A Rap Near the Knuckles…

I feel compelled, in light of the reaction to the previous post (which, sadly, took place mainly on facebook) to try to deconstruct this question of language and ‘political correctness’.  Graeme has posted a very interesting comment below on Jeremy Clarkson; however I want to leave Clarkson, as it were, revving up in the pits, and broaden out the discussion.

First, about taboo language.  There has always been taboo language; it’s just the nature of it which changes.  To the best of my knowledge, all cultures have taboo words; and a hundred (or even fifty) years ago ours were to do with sex and religion.  Before that, they also related to monarchs: only three hundred years ago the poet William Blake was arrested and tried for allegedly having said ‘Damn the King.’


When I was growing up nobody could say more than the odd ‘bloody’ in public without risking grave censure, and the f-word was hardly ever heard; whereas people freely used what we now call the ‘n-word’ and felt comfortable calling women ‘birds’ or ‘bits of stuff’.

On the whole I think it’s an improvement; but to begin with if people are going to complain that there are things you ‘can’t say’ nowadays first we need to acknowledge that there always were.  They just aren’t the same things.

And maybe that’s the point.  Maybe those who complain the loudest are the ones who most miss the old days, when you could call a gay bloke a poof, a woman a tart and a West Indian a w*g.
It’s no defence either to object that these words are innocent because of where they came from.  That isn’t the point.  For example, to call someone a berk is a very mild insult; and yet it comes from the rhyming slang ‘Berkhamstead Hunt’.  But to call someone a w*g is always offensive even though it’s an anagram of ‘Western Oriental Gentleman’.  The point is not where the words came from, but how they are used and how they are regarded
And yet – and yet.  There’s something not quite right here after all.  Because where there is self-censorship it means first of all that people are not convinced of the rightness of the taboo.  Which means they aren’t convinced about, say, gay rights or racial and sexual equality.  And that’s a problem, because if we’re only relying on the taboo, should the taboo be removed we will have a backlash.  And that worries me.
But there is also self-censorship among basically well-meaning Guardian readers such as myself, because we are afraid of being misunderstood.  Viz; the ridiculous fracas over Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of the word ‘coloured’.  It’s an old-fashioned word, sure – but offensive?
I don’t think so.
In a similar vein, I often hold off giving my opinion on rap music/poetry.  This is partly to void giving offence to those who practise it but also because I’m afraid of someone equating that view with racism.  It is, however, the truth.  I think rapping is very clever, sometimes even brilliant – but I can’t listen to it.  It’s a question of taste.  I just can’t stand it.  The same holds true, incidentally, for opera, which I also detest.
I think we police each other far too much.  But then, we always did…
The safest policy is, to use Steve’s words, to ‘love all, hurt none and walk in soft shoes.’
Kirk out

3 thoughts on “A Rap Near the Knuckles…

  1. I don’t think the intention behind this song was racist:

    And I think it’s the intention that counts. The danger in having ‘taboo’ words is not just, as you point out, that taboos change but also that it ignores nuance. Recently, there was a television programme where a bunch of ‘kids’ (ie, people in their twenties) surveyed some of the highlights of seventies tv. One clip showed MOR singer Jack Jones performing Randy Newman’s Love Story. The ‘kids’ were shocked and offended by the verse –

    ‘We’ll have a kid
    Or maybe we’ll rent one
    He’s got to be straight,
    ‘Cause we don’t want a bent one.’

    Leaving aside the difference in the meaning of ‘bent’ in American and British English, there’s the important point that the song was NOT (like most of Randy Newman’s songs) written from his own p.o.v.

    The Cumberbatch incident was, I think, blown up out of all proportion by people resentful of his success (and his perceived ‘privileged’ background). ‘Coloured’ was considered an acceptable description of non-whites when I was young and although I can accept that things change, I sometimes wonder what non-elected executive committees make these decisions…

    With you on rap – I’ve just got to place as much physical distance between it and myself as I can whenever it cranks up. But I have come to love opera. Hint: having access to a libretto helps, as otherwise it’s just ‘sound’.

  2. agree on some points and perhaps because im not a WOG i dont get the problem with gollywogs………i had one as a kid………i saved things from jamjars to get an enamel gollywog badge……….so maybe some things are simply that without being on the hurting end its not comprehendable to some of us……….although I know that black people have their own “endearing” terms for non-black people and nobody mentions that for some reason. Why do some terms or phrases or whateve even have a start in life…………..why is there a perception of Mexicans, for instance, sitting sleeping in the sun wearing large sombreros and ponchos? Cant blame JC for that, although he can be blamed for holding on to this perception. But in his experience it might be true (but shame on him for comparing a car to a special needs person, that was truly awful and demonstrates how his mouth works faster than his brain). In my experience the manana manana myth of the Spanish is not a myth. Ive lived it. Its there. But I wonder if somebody like JC (or is it GC? JC suggests a certain carpenters son) said a car was as sleepy as a Spaniard they would get away with it or be suspended for it. ( I also wonder if the latest spat is just his subconscious saying he has had enough and wants to be sacked, but thats another story). On the upside though, and Im really chuffed about this………you ended with my own, Love all, hurt none and walk in soft shoes………….yayyyyy !!!!

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