Saturday, 7 February 2009

That Carol Thatcher apology in full

"Carol Thatcher does not condone any racist comments. It was a private remark, said in jest, and she regrets any inconvenience caused."

So that's alright then.

Here's Stewart Lee on "Has political correctness gone mad?", saying it better than I ever could (obviously):


41st Best Standup


rewboss said...

Can I just pick at something Stewart Lee said?

He said something to the effect that if people are afraid to say something in case it might be interpreted as racist, that's a small price to pay for the improvements it would bring. I just wonder how far he would take that. Apparently, he's not afraid to call people who disagree with him "idiots", so I wonder on what basis he draws a distinction between one type of insult and another. Seeing as the word "idiot" was used in medicine to describe a person with a mental age of 3 and an IQ of 25 -- what the medical profession would now call a "person with severe mental retardation" -- would he be comfortable calling them "retards" instead?

I'm not saying I agree that the Carol Thatcher thing is "political correctness gone mad" -- I think her comments were indefensible -- but I'm not sure that making people too nervous to speak their mind is the right way to deal with this.

I live in Germany, where it is illegal to deny the holocaust took place. It goes further than that, though: anyone who dares suggest that the autobahns were one of Hitler's better ideas is immediately persona non grata (this happened some months back to a TV celebrity). Even making jokes about Hitler, or suggesting that Hitler wasn't the worst dictator there has ever been, or pointing out that concentration camps were invented by the British (as I once foolishly did) can get you into trouble. Dialogue and discussion become impossible; falsehoods are not demonstrated to be false, merely declared to be so.

The problem is that although you can dictate what people are and are not allowed to say, you can't change their attitudes, and this, I think, is often forgotten. Instead, such "dissident" attitudes are swept under the carpet, where they fester unchecked, feeding on conspiracy theories about how the authorities -- whether the government or "the PC brigade", whatever that may be -- are trying to control the way people think... and the most insiduous aspect of this is that there's actually an element of truth in that.

Which is why in today's Germany there's a seething, bubbling brown mass just below the surface. It's not that Germans are inherently fascist, but that opinions and attitudes forced underground in this manner attract those who feel disenfranchised. For example, people who have lost their jobs and can't find a new one while all the streetsweepers are Turkish (never mind the fact that the Turks do all the jobs Germans would never dream of doing) are going to identify immigration as a problem, and if none of the mainstream parties are talking about immigration because it's a taboo subject, where are these people going to go for answers?

The way forward, I believe, is through example, not legislation. It's just that it takes a long time and people get impatient. I actually don't agree that "political correctness" has made people more tolerant; I think it's because old generations have gone and new generations are taking their place. Bernard Manning was a young man when immigration was in full swing; people of my generation were born into a more-or-less multi-ethnic society. I think that should at least be taken into consideration when analysing changes in cultural attitude.

It's not a fast process, and I think we have a few generations to go before we can safely say we've got a grip on ourselves as far as this issue is concerned (although by then we'll no doubt have found some other way of being nasty to people). But I do feel that trying to force the issue at best does very little, and may actually be counter-productive: you can't change people's attitudes by telling them what they are not allowed to say, but you can embitter them.

I just previewed this comment, and it's a lot longer than I intended. I'm not having a rant here, just picking away at Stewart Lee's comments.

organicprankster said...

What a fantastic comment, rewboss.

"I wonder on what basis he draws a distinction between one type of insult and another."

There are distinctions that can be drawn.

You're right that the term "idiot" was formerly used in a medical context, but it's important to note that the term does not have its origins in that usage (It has a far earlier etymology, used in English at least as early as Geoffrey Chaucer's time, long before the advent of Psychology as a discipline, and means "ignorant person.")

Of course, it's also obsolete in the medical context because it's rightly considered offensive, medicine having taken an extant term and used it inappropriately to describe a "category of human being." The medics were wrong, and have corrected their error. The rest of us are perfectly at liberty to use the word in its lay context.

So, with that angle of discussion put to bed, perhaps here is where Lee would draw a distinction: it's OK to mock and insult people who are wilfully ignorant, or - yes - those who simply disagree with us, but it's not OK to mock and insult people who simply differ from us.

Something like that.

"I'm not sure that making people too nervous to speak their mind is the right way to deal with this."

On this I agree with you - and am particularly taken with this statement: "Falsehoods are not demonstrated to be false, merely declared to be so."

I much prefer an open forum for debate.

But I'm not remotely convinced anyone is trying to make people nervous to speak their minds. I think that as a society it has been democratically decided that certain views are unacceptable in public forums and/or from public figures. Why would people be nervous to speak their minds? Perhaps because they know they will be challenged, and they know they have no substantial counter-argument to those challenges.

I have little sympathy for these people who are "nervous to speak their minds" because, of course, the guy who stands up in the dressing room of his football club and announces to his homophobic team mates "Actually, I'm gay" is nervous to speak his mind too. See, it cuts both ways.

Nobody is going to convince me that the bigots (For it seems to be bigots that we're really talking about here.) are an oppressed minority. To quote Eddie Izzard: "Homophobia is all right, as long as you do it in the privacy of your own home."

I'd be intrigued to learn what kind of "trouble" you got in for mentioning the historically verifiable fact that the British had concentration camps long before Herr Hitler arrived on the scene, because I'm willing to bet said "trouble" wasn't much more severe than being shouted down.

I think you're wrong however to say that Political Correctness (a pejorative term of the Right.) hasn't changed anything:

"I think it's because old generations have gone and new generations are taking their place."

And what gave these younger generations the idea that ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender, etc, were not good grounds on which to discriminate against individuals or exclude them from society? It didn't happen by magic; it didn't happen simply as a result of their relative youth. And history demonstrates it isn't a straightforward story of generational progress. Such ideas and their influence fluctuate. My prediction: the already steadily rising right wing movement across Europe will get a fantastic boost from the economic crisis should it continue for any time; not because people are "disenfranchised" (You don't disenfranchise people simply by enfranchising others.) but moreover because they're disaffected. And Fascism preys on ignorance and uncertainty.

No. It didn't happen simply because older generations were replaced by younger ones; it happened by dialectics; it happened because people stood up for what they believed, and had the more convincing argument.

They still do.

Neither did the multicultural society favoured in Western Europe come about purely by chance or by younger generations replacing older ones - it was socially engineered, as an alternative to ghettoisation or segregated communities. It was the result of theory, debate, and the implementation of a social policy based on who won that debate - because they had the stronger argument.

You're right that mainstream political parties need to be more honest about explaining immigration policy. We have an absurd situation in the UK where the Conservative opposition publicly rebuke the Labour government for overseeing the biggest influx of migrants in recent times, while privately acknowledging they would have done precisely the same thing - as an economic expedient - had they been in power themselves. And the government is so cowed by the Daily Mail and other right-wing organisations they feel the need to pretend they haven't done that. Instead, they should say: "Yes, we did that. Here's why...."

There was a time when Tony Blair (Yes, even he) challenged the Right Wing to an honest debate. The Right Wing mumbled to itself and tacitly declined the invitation.

"The way forward, I believe, is through example, not legislation."

The way forward is through education, and part of that education involves continuing to speak up loudly about behaviour and language we find unacceptable, and explaining as many times as we have to, exactly why. We do also need to use examples. Carol Thatcher has become such an example.

Your arguments are not a reason, you see, to leave people alone in their wrongheaded views - in case they go "underground" - but to keep telling them very clearly why they are wrong. They won't miraculously disappear.

If we don't, it won't be "a few generations... before we can safely say we've got a grip on ourselves as far as this issue is concerned," but instead things would go backwards.

Mike said...

Damn. Rewboss makes me think, but when I get up at six in the morning to type a response Organicprankster has beaten me to it.

You both make good points. Rewboss is right in saying that while you can proscribe language, that doesn't change the underlying attitude. We've seen that in abundance this week, in the majority of internet comments on the Thatcher business.

The bigots are still out there, in huge numbers, and still convinced that there's nothing inherently wrong with bigotry.

It's possible that political correctness played some part in the younger generation growing up with less prejudice - but more likely that's happened because (in British cities at least) society is more mixed than it ever was. It must be harder to grow up racist when you go to a school where no one skin tone has majority representation.

I wanted to write something about distinction between insults. Organic covered the issues with the word "idiot", but I'd go further.

I'd argue that the harshest insult we have in English - "cunt" - is still less offensive than any racial epithet. I say that because "cunt" is an all-inclusive insult. You can apply it to anybody, regardless of creed, colour, intelligence, ability or any other distinguishing factor.

Contrariwise, every racial slur is specific to a skin tone or physical characteristic - and not a single word exists (in English) that can be applied to white people in the same way (sure, we have the various anti-European terms; but nothing that can be used to imply that whites are inferior to anyone else).

The other thing I find sinister about racist terms is that they exist for one purpose only: to emphasise that the targeted ethnicity is inferior to whites.

When the "PC has gone mad" brigade complain about their freedom of speech being taken away and words being removed from the language, it generally seems to be these words that they're worried about losing.
But why? What possible use do these words have other than to denigrate?

Rewboss is right that if you tell people - especially stupid people - that they can't say something, it just makes them bitter. So I guess at the same time as pointing out that some words are unacceptable, we need to repeatedly explain WHY that's the case.

Which is what Organicprankster said. I might as well have not got up.

rewboss said...

Mike, if I make you think, it's because you make me think. Which, I think, is a good thing.

organicprankster, you said you didn't think anyone was trying to make people too nervous to speak their minds. I was actually quoting, almost verbatim, Stewart Lee, who said pretty much exactly that in the video Mike linked to. (He also talked about "political correctness" -- he used that phrase -- having changed attitudes.) That's what got me thinking in the first place.

I take your point about it cutting both ways, and I certainly do agree with that. But then, if we think about the athlete trying to come out, does it make much difference whether his teammates' attitude is spoken or unspoken?

I could take my own father as an example. He would never insult anyone to their face. He would never in a million years refuse to have anything to do with somebody just because of their sexual orientation. In private, though, he considers homosexuality to be some kind of aberration, and when I, as a young man, showed an apparent disinclination to spend all of my spare time with girls (actually more down to the fact that girls were disinclined to spend their time with me), he fretted and worried that I might be gay. When I had a female friend to visit, he told me it would be good for me to be seen around town with a girl; he also told his mother that this young lady was my girlfriend, on the grounds that she (my grandmother) was old and frail and wouldn't understand -- a complete lie, because her mind was as sharp as a knife.

Question: Is his apparent homophobia somehow less repugnant just because he only ever uses the word "fag" to refer to a cigarette?

Incidentally, regarding the word "idiot", if you trace it back far enough, to its original Greek roots, it simply meant "private citizen". It acquired the meaning of an ignorant person later, and so could be said to be an elitist term.

Language development is fascinating, and throws up some surprises. Did you know that "prestigious" originally meant "deceptive", as of an illusionist, coming as it does from a word meaning "juggler's tricks"?

Which brings me to "cunt", and Mike's argument that racist slurs are inherently more offensive. Now, I'd accept they're different, in that, as you say, "cunt" can be used universally, while racist slurs are used to divide the world into distinct categories. But can we really say that this makes them more offensive? That question isn't rhetorical, by the way; I genuinely wonder whether words can, in and of themselves, be inherently offensive, or whether this is borne out of some collective guilt we share about our treatment of ethnic groups in the past. I ask this because it's been my experience that Germans, bearing a huge national complex about the Third Reich, are more or less compelled to proclaim to the rest of the world how evil Germans are. While the British are gloomily convinced that the EU is a German plot to conquer Europe, the Germans are convinced that the EU is necessary to prevent Germans from trying to conquer Europe. Harry Enfield's character Jürgen the German is spot on.

See, the problem I have with the word "cunt" is the mere fact that it is considered the most offensive (non-racist) epithet. It's a slang word for the female genitalia. Now, why should "cunt" be so much more offensive than its male equivalents, "dick" and "prick"? Does this reflect our attitude towards women? What is it specifically about a vagina that makes it worse than a penis? Isn't this just a subtle form of sexism?

I think it's not so much Thatcher's choice of words per se that's the problem, it's what it reveals about the way Carol Thatcher sees the world, which Graham so perfectly nailed down. Apparently, Thatcher was referring to Jo-Winfried Tsonga who looks nothing like a golliwog (although he does look a bit like Mohammed Ali). I suppose if there does exist a human being on this planet who looks like a golliwog, it might be all right to point out the resemblance, but then again, I can't imagine that such a human being actually exists.

I'm reminded a bit of what happened when Barack Obama visited Berlin. The biggest German daily printed some photos of "Barack Obama look-alikes" -- Berlin residents who, apparently, bore more than a passing resemblance to the man himself. There was not a single racial epithet on those pages; nothing you could point and say, "That's racist." Just simple inoffensive captions: "We think Joe Smith (36) could almost be Obama's long-lost twin," that kind of thing.

Except that most of these people looked nothing like Obama at all. The only things they had in common were that they were all black, weren't overweight and had short hair. Which left a rather bitter aftertaste: in a pathetic attempt to prove their non-racist credentials, they ended up proving that, to tabloid journalists, blacks really do all look the same.