Opinion: Could causing offence make us more human?

Among the wonders of Rome are the Capitoline Museums on the Piazza del Campidoglio.

Tuesday, 1st March 2016, 10:00 am
Benny Hill

The centre of the museums is based on a plan conceived by Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1536 and developed over a period of some 400 years. Among the items on display are many ancient Roman statues, including the Eros Thanatos, the dying Gaul, a resting Satyr, the Spinario and the Capitoline Venus. What all these examples of classical sculpture have in common, apart from their antiquity, is that they are nudes.

That this might be a problem, except for those unable to distinguish pornography from ancient art, has not been widely recognised until the arrival in Rome of the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. Making an official visit, it was thought that he and his entourage might find these representations of the naked human form offensive, and so they were covered up by large wooden boxes. The decision to keep these statues out of sight was taken unilaterally by the museum authorities, and was based, not so much on any understanding of Islam, but on a secular liberal worldview which is excessively cautious about giving any possible offence to anybody.

This kind of mentality is manifested in many ways. It affects, for example, the way we speak and think about issues of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and physical abilities, such that our capacity to learn to live alongside others who are different from us has become more fraught with difficulty. It has produced a kind of neo-puritanism, in which humour of the Benny Hill and Carry On variety is now frowned upon, and relations between the sexes made more of a potential minefield than ever before. So wary have we become about the possible sensibilities of others that everyday life is now more socially complex than that of our Victorian forbears.

It is likely that President Rouhani would have appreciated the beauty and technical mastery of those ancient statues, had he been allowed to see them. Perhaps, too, we might be all the better for taking the risk of giving offence if the effect of it is to make us a little more human and a little less repressed.