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.’