Speech at Contrarian Prize ceremony at Bernard Jacobson Gallery – 11 November 2021
Good evening everyone
There were times when I thought we would not be able to meet this year so I am really delighted that you are here.
What I love is the diversity of the crowd that this event attracts. As always, there are key figures here from the arts, academia, charity, politics, the media, finance, business and something close to my heart - the dance music industry.
And it is wonderful to be here for the third time in this exquisite gallery. I would like to thank Bernard Jacobson for his generosity in hosting us once again and Robert Delaney and the rest of the team for all their support in making this event happen. Bernard’s humility, charm, and unassuming manner belie the fact that he is a legend in the contemporary art world with over 50 years’ experience and has worked with several of the greats including William Tillyer, Henry Moore and David Hockney.
He is also a contrarian and has not been afraid to challenge the artistic establishment through his books, including one on the American artist Robert Motherwell who he rates more highly than the much lauded Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. He is saddened by the emphasis placed by many contemporary artists on commercial success above all else and sees artists who are true to themselves and their work as outsiders not insiders.
I am also delighted that we are joined this evening by the acclaimed investigative journalist Michael Crick. He is a master of his profession, has always been fearless in holding the powerful to account and occasionally got himself into some scrapes. Let’s take a look (video plays)
Closing down of debate and rise of cancel culture
The past 18 months have been challenging, alien, disorientating and for many they have also involved loss. At the end of 2019, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, raised the alarm. There were seven patients in his hospital who had been isolated and were exhibiting signs of a serious respiratory illness. He was summoned by the authorities and made to sign a statement in which he was accused of spreading rumours and disrupting social order. He died of Covid 19 in February 2020. His assertion that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society” was a brave one to make in a totalitarian state.
We in the West enjoy freedom of expression but that is now under threat. Li Wenliang would be disappointed and so should we.
It is difficult to track exactly how we got here. The fashion for closing down discussion with anyone who does not share a particular view appears to have emanated from university campuses in America and has now infiltrated our own in the UK. But who makes these rules remains unclear, as is who decides what is and is not fair game in the realm of public discourse.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their book, “The Coddling of the American Mind” argue that overprotective parenting has led to emotional “safetyism” trumping all other practical and moral concerns. The fear of psychological harm that words can inflict is hence cited as justification for the muzzling of debate.
Kathleen Stock, an academic, recently resigned from her position at Sussex University after being branded as transphobic for her views emphasising the importance of biological sex.
The intellectual lethargy displayed by supressing those you disagree with rather than engaging with and challenging them has now moved beyond universities and infected the great institutions of liberal democracy, most notably the media.
It is no longer enough to silence those whose views are considered objectionable they must be “cancelled” - rounded on, bullied and harassed until the baying mob has satisfied itself by destroying the individual’s reputation and often their career.
This tyranny of the minority has resulted in views that were until recently considered mainstream (and many would argue still are), now being rendered contrarian.
On this Armistice day when we remember those who lost their lives for the protection of our freedoms, including freedom of speech, the position we now find ourselves in is lamentable.
Contrarians rail against groupthink
Over the summer, as restrictions were lifted, I immersed myself in the magnificence of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. As I looked up I noticed an image of Nicolaus Copernicus, the Renaissance polymath, in the corner. It was he who in 1543 advanced the theory of heliocentricism, that the earth moved around the sun which lay at the centre of the solar system. It sparked a scientific revolution and came to present a direct challenge to the Catholic Church. Copernicus was an exemplar of the quest for knowledge, the ability to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy and an example that whilst you may be dismissed as a fruitcake, and a dissenter, you may well be right.
In contrast, a virus of groupthink now pervades many of the key institutions in our country as was highlighted in a damming report from MPs last month following a joint inquiry into the handling of the pandemic by the health and science select committees. It found that planning for a pandemic was “too narrowly and inflexibly” based on the idea of a flu-type outbreak and declared its handling as "one of the most important public health failures" in the country's history.
The polarisation of discourse
Diversity of thought has been subjugated. The Enlightenment ideal of rational thinking – the formation of one’s own opinion having considered various arguments – has been jettisoned in favour of tribalism and identity politics, where what you think is driven solely by what you are. It has rendered nuance, subtlety and the exploration of thorny subjects in good faith, redundant.
The old divisions between left and right have been cast aside. The new battleground is centred around values: pro-Brexit/anti-Brexit, pro-lockdown/anti-lockdown, pro vaccination-passports/anti vaccination passports, pro-woke/anti-woke. These are the new faultlines where division is spurred by the cauldron of social media, reductionist thinking is championed, understanding of the other is weakness, words are considered tools of violence, self-censorship is rife, moral certainty trumps objectivity, and an arms race of victimhood is being fuelled. All this is perpetuating a pandemic of conformity.
I have always been fascinated by people that have the chutzpah to challenge the status quo. That is not because I always agree with them, as I often don’t, but because they have deep convictions and often shape the future.
The Contrarian Prize was established to recognise them. All nominations come from the public via the website for individuals in British public life that have demonstrated independence of thought, courage and conviction in their actions, made a personal sacrifice for their beliefs, and introduced new ideas into the public realm or had an impact on the public debate.
There are no corporates or philanthropic foundations behind this prize. The costs are funded by a handful of individuals including myself which is in keeping with the ethos of maintaining its independence.
The winner of the prize is invited to deliver the Contrarian Prize lecture which provides a platform to engage in a public conversation encouraging debate.
Now judging the prize requires an open mind and I would like to thank the judges for the impassioned, searching and convivial discussions in determining the shortlist and the winner from the scores of nominations we received. The shortlist is not a reflection that the judges necessarily agree with the views of the individuals concerned, but a recognition of the stand that they have taken out of principle.
The prize itself is represented by an iconic sculpture designed by the renowned pop artist, Mauro Perucchetti. It is entitled “The Three Politicians”, the one who does not see, the one who does not hear and the one who does not speak. The Contrarian is the antithesis to this.
Hail the Contrarians
The Contrarians rail against the subjugation of diversity of thought. They adopt a contrarian view, not for its own sake, but because they believe it is right. They refuse to be silenced, cowed or bought-off. They are an essential part of what makes our society advance and add spice to the public discourse.
So let us applaud their Contrarianism and their abiding commitment to the mantra of the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant – Supere Aude – “Dare to Know”.
Please click onto any of the links below for the 2019 event: