Could things possibly get any sillier in Britain? A man was arrested last week for quoting Churchill in a public place. This week, a man (well, a man-child really) is publicly pilloried for ... maybe … saying “nigger” under his breath while chanting the nursery rhyme“eeny meeny, miney, mo” on an outtake of a TV show that was never shown.
Mind you, that man-child was Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, so according to the pillorers I guess that makes it alright.
No, it doesn’t. As Spiked editor Mick Hume argues, “the hysteria over his 'n-word' mumble marks a new stage in the war on words.”
In all the overblown controversy over a snippet of never-seen video from the BBC archives, the most objectionable words were surely not Clarkson’s inaudible mumblings. They were the clear and unambiguous statement made by Harriet Harman MP, deputy leader of the Labour Party. In a post on Twitter (where else would a politician say Something Important these days?), Harman declared that ‘Anybody who uses the n-word in public or private in whatever context has no place in the British Broadcasting Corporation.’
Harman’s intervention captured the intolerant essence of those calling for Clarkson’s (admittedly swollen) head. For today’s free-speech police, there is no difference between saying something ‘in public or private’, or presumably saying it in your own head [even while trying to avoid saying it].
In the new Brave New World, there is no difference between public and private, as LA Clippers owner Don Sterling discovered recently in having the full opprobrium of the public brought to bear for what he said in a private argument with his mistress.
You know free speech is dying the west when things gets this ridiculous. A man was arrested in New Hampshire, put in handcuffs and frogmarched out of a public meeting, for publicly questioning his daughter’s school board. “Free speech zones” are set up by police in in the US which protesters may be permitted to speak ill of the government -- ignoring that the “free speech zone” of the US having been set up by the founders to be the entirety of the continent and all its states (with the signs sometimes delightfully tagged to make that very point). And “British law now decrees that if anybody at all interprets any word or deed as racist then it is a hate crime, regardless of the intention of the ‘offender.’” A “crime” for which the offender can face jail time.
The battleground in the free-speech wars has shifted in recent years. Once the censors sought to repress political and cultural ideas that they found dangerous, these days they want to outlaw a lengthening list of specific words that they find offensive, ‘whatever the context’. As I noted on spiked five years ago, ‘Now it’s a war on words’, in which the focus of censorship is not on ideas but on ‘words that nobody is apparently allowed to use in any circumstances, whatever they meant by them, and regardless of whether they are spoken in public or private – or even inside somebody’s own head’. Over the past five years, that context-free war on words has escalated, with the Clarkson carry-on only the latest battle. The notion that words themselves can be seen as inherently evil looks like a modern version of the superstitious belief, popular in the Middle Ages, that there were ‘words of power’ which, whether uttered as a prayer, a spell or a curse, could themselves alter real lives and situations.
The modern-day belief in ‘words of power’ is underpinned by an equally firm belief that most of us are what we might call ‘people of weakness’. The elitist assumption is that people are so stupid, vulnerable and pathetic that they can be mortally offended or incited merely by hearing, or even thinking they hear, a naughty word. Thus words must be outlawed, the speaker punished ‘whatever the context’ in which they are allegedly used, and a TV presenter must be banned from our screens based on the suggestion that he might have thought about using a word. As Clarkson wryly observes, ‘I’ve always thought I’d be sacked for something I said. Not for something that actually, I didn’t say.’
Not these days.
Here’s Frank Zappa, on words… and free speech:
UPDATE: James Delingpole points out ten places it’s okay to say 'nigger,' “without it meaning they're a member of the Ku Klux Klan or that they ought to be sacked from their job forthwith,” beginning with
1. In a quiz, when they're asked the name of Guy Gibson's dog in The Dambusters…