to exist (except within selected enemies, racists, rapists, Tony Blair and so on); therefore, Thompson and Venables must have had their personalities disastrously warped by their social circumstances, even though countless children who have far worse social circumstances do not abuse and murder two-year-olds.

The ability to hold two apparently contradictory ideas in the head was lacking then and is still. That the child perpetrators themselves might have been subject to abuse, and yet found enjoyment in cruelty and the exertion of power over another, seemed to be an equation that no one was prepared to entertain. The Lord of the Flies, held at one level by good liberals as a classic, was null and void as a moral lesson. It was one or the other.

We think at a binary level, both politically and personally, and this primitive approach is our tragedy. I recently nearly lost a very close friend because I asserted that women were different from men. This intelligent, sensitive and kind woman was infuriated to the extent that she nearly threw me out of the house.

The fact that women and men behave in hugely different ways in terms of consumption, leisure activities and media choices – and to say people behave differently is the same as saying they are different – was apparently controversial in a way I had not anticipated.

I made no comment on whether the differences were culturally conditioned or innate, as I think the evidence is insufficient one way or the other. It is not a question that has been, or can be settled. But even to admit one’s ignorance in the case of impassioned argument is no excuse. One must stand one side of a wall or another, or risk being condemned as a traitor.

I don’t see any solution to this game of black and white that we play every day. But I do know that is corrosive to what I think is my only real moral ideal as a novelist, that of the truth. At our deepest level, we are uncertain, and we fear that we are uncertain, thus we passionately assert our convictions, whistling loudly in the dark. But we should be brave enough to say we don’t know, or that we aren’t sure, or that we must wait upon the facts.

Until the day we do we are condemned always to irreconcilable division. And I fear that this week’s events proved, as next week’s events will also prove, that we are very far way from that crucial evolutionary step

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