Shades of black and white

Greyhares visitor, Mike Paul, argues in favour of a little more grey all round…

It was Chou En-lai, the former Chinese premier who once said, on being asked his opinion of the effect of the French Revolution on subsequent history, “It is too soon to say.“ Now whether or not he was being genuinely profound or simply avoiding a difficult question in a rather clever way I’m unsure, but this came to mind as I was listening to yet another debate about whether or not we should have invaded Iraq. Nobody on the panel or in the audience expressed a view that was remotely “grey“; the majority were full on objectors to the invasion and the rest fierce apologists.

Now, whilst I accept that Iraq is a more emotive subject than most, this to me is a good example of a general trend, certainly in the mainstream media, away from a thorough discussion of issues and towards the promotion of black and white views and controversy. Time after time on, say, the Today programme those interviewed across all walks of life appear pressurised into coming down on one side or another or summing up their views on a complex subject in a few seconds.

And why is this happening? On one level, I believe it’s simply to do with the fragmentation of the media putting pressure on each individual medium to grab the attention of the viewer or reader and on another, down to the exponential increase in recent times in the options available to us for spending our leisure time. We now have both an unprecedented opportunity to dig deeper into any subject of interest and an unparalleled opportunity to avoid anything which we might consider at any given moment to be too serious or boring. Whatever the reasons, we appear to have entered the era of the sound bite and sound bites by their very nature need to be punchy and thereby expressive of a strong opinion.

Why is this of concern? Well on one level it isn’t. Whether we are talking about politics, religion, sport or culture I tend to get more entertained, or certainly emotionally involved, by black and white opinions than by shades of grey, particularly if I disagree with them. And whenever I watch a period drama set in Victorian or Edwardian times, when the conventions militated against plain speaking, I wonder how I would have survived without getting apoplectic with frustration.

But on a more important level I am concerned  when I see important issues oversimplified or dumbed down, particularly in those sections of the media which used to promote greater discussion, and when I watch politicians being pressurised to pander to the sound bite culture.

I can quite understand that “grey“ views generally don’t make good television, sell newspapers or secure our attention on line. It takes a rare talent to be grey and enthralling and requires a major change in the stance of certain elements of our media for such talent to be nurtured, given it would not be an easy sell in a country where the average attention span, if measurable, must have declined significantly in recent years.

The irony is, however, that given the major issues that we will increasingly have to face are both extraordinarily complex and rarely within our control as a country, there is a greater need to understand and discuss the shades of grey than ever before.


Visiting contributor: Mike Paul, 25th October 2010

Mike Paul is 61 and is married with three children, the oldest of which is 15. The family are based in Shropshire but he spends half the week in Richmond, Surrey. He has been in the Wine industry since leaving University and is currently self-employed, working as a non exec or as a consultant. He is also a keen student of political history.

2 comments on “Shades of black and white
  1. Major Tom says:

    The problem with shades of grey is that politicians (and other leaders) are paid to make decisions. You can weigh up the facts and debate as much as you like but, in the end you have to come down on one side or the other. To cite the endless Iraq qustion, you can’t partially invade Iraq you either do or you don’t invade Iraq and history (or God in Blair’s case) will be your judge.

  2. Jack Humphrys says:

    Mike Paul raises some important issues. From my experience (as an interviewee) the colour range of responses during interviews very much depended on the programme and the presenter. By dint of their styles, Paxman and the Today programme, for example, demanded black and white, sound-bite answers. Jon Snow was much happier with some grey if that was called for, and the wonderful Colin Bell on Good Morning Scotland seemed to strive for grey matter. His programmes were certainly the most pleasant to do.

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