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Institutions are too quick to give in to the mob. Let’s hope the Royal Academy’s apology will change that

·3-min read
 (Sarfraz Manzoor)
(Sarfraz Manzoor)

“We had no right to judge her views, this betrayed our most important core value — the protection of free speech”. The statement yesterday from the Royal Academy appeared to be a full-throated apology to the artist Jess de Wahls after its earlier announcement that it would no longer stock her works in its store after a handful of complaints of her “transphobic views”. This represents a welcome outbreak of sanity in a debate where sense and sanity are often conspicuous by their absence.

Many years ago I used to work for a television news organisation and it was sometimes my job to log complaints. This was in the days before social media so the offended had to actually call in and I would note their comments but my recollection is that — barring factual errors — the significance we gave to these complaints was minimal.

These days social media means the judgments of a handful can be amplified and the resulting noise can drown out the quieter voices suggesting the virtues of nuance, perspective and context. While it may seem that a rush by corporations to give in to criticism represents progress, I am not convinced.

I am a judge on the South Bank Show Arts Awards and among the works we shortlisted was Nixon in China from Scottish Opera. The production was praised by critics but then a Labour MP — sadly from my home town of Luton — and a London-based composer complained that the production used “yellowface” — even though the show’s producers explained that the make-up was intended to portray the character as old and in ill-health. The production was also criticised for only having one east Asian person playing a major part. Scottish Opera could have defended their nomination — maybe reminded those complaining that the singer who played Nixon was black — but instead they issued an abject apology saying “it is clear that we are seen as part of the problem, we promise to be part of the solution”. They also withdrew their nomination for the award and Sky Arts, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, and also apologised for “the offence caused by the nomination”.

This is exactly the kind of fear-riven capitulation we need to resist. I was a teenager in the late Eighties when Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. I remember vividly the scenes of Muslims burning books. I remember feeling puzzled: if they didn’t like a book why not just not read it? Muslims were routinely accused of being too easily offended. It can sometimes feel as if everyone else has now caught up, which is why I found the RA’s statement so welcome — hopefully it represents a turning of the tide away from kneejerk capitulation to the easily offended. We often hear about the importance of diversity in art and culture but true diversity also means hearing views you might personally find uncomfortable.

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What do you think about the Royal Academy’s apology? Let us know in the comments below.

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