Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names … well, just don’t go there. Name-calling has become a deadly serious business. Language is becoming a battleground in a bizarre twist to post-independence referendum identity wars.
An SNP MP, Carol Monaghan, has attacked the BBC for using the word “jock” in a headline. She claims it’s a “racist slur”. My initial reaction was that this was jocking ridiculous: “jock” is a relatively affectionate term used in the military to refer to soldiers of Scottish origin. We’re all “Jock Tamson”s bairns” after all.
But then I learned that a postman had already been prosecuted in Coventry and sentenced to 200 hours community service for referring to Andy Murray as a “useless jock”. It seems the use of the term carries a potential prison sentence, so I’d better be careful.
Where has all this come from? Are we becoming so fearful of words that we need to lock them up and throw away the Thesaurus? Jock, Taffy, Brit, Frog they’re all potentially offensive to sensitive souls but since when has the giving offence become a crime? By what right does a policeman decide what words we can use and not use?
It seems Ms Monaghan’s intervention was a tit-for-tat response to the row about the word “dyke” being used by a rap group at an independence rally in Glasgow recently. Social media has been rancid with condemnation of the SNP for associating with this “homophobic” word, used in the form of “Dykey-D” and applied to Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives.
The paradox is that the members of rap group, Whitserface, who used the D-word are lesbians, as is the show’s author. Indeed, the row broke because a gay SNP MP, Joanna Cherry, refused to condemn the troupe for using the word-that-shall-not-be-spoken. She pointed out that it’s quite common in lesbian circles to “self-reference as dykes” and made clear she no longer felt it was offensive.
When lesbians cannot use the word “dyke” without being accused of homophobia we really are going to hell in a hand cart – if I can write that without being accused of being offensive to carts. Gays have long used terms like queer, dyke, homo and poof that might be offensive if used by straights. What about the group Four Poofs and a Piano?
Black Americans use the n-word frequently, almost casually, and have done since the rap group Niggaz With Attitude started up in the 1980s. And it isn’t only used ironically. Watch how Samuel L. Jackson routinely uses the n-word to refer to a murder victim in the film Jackie Brown. It is used in a way that would be considered deeply offensive if uttered by a white man.
Now, I am often called, pejoratively, a “middle-aged white man” as if this in some way invalidates anything I happen to say. I could get upset and start accusing people of using racist and ageist slurs. Of course I won’t because that would be ridiculous; but not much more ridiculous than lesbians being called homophobic for using words such as dyke.
The bizarre thing about this row was that most of the offence seemed to be taken, not by lesbians, but by heterosexual men parading their virtues on social media. I haven’t heard Ms Davidson complaining about being emotionally damaged. Perhaps she is, I don’t know, but I suspect she can take it. She once described herself and the Labour MP Angela Eagle as “shovel-faced lesbians”.
A number of the vicariously offended commentators said it wasn’t just the use of the d-word but the fact that the group’s routine was unfunny, hurtful and intended to be insulting. Whether it’s funny or not is irrelevant. Anyway, satire is supposed to be insulting. Are we now at the stage where merely to be offensive is a crime? Perhaps. Police Scotland define a hate incident as “something which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hate or prejudice”. By that definition half of my interlocutors on Twitter are guilty of hate crime.
Where is this taking us? If words are to be deemed offensive, and even illegal, purely because some people object to them, then what next? No drag queens, goths, zoomers, head-bangers? Come to think of it, people object to being described as racist, bigots, sectarian; many are football supporters and not all of them actually are of that type. Using these words is perhaps more hateful than words like jock or dyke.
Are people to be prosecuted for calling each other crooks, cretins or idiots? Not only are these terms of hatred, they’re also liable to give offence to people with learning difficulties and the criminal community. It’s just as well Ian Dury isn’t around to pen songs like Spasticus Autisticus. His disability would not have exonerated him, any more than Jo Cherry’s sexuality, if some groups had claimed offence (which they did: the song was banned by the BBC in 1982).
Where did all this come from? How are we all suddenly on hair-trigger warnings about words that have been in use for generations? The phrase “politically correct” was originally a joke phrase coined by socialists in the 1970s to mock doctrinaire leftists. Its meaning altered when it crossed the Atlantic, became PC and featured in the so-called culture wars raging in the campuses of mostly elite American universities. Militant members of racial and gender groups started policing language for overt or implied prejudice.
Any playful use of ethnic stereotype is condemned. The novelist Lionel Shriver discovered this when she mocked an American college where students and university authorities had to make grovelling apologies for wearing sombreros on a Mexican-themed party night. She made the point in a lecture in Australia by actually wearing a sombrero.; big mistake. She has been attacked since for being a racist.
It didn’t help that a character in one of her recent novels, The Mandibles, a middle-aged white man, is portrayed leading his black wife across Brooklyn on a leash. This was taken as proof positive of deeply un-PC thought. In fact, in the story, the woman has dementia and the leash is to prevent her harming herself as the homeless family tries to find suitable accommodation.
But the fact that Shriver portrayed a black character at all has been criticised on grounds that a privileged white author has no right to represent a racial minority in an unflattering light. This is called “cultural appropriation”. The argument is that only a person of colour – or who is gay or transgender – knows what it’s like and celebrity novelists shouldn’t make money by exploiting their misfortune.
These are very strange times. If this goes on we’re going to have to put a lot of suspect literature in the bin. Huckleberry Finn uses the n-word 200 times. I’m beginning to wonder if novels from misogynists such as Charles Bukowski or Jack Kerouac would be published today. What happens if someone says they feel threatened by the performance of anti-Semitic or misogynist plays such as The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew?
Language warriors may think they’re protecting minority cultures but they risk destroying culture itself.