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From the National Gallery to the BBC, neutrality has always been an illusion

One of the National Gallery’s trustees was worried about stray dollops of hand sanitiser upsetting the delicate chemical balance of the historic building. Another asked about umbrella covers, presumably to stop the punters shaking off raindrops on to the old masters. But then came a debate about the Black Lives Matter protests unfolding literally on the gallery’s doorstep in Trafalgar Square, during which its director, Gabriele Finaldi, warned that “taking a neutral stance was no longer feasible”.
Like other museums and charities reliant on state funding, the gallery has always avoided nakedly political statements. But Finaldi felt that “the climate had changed so that silence was now perceived as being complicit”, according to minutes of the meeting released this week. Silence is violence, as the placards say. Decline to pick a side in a culture war and you’re accused of choosing by default.
But if silence is risky, so is speaking up. Just ask the National Trust, whose raison d’etre is to preserve historic buildings and so bring a forgotten past alive. Unless you think the only history worth telling is the nice bits, then the charity’s recent work tracing its properties’ connections to the slave trade is just as integral to that mission as celebrating connections to past glory. Yet the trust’s reward for digging out a hidden history was to be accused by some members of ruining a nice day out for them, prompting a warning from the head of the Charity Commission (and Conservative peer) Lady Stowell not to “lose sight” of its purpose.

These are hard times for the habitually neutral, the impartial, and anyone ever professionally required to zip it. The BBC is still tying itself in knots over a leaked instruction that journalists should avoid accusations of “virtue signalling” by not supporting campaigns “no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial”. The Beeb denies initial reports that staff were banned from going on Pride marches or support Black Lives Matter, and is of course absolutely right to insist on professional impartiality from journalists on air; reporting should mean parking your own opinions at the door, although the rise of Trump has tested journalistic ethics to the limit. Yet the BBC still fell foul of questions about why presenters can still wear Remembrance poppies, which suggests some undeniably worthy causes are still exempt from the new rule imposed on others. Why, some asked, isn’t the idea that love is love regardless of who you love, or that black lives matter every bit as much as white ones, seen as just as non-negotiable as the idea of honouring the dead?

After all, this is the stuff of broadly settled consensus for Generation Z, or at least as much a part of their everyday wallpaper as buying a poppy was to their grandparents. The notion of equality is barely even party political any more for twentysomething Tories, whose teenage memories are of David Cameron legalising same-sex marriage and who mostly couldn’t care less if some BBC hack goes to Pride or not. What may feel exhausting to older generations – the policing of language, the questioning of ideas they took for granted, the cultural landmarks now deemed problematic, the endless reasons to feel guilty – is just life for their kids. Yet for cultural institutions supposed to reflect the life of a nation or speak to all generations, the definition of what is and isn’t contentious remains – well, contentious in itself.

The idea of a divided nation can be overdone. This weekend Britain will mark a socially distant Remembrance Day on our doorsteps, and streets that turned out every week to clap the NHS will turn out again in silence. Poppies will be worn, and will mean just as much as the rainbow drawings and “thank you, NHS” stickers did, although the meaning may differ from neighbour to neighbour. Remembrance for me, living in a part of the country with a strong military presence, has become as much about solidarity with the living as honouring the dead; I have friends who serve or have served, and know this time of year awakens painful memories for some.

Remembrance feels no more political or controversial to me than clapping did, but perhaps that’s just me showing my age. By the end, even the clapping had became wearily politicised for some, consumed by arguments about whether carers would rather just have a pay rise. It’s hard, in other words, to think of anything in 2020 so universally uncontroversial, so motherhood-and-apple-pie, that someone somewhere won’t object to it. But maybe it’s a myth to think there ever was.

Why does politics keep having to be dragged into every little thing we do, eat , wear, and say? The honest answer is that it was probably there all along, but that some of us have been lucky enough not to have to see it. The easy national consensus now supposedly being shattered by pesky millennials with their divisive identity politics – a label for some reason only applied to the left, although Donald Trump built an entire presidency on the idea of downtrodden white masculinity – was perhaps only ever an illusion, maintained by shutting down dissenting minority voices and glossing over the histories that might have spoiled someone’s nice day out.

Wanting to turn the clock back to a time of not having to argue about it all is far from a neutral act, even if the young could somehow be persuaded to forget what they’ve learned about how race, sex or class shapes their lives. For how do you stay out of politics, when politics has for so long refused to stay out of you?

• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist