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Black, white, beige and colours

We live “in a world in which outrage is contagious”.

These are the words of Kim Darroch, formerly British ambassador in Washington, sacked by Boris Johnson at the behest of Donald Trump. “You have to realise,” he reflects in his recent memoir, that the political centre ground has become completely depopulated”.

His view is confirmed daily as the American election moves towards a climax, as we prepare for a second wave of the pandemic, as the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum, as Brexit negotiations become increasingly mired ahead of the looming deadline. Politicians and activists are settled in their trenches and are still digging. Between the two sides, no-man’s land is empty of all but the bodies of the fallen.

I do not have a Twitter account but it is clear that this particular social platform carries huge volumes of abuse and one-eyed opinions, enough for some high-profile users to decide that the undoubted benefits of generating rapid responses are outweighed by the sheer nastiness of much of the traffic.

If you have only a very few characters in which to express yourself it is no surprise that the first victims are nuance, moderation, even-handedness, a generous spirit. If your first interest is in holding on the upper hand then you must first satisfy and agitate your followers.

Is this true also of the wo/man in the street? Do we also live in such an angry world of black-and-white?

The spirit of the age seems to encourage us to speak rather than to listen, to shout rather than debate, to have a pre-conceived idea rather than to be unsure and exploratory. Are our conversations simply pale imitations of the speech of public figures?

You will see where this line of thought is going.

But there can be danger in seeking to avoid all extremes. The danger was highlighted to me by the love-him-or-loathe-him, Glaswegian comedian, Billy Connolly. He talked in his autobiography about the dangers of choosing ‘beige’. Beige is a colour which can ‘go with’ anything but will excite nobody. The danger of beige thinking and even-handedness is that they can come to lack all interest and conviction.

I have often found Billy Connolly funny despite his bawdy language. These days I find him even more engaging as he uses his humour to cope with his serious health problems. There is a poignancy to his words. What he says about his struggle with the disease which has threatened most things that he ever cared about could not possibly be said in 140 characters.

Connolly does not shout any longer. He does not complain. He does not seem angry. But his illness has not rendered him beige. His illness has made him see life with an enhanced seriousness. Like many comedians he is, underneath it all, a deeply serious person.

Comedians sometimes stand on holy ground because they disarm our many defences. Humour, irony, paradox, satire can sometimes go where rational argument cannot.

Occupying the middle ground does not necessarily mean being beige. There is a narrow strip of holy ground to be found between the deep trenches of unshakeable opinion on most questions of the day - large or small. It requires a little courage to stand on it between the ranks of the noisy enthusiasts on either side.

Anybody who ventures on to this middle ground risks being discounted or wounded by those with opinions – political, religious, social - which they are unwilling to shift or even re-consider. That is the risk.

Kim Darroch took that risk. He opted for life on the difficult middle ground, life in political colour which involved attempts to speak truth to power. That’s why he was sacked. He offended the thin-skinned president who leaned on the thick-skinned PM. Outrage is clearly contagious.

*Kim Darroch, Collateral Damage, Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump, London: Collins, 2020.

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