The Royal Academy issued a statement yesterday apologising to the artist Jess de Wahl for judging her views after a couple of complaints about her “transphobic views” rushed in. This apology read “We had no right to judge her views, this betrayed our most important core value — the protection of free speech” and was welcomed as a fresh breath of sanity by many.
Social media has given a lot of power to people and often their loud, harsh judgments trump over the quieter voices talking about virtues of perspective, subtlety, and context. While many believe that criticism represents progress, I remain thoroughly unconvinced.
We are too quick to give in to the mobs because of the fear of controversy. I remember such an incident when I judged a show in the South Bank Show Arts Awards. Among others that were shortlisted, was ‘Nixon in China’ that belonged to the Scottish Opera. This production was one of the best ones we saw and was praised by many until a Labour MP and a composer from London accused the production of “yellowface”, despite being told that the makeup was to make the actor look ‘sickly’. The Scottish opera, instead of defending their nomination, apologised for ‘the offence caused’, and pulled themselves out of the nomination for the award.
A similar incident occurred when I was a teenager and a book called ‘The Satanic Verses’ was published by Salman Rushdie and followed strong protests among the Muslims. I still remember thinking to myself: why didn’t they choose not to read the book if it offended them so much? Muslims were notorious for being offended too easily back then but now, it feels like everyone else has caught up. Perhaps this is why the apology issued by the Royal Academy was welcomed in a world full of the easily offended.