Terence Blacker: Speak the truth and be damned

Share
Related Topics

In order for any kind of civic virtue to be taken seriously in 2008, some kind of award must be created for it – a prize to remind us all that, in spite of all the terrible things that are going on, some good still exists in the world. There is the Pride of Britain Awards for our teachers, social workers and have-a-go heroes. Winner of Rural Hero of the Year is shortly to be announced.

Here is an idea for a prize that might be a slightly tougher sell: Independent Thinker of the Year. Modern culture likes the idea of intellectual integrity, and approves of people whose pronouncements are against the grain of permissible public opinion, but only in theory. Never has deviating from socially acceptable lines of thought been more likely to provoke outrage. In fact, sometimes it seems that the best way to judge whether a view is worth taking seriously is to look at the response to it: the stupider the reaction, the more worthwhile the original remark.

Over the past few days, Professor George Steiner and Dame Helen Mirren have engaged in some dangerously independent thinking around controversial areas. In an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Steiner suggested that there are different grades of racism. With equal recklessness, Mirren told an interviewer that rape is not always as straightforward as we would like to think.

The Steiner controversy has been the nastier of the two, causing the American writer Bonnie Greer to describe him as "a cranky old man" who "doesn't know what racism is". Steiner had made "some rather lazy and offensive generalisations", according to Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council.

Cranky, lazy, offensive: what exactly had Steiner said to cause all this outrage? "It's very easy to sit here in this room and say 'Racism is horrible'. But ask me the same thing if a Jamaican family moved next door with six children and they play rock and roll music all day ... In all of us, in our children, and to maintain our comfort, if you scratch beneath the surface, many dark areas appear."

Dark areas, lurking beneath the surface, are of course what our society would prefer to ignore. It is better by far to take the stupid option and confuse, as Bonnie Greer did, the identification of racial prejudice with prejudice itself. Steiner had spoken about an imagined situation with a Jamaican family: ergo, he was being offensive. He had suggested that, below the usual liberal pieties about race lies something trickier and less easy to recognise: he was cranky and – the ultimate insult – old.

Helen Mirren, being an actress rather than an intellectual, has been treated more respectfully, but has all the same been accused of making "dangerous" remarks by none other than the Solicitor General, Vera Baird. If a woman, undressed and engaging in sexual activity with a man, should say "no" and be ignored, then rape has been committed, Mirren told GQ magazine, but the offence should not always end up in court. "It is one of the subtle parts of the men/women relationship that has to be negotiated and worked out between them."

Life, Steiner and Mirren are saying in their different ways, is complicated. it is easy to pay lip-service to the great contemporary pieties of the day, but a true grown-up will recognise that, beyond easy, unquestioning outrage, in those dark areas of human behaviour, the reality is open to nuance and complexity. If that is crankiness, we need more of it.

terblacker@aol.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Clean energy should be our mission to the moon

Martin Rees
Angela Merkel and David Cameron say goodbye in the Bundeskanzleramt after their meeting in Berlin, Germany, 29 May 2015  

The complacency of Europhiles could lose them the referendum

Steve Richards
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral