Speak the truth and be damned

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.