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Monday, May 5, 2014

The N-word should be put into context

The fury over Jeremy Clarkson’s use of the N-word is as risible as it is pathetic.

He should be sacked!” scream the usual suspects; politicians line up to add their shrill and opportunistic opprobrium.

Labour’s painfully PC deputy leader Harriet Harman tweeted the following unbelievably senseless statement: “Anybody who uses the N-word in public or private in whatever context has no place in the British Broadcasting Corporation.”

In whatever context? Really Harriet? Surely context is key? Words have no power without context. 

Let’s imagine a couple of scenarios:

1) Two BBC employees are discussing rap music in the office. They’re away from their desks in a relatively private space.  One gives his mate a burst of one of his favourite tracks. It features the N-word. No offence is taken as both acknowledge the N-word as common currency in hip-hop and rap. 

2) A discussion is taking place among BBC journalists who are working on a look-back feature about the famous Dambusters mission of 1943. Someone reflects how times have changed in the intervening years for the better, recalling that Wing Commander Guy Gibson found it acceptable to call his dog "Nigger".  

In both scenarios, imagine the BBC employees are black. Would Ms Harman really expect them to be sacked? What if they were white? Would this make a difference to her? 

What if you knew this blog was being written by a person of African descent. Maybe it is. Would that colour (no pun intended) your view of the arguments rehearsed herein? What if it was written by a white South African? Or a white Republican from Mississippi?

Context matters, it really does. And if the most powerful woman in the Labour Party can’t understand this, she really should be sacked. 

One thing that is unacceptable in any context is paedophilia which is ironic, given that Harriet Harman doesn’t appear to think so.  She’s expressed "regrets" that a civil liberties group she once worked for had links to pro-paedophile campaigners in the 1970s but insists she has "nothing to apologise for".

Compare and contrast Jeremy Clarkson’s conduct.

His use of the N-word came during out-takes for Top Gear which Clarkson himself sought to ensure were never broadcast. He had mumbled the word accidentally as he recited the ancient nursery rhyme Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe. He wasn’t screaming it through bared teeth at an EDL rally. 

He initially denied using the word and appeared shocked when he viewed the footage again and heard that something approximating the N-word was, kind of, audible. He issued an unreserved apology. Harman has gone out of her way to avoid doing any such thing.

But it’s not just Harriet Harman who is happy to give voice to half-baked comments when it comes to the sacred cows of political correctness.

Mary Creagh is Labour’s frontbench transport spokeswoman. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions programme she admitted she hadn’t seen the out-takes at the heart of the row but was still more than willing to pass judgement.

“I think what (Clarkson) said is abhorrent to most people,” she said. 

Mary 'Crazy' Creagh
Really? Most people probably haven’t even seen the out-takes in question, just like she hasn’t. No member of the public would have either had the footage not been leaked, probably by someone Clarkson has pissed off once too often.

And, just for a reality check, would those who have seen it really think it “abhorrent”. If the racist version of Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe fits that description, how should one describe footage of a Taliban decapitation or suicide bombing, also available on the internet?

The former editor of The Sun, Kelvin McKenzie, was alongside Creagh on the Any Questions panel. He said Clarkson was “nuts” to say what he had, given the toxic nature of the word. 

He may be right. Clarkson courts controversy deliberately to generate publicity for Top Gear and he may have lost the plot in his bid for headlines. Even thinking the N-word is madness in the current political climate. 

But if we don’t challenge politicians who insist that context is irrelevant when it comes to our use of language our free speech will be truly endangered.

And then the lunatics will finally take over the asylum.

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