Victoria Coren on Roman Polanski: Just what is it we non-intellectuals don’t get?

Dear Victoria Coren,

I’m writing in response to your Observer piece on Roman Polanski and the sin of simplification. I might as well say straight off that I don’t agree with it. But wait, don’t leave just yet! For I have a PhD! From Cambridge! Therefore I’m assuming I’m allowed opinions, too (this may be presumptuous of me; I didn’t get a first and I’m useless at Only Connect, but do bear with me).

You’re aware that your piece has angered many people. Indeed just recently you tweeted:

Ah, those silly, silly people, with their knee-jerk reactions and idiotic binary thinking. As you yourself write, “our modern world does not invite us to treat anyone as nuanced. People are heroes or villains, victims or victimisers; sometimes neither, but never both”. It takes a special kind of visionary to see through all this, doesn’t it? Most people, well, they’re just too busy getting mindlessly self-righteous to sit down, brow a-furrowed, and ponder the ways in which Roman Polanski’s work being “filled with beauty and humanity” sits uneasily beside the fact that he’s also a child rapist (because hey, that’s way too confusing for our little heads! How can he do bad things AND good things? How can anyone, other than an utter intellectual giant, cope with such thoughts without a total brain meltdown?).

I’ll be honest, I just don’t know. And yet, you’d be surprised to know, cope is what exactly what so many people do. Amazingly enough, there are plenty of people who have no desire to tell Samantha Geimer how to manage her responses to what happened to her, yet who also don’t see this as an opportunity to accuse others of reducing everything “to mindless categories of good and bad”. There are plenty of people who have no difficulty in seeing Roman Polanski both as a victim of evil and as a perpetrator but who also know that Geimer’s response to abuse isn’t one we’re allowed to hijack for “nuanced” newspaper columns. There are plenty of people who worry about the extent to which rape is continually being put “in context” as though straightforward condemnation, without all the surrounding fluff, just isn’t clever or thoughtful enough.

Yes, it’s not cool or subtle merely to say “Roman Polanski is a rapist” but he is (I’m guessing we’re on safer ground with, say, non-genius sex offender Jonathan King. As Jon Ronson wrote in a piece that out-nuances yours, “I wonder if the reason why we look less kindly upon Jonathan King is because he sang Jump Up And Down And Wave Your Knickers In The Air , while Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis”. Food for thought, eh?).

Twitter storms (of the kind your piece has no doubt kicked off) aren’t clever or subtle, but I don’t think this should be a reason to believe you’ve been proven right. All too often people are afraid to lay themselves on the line about right and wrong, for fear of looking extreme or simplistic or stupid. Being nuanced looks clever but let’s be honest — it’s also incredibly easy. Not committing yourself isn’t hard. If this is a debate at all is it really about respecting Geimer’s voice? Or is it more about silencing others for the simple reason that, to the refined ears of some, outrage and passion sound not wrong, but just too discomforting and too shrill?


(A presumably not as clever) Victoria


5 thoughts on “Victoria Coren on Roman Polanski: Just what is it we non-intellectuals don’t get?

  1. There is a great article in Bitch (The Gray Issue) called Gray Matter, by @KateHarding, about fake ‘nuances’ of rape. One of the things she deals with pretty awesomely is ‘retroactive consent’. Highly recommended reading.

  2. You go girl. My very direct and American response to your brilliant post because as an American I wouldn’t know nuance if it hit me over the head and introduced itself.

  3. Quite why Victoria Coren Mitchell sees herself as a great intellectual is baffling. She is in possession of a first degree only. The fact that it was obtained at Oxford doesn’t make it a more difficult degree. You’re more likely to get a higher class of degree at Oxford but they are not in themselves more difficult than degrees in the same subjects elsewhere. And yet I’ve met Nobel prize winners with less intellectual self-regard than this woman who reads out the answers on a tricky quiz, from a piece of paper, written by other people. The way she accuses her critics of stupidity over this issue is embarrassing.

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