“It is perhaps the one word that I would be horrified to hear myself using even in private, but why? Only because the ghettoising of the word has created a more powerful cultural meme than the word itself.”
I’m sorry, but I’m tired of being told that you have a right of linguistic appropriation and I don’t.
I’m sorry your feelings are hurt by words, but I too am a minority. A minority of one.
I’m sorry you feel disempowered and angry when powerful words remind you of things you want to be allowed to forget. But I’m beginning to ask myself, if it is so easy to be branded as some kind of -ist for saying anything that other people have decided is culturally offensive, then maybe it would be easier to say yes, okay, if that’s what you think, I am an -i st, so what? What do you want to make of it?
Please believe me, I have no intention of diminishing you or preventing you from living a fulfilled and happy life. So why do you want to stigmatise me?
Since I’m not using words to gain or retain power over you, but only to communicate meaning somehow? Since being an -ist is no-one’s problem but my own? Since being the kind of person you think is an -ist is no-one’s problem but yours?
I was brought up on the old saw: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. I want to tell feminists and black people and gay people and Moslems and racists and nationialists and people in wheelchairs and other little knots of people who hang together for safety and need to reclaim their power by denying me the right of free speech to man-up, if it’s okay to use the phrase. Why does what I say even matter? Get over it, I’ve got my own battles to fight. I’m not you either.
But it’s too late now. There’s a whole vocabulary that was current when I were a lad, that is so far off-limits now that even I feel embarrassed when I think about it, and I’m the one who’s arguing here for linguistic freedom.
Because we need the whole of the language to communicate; a robust language, not a language with ragged holes cut in it. A language with words ghettoised by power-hungry special-interest groups and people sensitive about their cultural history or mental disfigurements and people whose personal power is magically restored by telling others what they can and cannot say to their faces is not a language: it cannot usefully communicate anything genuine or real.
Because, you see, I’m not intending to insult you, or remind you that things weren’t better before, or somehow force you into a historical or cultural position, or sneer at you, or belittle you, nor do I wish to remind you of things you would rather forget by evoking the old names, or to pretend that I’m better than you, or different from you; or by use of special words somehow to cast powerful juju over you. You are a free agent.
So be one.
But I am at least conscious of the history of words. Of course I know that ‘nigger’ was a disparaging term in a culture of disparagement in a time of disparagement and the only people who are now allowed to use the word in a post-ironic context are the ‘niggas’ themselves, or rather, that tough, self-referential, streetwise element of the community – other humans are available. It is perhaps the one word that I would be horrified to hear myself using even in private, but why? Only because the ghettoising of the word has created a more powerful cultural meme than the word itself. What does that say about it?
I understand that you think that by cutting the word ‘nigger’ out of general discourse, the disparagement will go away, but that is irrational. People who feel the need to disparage and demean you will simply find other words; and, if without words, then with thoughts. Their thoughts cannot be cut out, other than by the twin-bladed scissors of empathy and wisdom.
That it could be a term of contempt when spoken in a contemptuous way, by contemptuous people with a contemptuous attitude, does not make the word more ‘racist’ than any other term that distinguishes between a ‘person of colour’ or whatever euphemism is currently held to be dignified enough, and a person of… well, go on, what? What am I, a person-of-no-colour? A ‘Nutritionist’, possibly? A ‘Nasturtium’? A ‘Neutrino’?
Go on, you want to own the language, you give me the word for me.
Should I be happy that homosexuals have appropriated the word gay? It was a perfectly good word. It meant lighthearted, decorative. It was a useful word. It rhymed easily.
Now I feel homophobic, just using the word homosexuals. Actually, I am homophobic. I try not to be, people should be allowed to get on with whatever they want to do, wherever and however they want to do it. Judge them after, not before, the deed. After ten years spent in single-sex boarding schools, unfortunately, I am all in favour of double-sex. (I was once made an honorary lesbian by the ladies who ran the canteen at college, but that’s another story.)
Now here’s another controversy over the irritating boy-man Clarkson. What has he said now?
For some reason best known to himself, he has recited an old nursery rhyme containing the word n….. You see, I daren’t even write it in context, lest it be taken out of context. Did he put the word in his childishly jocose Top Gear motoring programme, that is watched by millions of chuckling petro-cretins the world over? No, he muttered it in what I think was probably an off-air mic check. God knows why, he probably thought to himself, I will say the naughtiest thing I can think of (after pee-po-belly-bum-drawers) and no-one will hear me, tee-hee.
And now the fur is flying once again. Anti-racists (97% of the universe is composed of anti-racism, although scientists can’t see it yet) are demanding that the BBC should deliver his head on a plate, seemingly unaware of the fact that he is an independent producer, not a BBC employee, and his show is all that is keeping the Corporation afloat.
Clarkson must not be allowed to make jokes about racism and racist jokes, because making jokes about jokes is worse than being serious, even if the jokes are being made by a humorist to show how offensive the original jokes may be, and how thoughtlessly racist they are who laugh at them. A man who makes jokes about racist jokes by making racist jokes is a racist and cannot be allowed to poison the nation with his presence on television, even if while he is on television he is not being particularly racist.
I have really got to the point where I have to put my hands up and say, okay, I’m homophobic because I wouldn’t have sex with another man, let alone Jeremy Clarkson. The thought actually revolts me, and I’m racist because I’m me and not you, okay? You should be pleased you’re not me.
Nor do I have any intention of insulting you, unless you annoy me. Which you are doing, with this pained expression you put on when people use words you have decided are demeaning to your personal community, even if they do so in a context which shows they are perfectly well aware that the words are demeaning and do not intend them to be.
I demand the right somehow to make you recognise that you are not me. And to find ways to verbalise that recognition, that difference, regardless of what you may think it is appropriate for me to say.
In the words of the great Robert Zimmerman:I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you Beat or cheat or mistreat you Simplify you, classify you Deny, defy or crucify you All I really want to do Is baby be friends with you.
And don’t ever call me baby! Okay?
A BBC local radio DJ has been forced to quit his job after playing the 1935 recording of Ambrose singing The Sun Has Got His Hat On. (Why he did it, God knows. That’s BBC local radio for you. He’d probably run out of needletime for anything still in copyright.)
The lyrics include the lines (in reference to the sun): “He’s been turning negroes out in Timbuktoo, and now he’s coming over here to do the same to you.”
It was supposed to be a joke. Historically, people of colour tend to come from countries of sun. That is, of course, not intrinsically funny. Nor is the idea of people of pallor sunbathing to achieve darker skin. We mustn’t laugh.
The Sun Has Got His Hat On is a culturally mildly offensive witticism fairly typical of its dimwitted time and deserving at best of a shrug and getting on with the ironing. It is hardly the same as calling someone a ‘black bastard’ to their face, is it? Or refusing a gay couple a bed for the night in your B&B?
But it is the use of the word ‘negroes’ in the modern-day context of cultural fascism (I can no longer write the words ‘political correctness’) that appears to have worried the station manager, in the wake of the Clarkson row. (BBC local radio station managers tend to think that what happens today in Cleckheaton, with its 243 elderly listeners, happens tomorrow in the world.)
Not only that, but in reporting the story on the news, the Radio 4 newsreader was abjectly forced to explain that the song contained ‘the n-word’, So it could not even be spoken in the context of a supposedly objective report on the incident. What was this terrible word, that we were not being allowed to hear? Nitrogen? Nephritis? Newcastle?
This is self-censorship carried to the extreme. What else are we not being allowed to hear? That we are deporting all the Moslems on trains to Poland? That farmworkers are starving in Lincolnshire? That Chancellor Osborne has run off with the money? What are these ‘culturally sensitive’ apparatchiks (whose own language we no longer fully understand) really afraid of?
Now we know, it is of losing their jobs. Next, we will all be wearing armbands.