Today, I take another of my occasional (regular?) turns away from discussing extreme cinema, to discuss an issue that has been getting a lot of attention over the past couple of weeks, in the UK media – racism. As such, this particular blog-post will contain references and usage of certain racially-offensive terms, that some of you may prefer not to be subjected too.
I apologise in advance, to those who may feel such words should not be used. As a Black British gent, I know full well of the offence that can/is caused by using this term, and I want to assure you all, that I only use such words to debate the issue at hand, and for no other reason, as I hope my post will make clear.
Give me an “N”. Give me an “I”. Give me an “G”. Give me another “G”. Give me an “E”. Give me an “R”. And what have you got…?
One of the most offensive words in the English Language! A word with hundreds of years of hatred, debasement and abuse behind it, and which – to some – is a word they wish to have the right to use, without fear of any reprisals.
On Thursday 1st May, the British Tabloid paper the Daily Mirror broke a “story”, (and I use that in the loosest definition of the term possible, as will become apparent), on its website called “TOP GEAR World Exclusive: Clarkson’s N-Word Shame”!
The story – shown in the link here – alleged that TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC TV show TOP GEAR used the word “nigger” when reciting a version of the 1815 nursery rhyme “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe”. (See here for more about the actual rhyme itself.) One of the many, many variants of the rhyme, from the late 1800’s, and used by American school-children of the day, has the lyrics:
Most modernised versions, have the second line changed to “Tigger” (as in the Winnie The Pooh character) or “tiger”.
Obviously, in the late 1800’s, racism wasn’t racism, per-se. What I mean by this, is that – in the day – such language wasn’t considered offensive. Such language was seen as the norm; as commonplace, everyday vernacular. It was the language used to describe many Blacks, by many Whites. As was the word “negro”. It was a term used to belittle and insult Blacks, as a way of keeping “them” in their place, whilst their (usually) white owners kept them as slaves. Since those times, the vast majority of the world’s people have realised, it’s not acceptable to use the terms “nigger” or “negro” at all, except in specific circumstances, usually when describing historical issues, such as those I discuss here. We have all moved on as a society, and realised that such words are neither polite, decent, or appropriate. However, that doesn’t change the fact that there are those who still like and wish to use those words, either because they feel such words aren’t offensive or because they are uneducated, and don’t know any the wiser.
Quentin Tarantino has repeatedly taken flack over the years, with his use of the word “nigger” in his films, such as RESERVOIR DOGS (1991), PULP FICTION (1994), JACKIE BROWN (1997), and DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012), when such use wasn’t a prerequisite or even necessary through artistic merit . (A case could be made the for the latter of those films, as it was set during the Slave Trade era, but the other three works, definitely didn’t require it in the copious quantities they appear in each of the others!)
The history of the “N-Word” as it is often known, is difficult and troublesome to accurately define. “Negro” and/or “Negroes” were – at the time – merely a descriptor, meaning dark-skinned or black-skinned person, stemming from many European countries whose words “negro” or “negre”, literally meant the colour black. Thus Black people were labelled as “Negro”, rather than “Black”, “African”, “African American”, “Indian”, or one of the many other territories were “non-Whites” existed and/or lived.
It then evolved through time and usage into the deliberately and overtly derogatory word “nigger”. Why this happened, no one really knows. Some claim that “nigger” is a word stemming from the Egyptian word “ngr” (pronounced “en-jer”) meaning God, or Divine Being. Some say it comes from the Ethiopian word “neger” meaning Emperor. Others say it was the Romans who coined the term “niger” for anything black or dark-coloured – be that people or objects. Then you have the Norse Language word “niggardly” meaning stingy or miserly. That word has sometimes been used as a deliberate code-word to mean something bad that only a Black person would do, rather than it’s actual and correct usage. There’s also the Latin term “nigrum” meaning black or dark-coloured too. It’s probably a mixture of some or all of these, though it does not explain at what point in time, the word “nigger” became a term of abuse. (Some claim that some whites would ask Black waitresses of the 1940’s and 50’s to not be so “niggardly” with their food/coffee, as a deliberate and provocative affront to them, their job, and their seemingly “lowly” status in society.) Whichever way you look at it, it doesn’t change the fact that the word IS offensive!
And so, we return to the Daily Mirror story. The story writer, David Collins, claims that Clarkson uses the word “nigger” in a piece of unbroadcast footage, in which he recites the rhyme whilst selecting one of two cars. Now, the first thing, that most people who read about this story deliberately choose to ignore is this: the footage containing the offending language, was never actually broadcast!
The “take” showing in the unbroadcast footage that everyone’s getting het-up over was never going to be broadcast, was never intended to be broadcast, and ended-up never actually being broadcast. The version that was broadcast, includes a very heavily mumbled version, where it’s almost impossible to hear Clarkson saying anything more than the first four words: “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe”. The rest is just ramblings, as Clarkson’s finger flits between Car Number 1 and Car Number 2, before he selects his favourite.
Thus far, in my eyes, no foul has been committed.
Now, in the unbroadcast footage, if you turn the volume up really loudly, and listen really, really closely, you may be able to hear something that sounds very similar to the word “nigger”! I’ve tried listening to it, and I can’t make out the offending term one way or the other. It’s mumbling with the only truly discernible terms being the term “er” at the end of the mumbling. (The footage was first officially broadcast, during a brief discussion of the matter on BBC1’s POINTS OF VIEW TV show on Sunday 11th May at 5:30pm!) So even if I did want to find offence, which I don’t, then I struggle to find anything to unquestionably prove Clarkson said what the paper and much of the rest of the British Media claim he said.
Secondly, as the footage was never broadcast and was never going to be broadcast, you have to ask yourselves, how did the Daily Mirror get access to the story and the footage in the first place?
Once more, no one knows the answer to this.
Considering Clarkson’s track record with TOP GEAR gaffes – as shown in this link here – you suspect that the footage was probably discovered by someone who once worked on the show, or who knows someone who works/worked on the show, and wants to deliberately discredit Clarkson, for reasons yet to be determined. (Clarkson’s track-record with the British Media is rocky, to say the least, and he has a long history of foot-in-mouth-disease!)
Thirdly, the only reason someone would dig this unbroadcast footage up, pass it on to a Tabloid paper, and get them to push it as a Front Cover story, is to either take a cheap shot at Clarkson and/or a cheap shot at the BBC itself. Clarkson’s salary at the BBC has been a bone of contention for a few years now, despite his popularity in the UK and around the globe, and the popularity and financial success of TOP GEAR, of which he is the main host. Recent reports suggest he earns an annual figure of £1 Million in salary alone. However, he also earns a reported £8.4 Million for his stake in a joint venture with BBC Worldwide (the division of the BBC that licences TOP GEAR out on DVD and to other TV broadcasters around the world), PLUS another £4.86 Million dividend payment of shares he owns in TOP GEAR – the property/entity itself.
Rightly or wrongly, that’s a heck of a lot of money, for one man to earn, in one year!
There’s an argument that some people in the Tabloid Press industry hold, that feels such presenters at the BBC should not be earning that much money, as the BBC is funded by the Licence Fee. (A contentious form of mandatory taxation, that all TV viewers who watch live, as-broadcast TV have to pay, that currently cost each of us £145-50 per year, irrespective of whether you watch anything the BBC broadcasts or not!) With the BBC having squandered a lot of money in recent years, the Public and the Tabloid Press feel that the BBC should be making sure any money it gets from the Licence Fee is used appropriately. However, as is usually the case, no one is willing to actually define what counts as “appropriate usage” of the fee is!
Lastly, because of the kind of person Clarkson appears to be, (and I do say “appears”, because none of us really know how much of “him” is him the persona he creates and shows on-screen, and how much is “him”, the real Jeremy Clarkson, the man off-screen), the Tabloid Press feels that he is not a man fit to remain a broadcaster paid for by us, the Public. He’s a man that is loved and reviled in equal measures, and he is a larger-than-life character. He’s certainly someone who never holds back, and that’s why people love and hate him in equal amounts. You only need to look at the “gaffes” mentioned in the previous link to see why he is seen in this fashion.
On top of all of this, the latest “gaffe” was in a recent Top Gear that was broadcast in March, which featured him and co-presenter Richard Hammond in Burma and Thailand, in which they build a wooden bridge over the famous River Kwai. See the video clip link below
As an Asian gentleman walks over it, towards the camera, Clarkson mutters: “That is a proud moment… But there’s a slope on it.” After a few second pause, Hammond retorts: “You’re right. It’s definitely higher on that side.“, as he points to the right hand side of the bridge.
Now. the term slope can have two meanings. The obvious one, being a gentle turn, or twist to something, such as a road or bridge. The other, more insidious and offensive reference, is to an Asian or Oriental-looking person. So, you can see why the comment could be seen as being potentially inflammatory. The fact that no one on the show, nor in the BBC post-production teams noticed the “gaffe”, and let the item air exactly as I’ve just described it, suggests either no one realised the double-meaning of the term “slope”, or that no one cared about the gentle air of casual racism that was being included. After all, it was Clarkson being Clarkson, wasn’t it?!
Well, maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t. But that clip created a real shit-storm in the Press, and OFCOM the broadcasting regulators, are now investigating the matter.
Then came the second potentially-racist language incident, a few days after, and the BBC suddenly found themselves, like Clarkson did, with a hell of a lot of P.R. to do!
In the days since, another incident has also occurred. This time, it was BBC Radio Devon that was caught in the crossfire.The story – shown here – says David Howe, a 67-year-old DJ with an extensive career behind him, played the 1932 version of the song THE SUN HAS GOT HIS HAT ON by Ambrose And His Orchestra. What he failed to realise, until the song had been broadcast live on air, was that the second verse contains the word “nigger” in it. The second verse goes:
From my understanding of the story, when the offending lyrics went out, Mr Howe apologised on-air immediately afterwards. It was a human error. Unfortunately, those of you who may work in the radio industry will know, that a DJ is personally liable for any material they air on-air, that has not already been pre-vet by their producers or the broadcasting organisation itself. (Most utilise “Daytime Playlists” which often won’t allow any music that contains anything remotely offensive to be played on-air between 5am and 9pm, and “clean” versions of any potentially offensive but popular songs are edited and made available. And even the “Restricted Playlist” won’t include the strongest or most offensive of material, because of the way radio can be accessed, with no way of warning an audience/listener that a particular show/DJ will be broadcasting music that might be offensive or for adults only.)
After the incident, a listener did complain to Radio Devon, and Mr Howe’s superiors, and Mr Howe offered to apologise on air once more, or to “reluctantly fall on his sword”. At the time, the BBC reportedly sent him an e-mail stating that he should not mention the incident any further, lest they receive more complaints, but – allegedly – a secondary e-mail said that they would have to reluctantly accept his resignation offer. And so he left.
A Statement issued by an unnamed BBC representative said:
Whether they should have accepted that resignation, however, with the ongoing fiasco regarding Jeremy Clarkson still playing out, is another question entirely. Sensible opinion suggests that Clarkson should also go. If one person uses the word and can no longer be employed by the BBC, then neither person should remain employed.
The difference, in my view, is that with Clarkson, the offending segment of him using the word “nigger” was never actually broadcast, whereas David Howe did allow a song to go to air, using that same term. Secondly, Clarkson didn’t offer his resignation, and Howe did. Should the BBC have asked Clarkson for his resignation as well? Maybe they should have. I suspect, however, that the issue is that one of these people is commercially valuable to them, and the other isn’t. I think you can guess which is which…
No, probably not. A stern warning should have been given, instead, if this was his only “offence” in his career.
However, the crucial issue for me, is that he did broadcast offensive material, whereas Clarkson’s use of the word hasn’t yet been proven as fact. Merely proven via dodgy evidence provided by an establishment (the Tabloid Press) who want to see him publicly exposed, embarrassed, and executed, at the earliest opportunity possible, and irrespective of whether he is genuinely guilty or not.
As I can’t offer them a right-to-reply, it would be wholly unfair of me to name the website or forum, on which I recently got into a very heated debate about the whole issue surrounding the use of the word “nigger”. I won’t name names. I won’t try and spin something into a one-sided view, where I come out smelling of roses. That’s not how I work. The problem I have found, is that people want to turn this issue into one of four things:
1) A “freedom of speech” issue, and/or
2) The right to use the offending word, and for others to stop being offended by their usage of that word, because “it’s only a word”, and/or
3) That the word isn’t offensive, as it is the intent behind the using of the word, that is the issue, and/or
4) A diatribe about Political Correctness (or PC as it’s sometimes written).
Being PC, to my mind, is about minding what you say, and caring about what you say and to whom you say it. It is, in my view, about being polite, and courteous and respectful to those different from yourself.
To many others, however, PC is a state of affairs in which they allege no one can say anything to anyone, lest they offend someone/anyone, and thus they feel that their right to express themselves is being curtailed, and they don’t like to be curtailed by PC do-gooders, who are sanitising the hell out of the world, and changing it into something anodyne and bland.
You’ve probably heard people say “It’s PC gone mad“, whenever the issue of “offence” is even brought up. It’s often brought up at the same time as whether being offended is now a national past-time, because – allegedly – so many stories are reported about people not being allowed to say something or do something lest they get into trouble. I despair when people say “It’s PC gone mad“. No, the only thing going mad, are stupid, thoughtless people. Being offended is something you can choose. In theory, at least. You can say “I’m not going to let that word, that person, that thing get to me, and wind me up“! However, in the real-world, that’s not an easy thing to avoid. Everyone has a tolerance threshold. Everyone has a level at which they will accept certain actions and views, but over-and-above that level, then there’s a chance that other actions and views won’t be. Everyone has a button they know they can push to upset others, and that they too have a button that can be pushed, that gets them wound-up also. That button can be pushed via language, via visual expression (e.g. showing someone sexually-explicit or explicitly violent material), or through actions (such as bullying, pressure and or unwarranted provocations).
And who is to say why you cannot or should not be offended? What gives Person A the right to say to Person B, that they cannot and must not be offended?
For me, there are trivial offences and genuine, serious grievances.
Trivial offences might include not allowing children to give each other Christmas cards, as others who don’t follow that tradition feel left out. That, to me, seems trivial and highly unfair. Primary school children don’t generally know how to truly offend someone, in the same manner we adults would (or could). Thus a child giving a friend a Christmas card, when said friend may be Jewish or Muslim, hasn’t deliberately set-out to provoke and/or upset them. And primary schoolchildren are generally taught about different faiths and belief-systems from quite a young age anyway. So most will know of Eid or Hanukkah for example. And an easy way for kids to get around the issue, is just to write or wish “Seasons Greetings” instead.
Another trivial offence, might be hitting your thumb with a hammer and exclaiming “Bloody Hell” at the top of your lungs, because of the pain. Again, you didn’t mean to say that, it just comes out.
Yet notwithstanding that, there are genuine and serious offences, which are considered or could be considered to be grossly unjust or inappropriate, irrespective of where you stand on things. A simple example would be child pornography. No sensible, rational intelligent and well-rounded adult would say that child porn is acceptable, legal or right! No matter how anti-censorship you are, you cannot in all good conscience make a viable case that said that such material should be legally allowed and would or should be tolerated in a free-thinking, well-meaning society. Likewise, some of the Extreme Cinema films I own and sometimes write reviews on, may contain material that I know goes against what many would find acceptable as “entertainment”. Thus, I would expect such films to potentially be upsetting, distressing or offensive to many people. I also understand why such films might be banned. Just because I want to see them, doesn’t mean I have the legal or moral right to do so. SNUFF 102, PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE or GROTESQUE are three titles I could easily explain as being highly liable to offend or upset most people. And even though I own those films, and enjoy them (in their own sick and perverted fashions), I am also aware that most people won’t tolerate or enjoy them at all.
So, offence, is not something you can just make go away, and no one else has the right to tell you what you must or must not get offended by. We all have our own, unique and individual tolerances.
Which brings me nicely onto the differences between “intolerance” and “offence”. Again, these are terms many people mix and confuse. You can be offensive without being intolerant. You can be intolerant without being offensive. But they aren’t mutually exclusive, and are inextricably linked. Intolerance is the inability to accept (or tolerate) something or someone, usually on spurious grounds. We all tolerate stuff we dislike, whatever or whomever that intolerance might be connected too. That is not the same as refusing to just live and let bygones-be-bygones with others, and going out of your way to make someone else’s life harder and more troublesome, just because you don’t like them for whatever reason. I don’t like religion. I think religion is one of the most divisive, man-made concepts ever created. I accept, however, that many people like and enjoy religion, and find it helpful and comforting to them.
I tolerate religion. I accept it as being something that some people like and enjoy, and that’s fine with me. If I were intolerant of religion, I would be saying X religion is a bad religion, or I would be demanding that no religions be taught or used. If I were intolerant, I would be commandeering and fighting against the creation of any/all religious buildings and books. I would, in effect, be demanding my rights take precedence over others.
Therefore, I am not intolerant of religion, because I don’t go around demanding that others rights to live their life following a certain belief-system be banned.
“Offence” is when annoyance or resentment has been brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself. Note the two terms “perceived insult” and “disregard for oneself”! These are important, as – like “intolerance” – “offence” is a word that people think they understand, and then go and completely misuse it. Offence does NOT mean something has irritated, upset or hurt me. It is a very specific “perceived insult” or “disregard for oneself”, and they are the key points.
The word “nigger” is a provocative and offensive word that is a deliberate insult to me and all Black people and is a deliberate “disregard” of who I am as an individual, who I am as a Black person, and who I am based solely on negative and misguided preconceived notions that bear no resemblance to me. It casts me aside, states that I am an inferior being (or maybe even an inferior “thing”), and thus, I am to be kept (put) in my place, because I am perceived as being less worthwhile than a white person.
As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent word that non-Whites can use against Whites. (Not that I would want there to be!) Yes, there are racial and ethnic slurs that anyone can use, but I can’t find any singular word that has the same power, the same offence, the same threat and offense as “nigger” does, and that performs the exact same task as “nigger” does.
Sadly, too many people (deliberately) try and conflate this, with “I want to say whatever I want, and I don’t care if someone else gets offended by it“! Probably because of the infamous Evelyn Beatrice Hall quote from her early-1900’s biography on Voltaire, which she wrote to illustrate Voltaire’s beliefs, and to which everyone attributes to Voltaire himself, even though he never actually said it. It’s also often used to illustrate the principle behind “freedom of speech”, but it is not the principle itself.
On the second issue, if you want the right to use that word, because it’s only a word, then not only do you need to educate yourself on words themselves, and the history of language itself, but you are also deluding yourself if you think words have no meaning. By wrongly trying to imply that the word “nigger” has no meaning, then you are also saying that no other words have meanings either. In essence, you are saying there is no such concept as language or communication! I find that to be laughable at best, and hilariously shortsighted at worst! Are you really trying to say that words are just words, and no words have meanings?! By using that argument, that is exactly what you are saying!
Anyone with the slightest ounce of intelligence knows all words have meanings. If they didn’t, there would be no concept of language, and no way for people and creatures to communicate with one another. We would still be in Prehistoric times. We would have no need for the television or radio. Nor for magazines and newspapers. Books would also be obsolete. As would telephones, telegrams, pen and paper, and education. The Internet would not exist, and neither would this blog. I would have no need to write anything, because I could not communicate anything I wanted to say to you, in a universally-standardised fashion, that most of you could remotely understand.
There would have been no Industrial Revolution. No Renaissance. No Middle Ages. In theory, the existence of humanity would be thrown into complete turmoil, and we would probably never have evolved out of the primordial ooze.
On the third issue. If intent is what makes a word offensive, then as I have mentioned, the word “nigger” would not need to exist, nor continue to remain in use, as its sole raison d’etre is to belittle, debase and denigrate one part of the world’s population. That is it’s only purpose. It’s a descriptor, but a frivolous one, because it serves no purpose other than to offend and demean. Most swear-words have more purposes and meaning than that. In fact, most words have more purpose than that. I can think of no other word in the English Language, that comes anywhere near that of the “values” of the word “nigger”. (By “values”, I mean the creation and need/desire to retain that word.) As its only purpose is to offend, is there ever a defence to retain the word in our language, and to keep it in usage? Other than as a historical and archaic relic, I can think of no genuine purpose to do so.
Words live and die. Some retire naturally through lack of usage. Some retire through being replaced. Some words simply rarely get used, and are superfluous for the average, modern human being to get-by in life with, and just die-out over time, forgotten never to resurface. “Nigger” is one of those words. It’s an unnecessary retention in the 21st Century, and other than as a linguistical anomaly or curiosity, I think we can – and more importantly should – safely let it die. Unlike the very people it stigmatises, it’s wholly unnecessary.
Thank You for reading.
My next post, will be back to what we love talking about: a review of a new and controversial Indonesian action film! I’ll see you back here soon.