Friday, May 02, 2014

The N word

Somewhere high up on my bookshelves I have three copies of the same book. This is what happens when you merge libraries with your wife, and then get several boxes more from her grandmother. Each copy has a different title. The oldest one (which came in from the grandmother) is called Ten Little Niggers; then there's a US copy called Ten Little Indians; and then there's my old copy from the 80s called And Then There Were None. It's a pretty good book actually, though like all Christies the attraction wears off slightly when you know who did it.

Does the above paragraph make me a racist? I don't think so, although things might be different if I displayed the oldest copy prominently in my window, or made loud harrumphing noises about how it was better in the old days before all this political correct nonsense came along. The reason I ask is (obviously) because of the brouhaha over Jeremy Clarkson's apparent mumblings of a playground jingle of equivalent antiquity - the eenie, meenie, miney, mo one.

It might be worth going on a small diversion here. The current 'anti-Clarkson' narrative is that though he initially denied saying it, he's now admitted to mumbling it, which is just as bad. As Dan Hodges says:
But yesterday he explained that he had, in fact, tried to “mumble” the word. Then, to his horror, when reviewing copies of the unbroadcast footage, he found “it did appear I had actually used the word I was trying to obscure”. Or, to put it another way, the reason it appeared he’d used that word was because he had indeed used it.
'Putting it another way' in this context apparently meaning 'to say something completely different', because what Clarkson has actually said is that he didn't say the word: he mumbled under his breath instead of saying the word. In the note he wrote to the producer he said:
'I didn't use the N-word here but I've just listened through my headphones and it sounds like I did. Is there another take that we could use?'
"This word is so bad that I didn't use it" seems to me like a different story to "Saying nigger is just fine, says racist bigot". Anyway, I'm not sure that this really amounts to anything very much more than that the left don't like Jeremy Clarkson, and will cheerfully grab at any stick to hit him with.

More interesting (slightly) is the argument between Dan and Frank Fisher on Twitter, a medium renowned for its appropriateness for developing complex arguments. Dan's line is that the simple use of the word 'nigger' is itself intrinsically racist. That has the benefit of clarity at least, and used as an epithet the word is unquestionably offensive. Frank's point in response is that whether or not a word is racist depends on the context in which it is used, and the intention for which it is used.

The standard line trotted out here is along the lines of "rappers say nigger all the time; how can it be racist if black people say it?" I am, to say the least, unconvinced by this line of argument (although in fairness, Fisher's point is not actually if they can say it, why not me? but rather, does singing their lyrics make me racist? which is surely a harder question). But it does highlight a hole in the iron 'use = racism' argument. Can it be racist to use the word when discussing whether old books should be edited to reflect modern values? Surely it can't, or you end up in a Kafka-esque situation of not being able to say the word you think should or shouldn't be changed (as I'm sure you know, a major character in Huckleberry Finn is called Nigger Jim and I am, for example, pretty damn sure that Tom Chivers isn't a racist.

So, if it can be acceptable in some circumstances for even a white person to say nigger (including, I hope, in discussing the topic at all, otherwise I'm in trouble myself), is it acceptable to recite an old playground rhyme that includes it? Autre temps, autre mouers after all, and the fact that my grandmother went into shops to ask for bootlaces in nigger brown didn't make her a racist (she was, incidentally, quite definitely racist, but it wasn't the bootlaces that made it so). Well, no I don't think that it is. There may be some limited circumstances where using the word is effectively unavoidable, but school-age doggerel isn't one of them (the version I used said tigger anyway).

Of course, the funny thing here is that despite Dan's hyperventilation, Clarkson clearly agrees with this - that's why he didn't say the word, and when it sounded as if he had he made sure another shot was used. Dan's written a column despairing over the normalisation of casual racism when the story is actually that a popular right-wing broadcaster didn't say the word in question, but has grovelled because a discarded shot sounds almost as if he did. This is more a David Howard story (forced to resign for saying niggardly) than a Ron Atkinson one.


Blogger Unknown said...

Can I just point out, that at no point did I say the word, nor did I say the word could never be offensive, nor did I say that if black people use it, why can't why people. I said that context and intent affect the meaning of all communication, and they do.

Also, I prefer Public Enemy to NWA.

10:51 am  

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