Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show

When writing below about the latest Big Brother race row, I noted the question of linguistic taboos, and this is worth going into a little more. From the evidence of the phone-ins and message boards, lots of people are giving off about the bad influence of hip-hop artists and black comedians on our youth. I beg to differ. I don’t blame Chuck D or Chris Rock; I blame Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825). If you know your literature, you’ll know Bowdler as the man who gave his name to the English language by producing a “clean” edition of Shakespeare, removing all the innuendos about pricks and cunts that saturate the Bard’s work.

So the English language, or it may be better to say middle-class Anglo-American people, have a very sharply defined sense of linguistic taboo. What has happened since the 1960s is that the locus has shifted from sexual taboos – most of those have been broken – to the need to avoid being nasty about minority groups. The dopier end of political correctness manifests this by declaring certain words to be evil, regardless of context. A linguist or anthropologist, on the other hand, will see context as king. Which isn’t so bizarre – the excellent Sonia Deol had an extensive discussion yesterday on how young Asians in Brum will talk about Pakis, but you don’t like to hear the word from a white person.

Older readers will recall Randy Newman’s classic album Good Old Boys, and its lead song “Rednecks”. This song, a satire of Southern racism, was itself declared racist by a legion of busybodies because of its repeated use of “nigger”. Obviously they didn’t bother listening to the sense of the lyrics. Newman was so annoyed by this boneheaded reaction that he wrote “Short People”, which busybodies also protested on behalf of the vertically challenged, although lots of short people really liked it.

There has come to be an obsession with expunging “hate speech” in the Orwellian sense that, if you censor a bad word, people will grow unable to think the bad thought behind it. So racism or homophobia are reduced down to vocabulary, regardless of whether there is malice involved, and cut off from material things like discrimination or violence.

Partly I think this is a Belfast thing. If you ring a phone-in on British radio – even Garry Bushell on talkSPORT – and say something openly racist, you’ll be cut off instantly. Racism does get into polite discourse, but mainly as insinuation. By contrast, if you listen to Talk Back on Radio Ulster, you’ll notice straight away that most of the callers are rabidly sectarian, and very often homophobic. But you also know that very few of them are going out and inflicting violence on their neighbours.

More importantly, there’s also a class element. The working class is more plainspoken in that it isn’t as well trained in these linguistic taboos. That doesn’t necessarily make it more bigoted. I may well hear a middle-aged woman say of the Gay Pride parade, “Did you see the fruits on Saturday? Weren’t they brilliant?” And if a friend tells me his sister lives in Southall with the Pakis, I won’t rush to condemn him as a fascist, because he’s just as likely to talk about what a great community it is. This is an aspect of working-class language that really makes middle-class lefties uncomfortable.

And the class element brings us back to Big Brother. I refuse to believe that this is the first time in eight series that the N-word has been used. Between the massive editing of the highlights show, and the time delay (and frequent sound dips) on the live feed, it’s very likely that epithets slip out on a regular basis, and just aren’t shown. Actually I do remember very well that during the Saskia-Makosi feud – and that was the last BB I followed closely – you could clearly hear dodgy racial banter on the live feed that never made it through to the main show.

Really, if taken at face value, you would think from BB that Britain was a country of hip metrosexuals without a prejudiced bone in their accumulated bodies. The gay contestants are usually flaming queens, but nobody is ever uncomfortable with homosexuality. There is always a racial mix, but never any racially charged language. As if! It’s not just editing, though, but also the selection of contestants – overwhelmingly middle-class, with the few working-class housemates (Jade excepted) usually being evicted in the early weeks for being loud and gobby. In a working-class BB house, the epithets (and likely fists) would be flying. Instead you have an environment where middle-class people bitch and backstab relentlessly, while tiptoeing around their language trying not to offend anyone. It’s a bit like the Socialist Workers Party.

What’s also illustrated is the extent to which the British (or maybe better English) middle class fear and loathe the working class, seeing them as really an alien race. The only show on TV where you see working-class people is Jeremy Kyle, and that’s just a carnival sideshow. Yep, racial taboos are still strong, but you can be as rude as you like about the chavs and spides.


  1. ejh said,

    June 9, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    I don’t really go for this – or rather, I think that although there is (or can be) an element of middle-class fear of the proles inviolves in language issues, they’re issues nonetheless. People of all classes understand, I think, very well why certain terms are objectionable and hateful – they’re perfectly capable of recognising this in a non-racial context (for instance, with expletives and obscenities of various kinds).

    I also think that one reason why language gets jumped on is that there is a lot of suspicion, partly feeding on itself but partly justified, that people hold views that they do not always express, and that a lot of hatred and prejudice is therefore hidden and denied much of the time. When actual words are used which express that prejudice, it may be the only time people are “caught” – where they can’t deny what they said (whereas an employer might deny a job to somebhody on racial or sectarian grounds but claim that that was nothing to do with it. Hence all the to-do.

    Incidentally it’s also possible to caricature the middle-class as composed largely of Guardian-reading do-gooders (or what you will) but it’s not really so – as comparisons of sales of other newspapers will demonstrate! I doubt that racialy-inflammatory language is much, if at all less rife among the well-off than among the strapped-for cash.

    I’m not saying there’s nothing in what you’re saying, because I think there is. But I also think language matters and I’m quite sure that it would be less healthy to allow this stuff to go unremarked than to act against it.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 9, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    I think there’s a lot to what you say, and I don’t necessarily disagree with you. But it was one thing struck me about the Shilpa affair, that lots of people thought there couldn’t be racism if the vocabulary boundary wasn’t crossed. Where Asians were picking up on the more subtle digs, the body language etc. And in this case the word sends everybody haywire even if there isn’t any suggestion of malice involved.

    I think what I’m really trying to criticise is the idea that you can make a science out of language, and extrapolate people’s characters on that basis. So we get this press hysteria about a middle-class teenager trying to be “street”, while the same papers run racially inflammatory articles week after week – but without breaking the taboos.

    I’m not for a second saying that black people don’t have a right to be offended. But I was thinking there of Rebecca Gilman’s play Spinning Into Butter, based on a real racist incident she witnessed at college in Vermont. Because Gilman was from Alabama, people kept asking her about the racism in Alabama – she argued that Vermont was a great place for people who don’t like blacks, as long as they use correct liberal language. But it’s a tricky point and I don’t think there’s an easy answer.

  3. Andy Newman said,

    June 9, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    It is certainly wrong to let racist language go unchallenged, but Sunrise is also right to point out that the use of tabboo language is also a sign of not knowing the linguistic codes of the educated classes.

    I was never convinced that Jade Goody was actually racist, but was simply too culturally impoverished to express her revusion of the condescending Shipla without drawing from that well.

    The resulting furore was as much a media moral panic, as genuine opposition to racism.

  4. ejh said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    lots of people thought there couldn’t be racism if the vocabulary boundary wasn’t crossed

    I’m not at all sure that’s the case.

  5. Wednesday said,

    June 10, 2007 at 7:10 am

    I was never convinced that Jade Goody was actually racist, but was simply too culturally impoverished to express her revusion of the condescending Shipla without drawing from that well.

    She was too “culturally impoverished” to think of an insult for Shilpa that didn’t involve reducing her to a racial stereotype? Come on. The working class has loads of non-racial insults at its disposal.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 10, 2007 at 11:20 am

    At the height of the Jade thing, the Asian Network ran a fascinating debate, and one contribution I remember was from the actor Nitin Ganatra. He said that, growing up in a corner shop, he knew what racism was because he associated it with getting beaten up coming home from school. When he entered polite society, he knew there was still prejudice there, it was just harder to put his finger on it.

    There’s a bit of a gap, and we don’t have a simple term for it, between holding a prejudice and doing something to someone on the basis of that prejudice. What PC does on the other hand is to regard “racism” as a question of dodgy attitudes, which can be determined exactly by the use of words you associate with the uneducated.

  7. ejh said,

    June 10, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    There’s also I think a gap between straight (if you will) prejudice and the fact that we live in a divided society with tensions that we can’t avoid no matter how hard we try. Living in London helped teach me that although I can’t imagine anybody in the north of Ireland would need the point making to them.

  8. Ed Hayes said,

    June 11, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    There is another form of middle class ‘anti-racism’ that cloaks its supposed distaste for prejiduce in a belief that the working class are the most viriulent racists. There are no shortage of people in Dublin who would drop dead before they used the ‘N’ word but who happily describe swathes of working class people as ‘Knackers.’

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 11, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    Yeah, too true. It’s a bit like the way the very PC Swedes will delight in calling their Norwegian neighbours “seal-clubbers”.

  10. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 13, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    My Norwegian friend tells me that her compatriots think of themselves as the most intelligent Scandinavians, while the Swedes are derided as thick – with Danes somewhere in between.

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